Marooned in the Cold War: An Exchange between Mark Danner and George F. Kennan, Strobe Talbott and Lee H. Hamilton
By Mark Danner
and , George F. Kennan, Strobe Talbott, and Lee Hamilton
January 02, 1998
Mark Danner's article, "Marooned
in the Cold War: America, the Alliance, and the Quest for a Vanished
World," which was published in the fall 1997 issue of this journal,
elicited a strong response from prominent writers in government and out.
An exchange of letters between Richard
Holbrooke, former assistant secretary of state for European affairs, and
Mr. Danner appeared in our winter 1997/98 issue. In the following pages,
we are pleased to publish letters in response to "Marooned in the Cold War"
addressed to Mr. Danner by the eminent historian and diplomat George F.
Kennan, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, and Rep. Lee H. Hamilton,
ranking Democratic member of the House Committee on International Relations,
along with Mr. Danner's replies.
From George F. Kennan:
I have read the article twice, once upon receiving it and again just a short
time ago, before writing this letter. It is hard for me to express, without
pressing the border of the fulsome, my reactions to it. Let me just say
that I have seen no finer treatment than this one, both as a summary of
the salient features of the conduct of American policy in earlier decades
of this century, and as a treatment of the bewilderments into which we are
now heading. What a pity, I find myself thinking, that this article could
not be given the wide exposure it deserves and allowed to serve as corner-stone
for a national debate on the problems and directions of American policy
at this crucial post-Cold War moment. To put it briefly, the article is,
to my way of thinking, in all respects excellent.
That neither this article, nor any other broad and thoughtful treatment
of the questions you write about, could serve the purpose I have just mentioned,
is obvious. It would be drowned in the cacophony created by the television,
computer, and advertising industries which, each in its way, if they were
to take any notice of it at all, would do so only in order to tear it to
pieces and to exploit individual pieces as over-simplified sound-bites,
here today and gone tomorrow. In itself, as I am sure you would agree, what
is at stake in this sad state of affairs is a problem of tragic and momentous
importance; for the situation now prevailing stands firmly in the way of
the creation in influential American opinion of any quiet thoughtful concepts
of American policy and hence of any really useful and constructive employment
of the great and unique potential weight of this country in world affairs.
But the national political establishment, as now existing, has shown itself
totally incapable even of understanding the true dimensions of this problem,
and much less in tackling it effectively; and one cannot now look to it
for anything more than what it is capable of giving.
This was the reason why, in one of my books (Around the Cragged Hill) I
urged the establishment of a wholly nonpolitical but prestigious advisory
body, totally outside the boundaries of the political process, to address
some of the deeper problems of the country and to let its advice, conclusions,
and recommendations be pondered by presidents, Congresses, state and local
governments, and people at large. But never, I am sure, have any of my words
ever met with less resonance than did the pages on which that suggestion
was put forward; and with this total indifference facing me, I have seen
no reason to press it further.
So much for the article in general. Now for one nit-pick and a couple of
You refer to the Russians, on page 18, as having "accepted" the expansion
of the NATO borders. Whether this is or is not a correct understanding depends
on the meaning you give to the word "accepted." If it be taken to mean that
one accepts something highly unwillingly and regretfully, persuaded that
one has no other alternative, that is one thing. But if one accepts it in
the sense that one has become persuaded of its merits, approves of it, welcomes
it, and would not wish things to be otherwise, that, of course, is something
No one in authority in Russia today would, I am sure, accept the NATO expansion
in the latter of these two senses. In the former? Yes, the vast majority
would see it that way. What, after all, could they do about it? They could
not oppose it by force of arms. The NATO leaders had said that they would
not discuss it. They repeatedly emphasized that their decision was final,
and that was that.
Yeltsin personally would probably accommodate himself to this state of affairs
more easily than others would have done. He was plainly disinclined to make
a serious issue of it in his relations with NATO, and with the United States
in particular. But he too, has repeatedly stated publicly (and most recently
only in the last few days) that he could not accept the expansion. On the
contrary he regretted and deplored it. And in other sections of the regime,
in the Parliament and among the military leadership, feelings were plainly
angry and resentful. Neither of these circles, after all-neither the Parliamentarians
nor the military leaders-had been, so far as the outsider can see, consulted
or allowed to participate in the recent meetings between Yeltsin and Western
leaders where these questions of the NATO expansion were discussed. The
military, in particular, have felt themselves humiliated and demeaned in
their professional dignity by this unilateral decision on the part of the
Western powers, and have seen it as a shameful exploitation of a temporary
and quite abnormal weakness in their own military posture.
The American authors of the expansion, disquieted, I suspect, by some of
the adverse reactions their initiative has unleashed, have been at pains
to persuade us that the Russians have actually accepted it voluntarily,
that they are now quite happy about it, and that it will cause no serious
difficulty. The nationalist elements in the Russian public, they point out,
consist primarily of older people, now a passing generation, who have never
had great electoral support. The youth, they would say, have for the most
part supported Yeltsin. And the common people don't care.
Perhaps, perhaps. But the military have not yet been heard from. And aside
from that, a process has now been put in motion that can hardly be stopped
until NATO has come to take in practically all of Europe except the Balkans,
at the risk of making of itself a dangerous absurdity rather than a meaningful
But enough of that. There is one more comment that I should like to make.
Madame Albright is quoted as saying that NATO's foundation, 50 years ago,
"gave Europe confidence in economic recovery." I would have to challenge
that statement quite flatly. It was not at all the foundation of NATO but
rather the Marshall Plan, put forward one to two years earlier, that had
this effect. The foundation of NATO was actually a detraction from the beneficial
effect that the Marshall Plan was at that time having on European opinion
and particularly on the confidence of the Europeans in their own economic
recovery. The foundation of NATO demanded that very large sums, which
otherwise could have gone into the economic recovery process, were now to
be diverted into the building up of armed forces in the center of Europe.
And this, a number of us felt, was not only unnecessary, given the circumstances
of that moment, but directly detrimental to certain of the positive developments
which the Marshall Plan had put in motion.
The wider and more lasting basis for my own opposition to the NATO expansion
will be visible to you, I think, from the enclosed copies of two of the
final pages of my own last book (At a Century's Ending), pages that were
written, I seem to recall, at the end of the year 1994.
My congratulations, once more, on the qualities of your article, not the
least, if not the most important, of which was the excellence of the writing.
—October 15, 1997
Mr. Danner replies:
As I sit down to write I must frankly admit that I run the clear risk-as
you so well put it-of "pressing the border of the fulsome." The fact is,
the beauty and extraordinary generosity of what you wrote left me rather
In the last quarter century, I have read, I believe, nearly everything
you have written. To me you became-and here I am afraid I tread very close
to that perilous border-something of a hero. In large part, this was
because of the tenacity of your principles (a phrase that should properly
be redundant but in our world today sadly is not). Perhaps in equal part,
though, it was because of the supreme artistry of your work.
Of course, I agree fully, and sadly, with you that "the national political
establishment...has shown itself totally incapable even of understanding
the true dimensions of this problem." And yet nonetheless I find myself
increasingly amazed by the steady and silent progress of the enlargement
policy. I suppose I go on hoping that the debate must come; and yet as the
days pass the phrases of our senior public officials simply grow murkier
and murkier and the public discussion, what little of it there is, is directed
more toward obscuring the underlying issues than uncovering and illuminating
them. I wish, for example, I had had the wit to point out, as you do, that
in declaring that NATO had originally given Europe "confidence in economic
recovery," Mrs. Albright not only speaks inaccurately but manages to falsify
a history of competing military alliances and civilian institutions that
might well have taught today's policymakers a critical lesson, if they had
bothered to look.
Now, of course, arguments of frank absurdity hold the stage, notably Mrs.
Albright's repeated declarations, as she pro-motes the expansion of the
alliance, that in Europe there is now "no more us and them. There is only
one side." Many erstwhile critics, meantime, let themselves sink into bleak
I certainly agree, and hope I made clear in my essay, that the Russians
can be said to have "accepted" the expansion only in the most limited sense,
so limited in fact that the word "accept" used in this way, might as well
be meaningless. The least that can be said of this is that a dynamic process
has begun, and no one can doubt that it takes relations between our two
countries in a very different direction from the one in which we were traveling
only four or five years ago. It seems impossible to say what might have
happened; but I am profoundly disappointed that some of the positive elements
of those relations are now very unlikely to be pursued.
By the way, I know At the Century's Ending, and its beautifully
crafted last pages, very well. Rereading the photocopies you sent has encouraged
me to go back to the book's beginning, and I am now happily in the midst
of making my way through its pages once more.
From Strobe Talbott:
As always with your writing, I'm deeply impressed by the combination
of intellect, style and passion you bring to analysis and argument. That
said, as perhaps you can imagine, I have some profound differences with
you. Let me touch on a few.
Most basically, I do not agree that NATO, or its enlargement, is a vestige
of the Cold War. Quite the contrary, enlargement is part of a larger process
of adapting NATO to new challenges and opportunities now that the Cold War
is over. One of the most salient of those is the threat of conflict, ethnic
and otherwise, in Central Europe. Hungarians, Slovaks and Romanians, both
inside and outside the states that bear their names, are getting along better
today as a result of the prospect of-and the requirements for-membership
in the Alliance.
That brings me to the subject of Bosnia. The opening of your piece is extremely
powerful. It not only conjures up the horror of the recent war but establishes
the connection to the catastrophic way in which this century began. In what
you clearly intend as an ironic touch, U.S. F-16s fly high, and impotently,
overhead as Sarajevo bleeds.
I would go on to make another point quite at odds with the thesis of your
piece: NATO in general and American air power in particular went on to end
the war. And it wasn't just NATO, in its Cold War configuration; it was
IFOR [Multilateral Implementation Force]-a manifestation of the new, post-Cold
War NATO-in collaboration with Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians and Russians.
I'm not going to argue that NATO and the international community as a whole
reacted as quickly as they should have done to the outbreak of political
violence and chaos in the former Yugoslavia, or that the implementation
of the Dayton Accord has been 100% successful or on schedule, or that we've
seen the last of the demons you found yourself pondering as you stood in
Gavrilo Princip's footsteps. But I would argue that in dealing with Bosnia,
we've been a lot better off with NATO than we would have been without it,
and that it's proven itself capable of adjusting to a new menace-that it's
not, in short, "marooned" in the past.
As for Russia, I think you, like quite a few others (including some whom
I respect immensely and from whom I've learned much over the years), have
greatly exaggerated both the extent and the consequences of opposition to
enlargement. As that pro-cess has moved forward, Russia has continued its
program of economic and political reform, and has intensified its efforts
to enter the institutions that define the international community, from
the Asia Pacific Economic Conference to the World Trade Organization. And
President Yeltsin has pledged to press for START II ratification and then
to move ahead with START III. So while Russian neuralgia on the subject
of NATO enlargement is real, it is manageable. We're managing it now.
One last point: my own role in, and views on, the process of enlargement.
This is one subject on which I can speak with particular authority. You've
got it wrong. Dick Holbrooke is, as you make clear (although with a rather
pejorative spin), a mighty forceful guy. However, the notion that I, or
anyone else, was Trilby to his Svengali is quite ridiculous. All of us working
on the issue of European security closed ranks around a central syllogism:
1) the new democracies of the former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states were
no longer enemies but partners in building a new Europe, and NATO should
now regard them, and associate itself with them, as such; 2) however, the
new Europe, like the old one, needed institutions to undergird collective
defense and collective security; 3) NATO was the best mechanism for serving
and fostering those functions; 4) a post-Cold War mission for NATO required
a post-Cold War membership (i.e., enlargement); 5) it also required increasing
and institutionalized cooperation with Russia, Ukraine and others. All in
all, I think there has been a fair amount of progress in translating that
syllogism, including the last point, into practice, through the Partnership
for Peace, IFOR/SFOR, the NATO-Russia Founding Act, the NATO-Ukraine Charter,
the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the establishment of the NATO-Russia
Permanent Joint Council, which will be holding its first ministerial-level
meeting in New York next week.
—October 3, 1997
Mr. Danner replies:
First, thanks for the generous words. After reading your letter, I did think,
not for the first time, that in your case diplomacy's gain is clearly writing's
loss: I miss the lucidity of your work at Time, not to mention those books
that used to sail forth from the publisher onto my shelves at a rather
alarming rate. I'll be glad, for entirely selfish reasons, when I can read
you regularly again.
That said, our differences regarding enlargement do indeed remain deep,
even after you were generous enough to teach me a number of things
in your well-crafted letter-in particular, what you call the "central
syllogism" of European security. I find this formulation extremely powerful;
indeed, if other proponents of enlargement were able to put the matter
this lucidly, I think the entire debate, such as it is, would be a lot more
productive for everyone.
From my point of view, the syllogism makes clear a number of contradictions-between,
for example, point two ("the new Europe, like the old one, needed institutions
to undergird collective defense and collective security") and point five
(a post-Cold War mission for NATO "required increasing and institutionalized
cooperation with Russia, Ukraine and others"). As former senator Sam Nunn,
among others, has pointed out, conceiving of the new NATO as an institution
to foster cooperation with "Russia, Ukraine and others" seems to conflict
rather obviously with its role as a security pact "to undergird collective
Now I fully realize this view may seem impossibly unsophisticated but I
must say yours seems rather, well, too sophisticated. It seems to me the
large fact here is that NATO, after the Cold War, with a Russia on its knees,
has chosen to move east, and most East Europeans will tell you frankly that
the reason why has to do with the Russian bear and its possible return;
next to this large historical fact your "institutionalized cooperation with
Russia" seems small beer; one more cynical than I might simply assert that
the Founding Act had more to do with persuading the Russians to tone down
their public squawking than with establishing a part of the "security architecture"
that could be plausibly compared in importance to the expansion of NATO
A word on the war in Bosnia, a history of which I've been laboring over
for the New York Review. I'm not sure with how much confidence anyone in
the Administration should assert that "NATO in general and American air
power in particular went on to end the war." Seldom do I quote James Baker
but his comment that the West let the war "bleed out" seems in many ways
closer to the truth. As David Gompert has admitted, with admirable honesty,
the official changes in NATO's mission agreed on at the December 1990 Rome
summit should have been enough to place the Yugoslavia problem firmly in
NATO's "crisis-managing" lap. Instead, the Bush Administration handed it
to the European Community, as it then was (a decision which, it seems to
me, should stand as a warning to us all that changes in institutions, however
ballyhooed, very often matter less than the willingness to put political
will behind them). If the West had followed NATO's stated "mission," as
amended in December 1990, it would have acted decisively in Yugoslavia in
1990 and 1991; instead, NATO, "led" by the United States, acted not at all.
When it came right down to it, President Clinton acted decisively-that is,
decisively enough to drag the allies with him-only after two hundred
thousand Bosnians had died, after the Croats had kicked the Serbs out of
the Krajina, after the world had witnessed a dreadful massacre in the Srebrenica
"safe area"-and finally, after he and his officials realized that, one way
or another, American troops were destined to go to Bosnia, if not to enforce
a peace agreement then to cover a humiliating Western retreat. And all this
in the shadow of an approaching Presidential election. I don't think it's
cynical to say that the fact that IFOR involves "the new, post-Cold war
NATO," no matter how many Ukrainians or Hungarians are on the scene, still
does not make this in itself a convincing argument for expanding NATO.
This doesn't mean I disagree with your statement that "in dealing with Bosnia,
we've been a lot better off with NATO, than we would have been without it."
But whom exactly are you arguing with here? I don't say there should be
no NATO, just that I see no compelling logic that connects the necessity
for NATO expansion to Bosnia; indeed, the quarrels, conflicting historical
loyalties and lust to avoid political responsibility that characterized
the alliance's performance in Bosnia might just as easily be magnified and
complicated by the addition of more NATO members when it comes time to deal
with another "gray zone" problem.
As for Russia, having learned a lot from you on this subject (right back
to your first book), I would not presume to argue with you-except to note
that, as you say, many whom I respect equally, who have many years of experience
in dealing with the Russians, disagree with you strongly. You say "Russian
neuralgia on the subject is real but manageable." I can only reply that
I hope something on the other side of the scale outweighs the importance
of this "neuralgia," a malady which might, it seems to me, have been avoided
altogether. However impressive your list of accomplishments in "translating
the syllogism," I don't see what that something on the other side of the
scale is. Russia's neuralgia, on the other hand, may take years to evolve
into something rather more serious.
Finally, on the process of enlargement: I apologize if I mischaracterized
the part you played. I meant to write an essay, not a reporting piece, and
for the relatively short-too short-passage on how the policy was developed
I relied not on direct interviews but on newspaper accounts. I know Richard
Holbrooke believes, and you seem to agree, that I took a gratuitous swipe
at him by remarking on his "aggressiveness and ambition." If this came
off as "a rather pejorative spin," as you say, I feel bound to tell you,
as I told him, that I didn't intend it so. The fact is, Dick is notorious
for these qualities (which, in any event, are not exactly unknown in Washington,
or, for that matter, in New York) and they have gained him a remarkable
record in negotiating with people like Milosevic. James Goldgeier, in his
recent essay, "NATO Enlargement: Anatomy of a Decision" (Washington Quarterly,
Winter 1998), writes that Holbrooke (whom he characterizes as "the enforcer")
" bludgeoned the bureaucracy into understanding that expansion was presidential
policy." Goldgeier also repeats the story regarding Holbrooke's "thunderous"
response, in the first interagency meeting, to the mildly resistant General
Clark, and the author goes on to note that though he drew the anecdote (as
I did) from a takeout by Michael Dobbs in the Washington Post, he confirmed
it indepen-dently with "numerous officials who attended the meeting."
Finally, I certainly didn't intend to portray Dick as your "Svengali"
in the enlargement process. As I wrote, my intention was to show "the
odd contingency of history"-that is, the effect of your confirmation hearings
and of your decision to bring Holbrooke back to Washington on the NATO expansion
policy itself. If anything, the point was that you initiated his return,
partly in order to push the policy through. Anyway, do forgive my going
on. You managed to concentrate, in a relatively short letter, a number of
powerful arguments; try as I might, I can only admire the concision of your
writing, not emulate it. I want you to know how grateful I was for your thoughtful response
to my essay.
From Lee H. Hamilton:
You have taken a thoughtful approach to a broad sweep of issues, and I
found much in your article with which I agreed.
First, I do not believe it helps to promote stability and security in
Europe to proceed with NATO enlargement alone. It is important to have
a balanced policy, and I agree with you that the integration of Central
and Eastern European countries into the European Union is a far more important
component of stability and security than is NATO enlargement.
Second, you make an excellent point that NATO enlargement has important
implications for the cohesion and integrity of the alliance. It does not
help stability and security in Europe if there are two classes of NATO
allies, and if NATO enlargement ends up weakening the alliance.
Third, I concur fully with what I take to be the central point of your
article-that there has been almost no meaningful public debate on the
topic of NATO enlargement. There have been plenty of seminars, journal
articles, and op-eds in leading newspapers about NATO enlargement, but
precious little public discussion outside of the foreign policy elite.
I have attended many public meetings over many years in the 9th District
of Indiana, and the topic of NATO enlargement has seldom been raised.
If the United States is going to take on major new commitments in the
heart of Europe, then the American public has to be brought into the debate.
I agree with you that one speech by the President, delivered in a city
with hundreds of thousands of ethnic voters during the heat of the 1996
campaign, does not constitute sufficient public education and Presidential
leadership on an issue of critical importance to America's role in Europe
and the world.
Finally, I do not know if you agree with me or not, but I believe NATO
enlargement will happen. We are just too far down the road for NATO and
the United States to turn back now. The risks of proceeding with NATO
enlargement are less than the risks of not proceeding. I still have many
questions about costs, commitments, and the implications of NATO enlargement
for our long-term relations with Russia, but I do not see reversing course
to be much of an option. Rather, I think our best course is to try to
keep relations with Russia on course, which, after all, will be an important
measure of whether NATO enlargement is successful or not.
I appreciate this opportunity for a dialogue with you.
—October 3, 1997
Mr. Danner replies:
I wanted to thank you for your letter of October 3, responding to my essay.
I appreciate the thoughtful attention you gave to my arguments, and I
apologize that travel has kept me from responding more promptly.
As you say, you and I agree on the primacy of integrating the Eastern
European countries into the European Union; on the danger that NATO enlargement
might create a "second tier" of members which would finish by weakening
the alliance; and on the need to have a full and open public debate on
what taking such a momentous step might mean in the history of our country's
That said, however, I must admit that (as you
suspect) I do not agree with your final point-that by now the "risks of
proceeding with NATO enlargement are less than the risks of not proceeding."
Though I have heard versions of this phrase put forward many times, I
have never heard an adequate or persuasive expression of what ex-actly
these great "risks of not proceeding" actually are. Certainly such
risks, whatever they are, seem not even in the same realm of importance
as "keep[ing] relations with Russia on course."
Quite frankly, it seems to me that if this policy is burdened with the
weaknesses that you and I both see in it, one is obliged to make a strong
argument to support this point-that is, that it is nonetheless better
to go ahead with enlargement, simply because it has become too difficult
or risky to turn back. Despite the eloquence of your letter, I do not
find that you make such an argument. "Turning back" certainly would be
unpleasant and embarrassing in many ways but no one has yet convinced
me that these difficulties are not of a different, and palpably lesser,
order than the contradictions, risks and obscurities of the policy itself.