|From "Marooned in the Cold War: America,
the Alliance, and the Quest for a Vanished World," by Mark Danner,
in the Fall issue of World Policy] journal. Danner is the author of
The Massacre at EI Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War.
Three years have passed since I stood in a marketplace
in Sarajevo, notebook in hand, gazing through the chaos of smoke and running
feet at the scores of dead heaped upon the earth. A mortar shell had sent
long sheets of the market's ramshackle metal roof slicing through the
crowd, instantly reducing what had been people to limbs and torsos and
hunks of tissue. Beside me an enormous man in a black overcoat wept over
the body of a woman lying at his feet, while two smaller men struggled
to hold him back. Encaged in their arms, he turned his head toward the
sky, and just as his hate-filled scream split my consciousness, I saw
what he saw: a cluster of silver planes tracing their way elegantly overhead,
the fighter planes of NATO, on patrol, "guarding" the besieged
city of Sarajevo.
However complicated the story of the demise of the former Yugoslavia,
history-like the man in the overcoat-will likely prove itself relatively
uninterested in the details and focus instead on what was surely lacking
on the part of the West during those years of war: the willingness to
act. And historians will certainly find no small irony in the fact that
the Western countries would blame their collective inertia on the need
to preserve a consensus in the very institution that had borne them unscathed
through the treacherous half-century: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Having lost their Soviet adversary, the Western leaders had devised for
the alliance a new role as guardian of European stability, then for four
years they stood aside while an estimated 3,600,000 people were ethnically
cleansed and 200,000 people died. Thus began the great post-Cold War era.
Of course, the "post-Cold War world" is a phrase that has fairly
quickly become a cliché, and, like many clichés, it bears
more scrutiny than it customarily receives. For although it has not escaped
notice that the United States now lacks a "doctrine" to guide
its foreign policy, and although officials of the Clinton Administration
have struggled to create memorable phrases to characterize their presumably
new approach to a presumably new world ("assertive multilateralism"
was put forward, alas, during the Bosnia fiasco; "enlargement of
market democracies" headed a more recent effort)-in broad outline
America's policy toward the world remains a good deal more like that of
the past four decades than different from it.
Despite their willful foot-dragging over Bosnia and their pretense that
American troops will not remain there for many months to come, by all
other signs American national-security planners remain determined to maintain
"preponderant power" in the world-the phrasefirst appeared in
1950 in the central Cold War planning document known as NSC-68-and to
do so by means of a grand strategy that still depends on the forward basing
of American troops: 114,000 in the heart of Europe; 90,000 in Asia, divided
between Korea and Japan; 19,000 in the Middle East; and a grand armada
of 12 aircraft carriers. A half-dozen years after the collapse of the
Soviet Union, the United States shows no sign of abandoning the remnants
of the once-vaunted "containment" policy. On the contrary, American
security officials have worked hard to "delink" the need for
U.S. troops in Europe from the Soviet menace, and have pushed to the fore,
among other supposed new threats, "rogue states" such as North
Korea, Iran, and Iraq. To support this post-Cold War hegemony the United
States spends roughly $275 billion a year on armaments and troops, an
amount that exceeds that of the five next most heavily armed nations combined.
And henceforth American defense spending is almost certain to rise. For
now the other shoe has dropped: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
has announced its intention to march east.
Last July, the leaders of the sixteen alliance countries
met in Madrid and invited Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join
the same anti-Soviet organization that they had once, as Warsaw Pact members,
manned the front line against. Although the United States has never considered
these nations vital to its national interest, it will now undertake to
guarantee their security with its own armed forces, to regard an attack
on them as an attack on itself, and to repel such an attack with all its
powers, including nuclear weapons. And it makes this commitment in the
face of resentment and angry protests from Russian leaders, who, until
this decision, had proved to be extraordinarily cooperative in reaching
a favorable and stable settlement with the West.
How can we begin to account for this decision? During her Senate confirmation
hearings, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared that Americans
"must be more than audience, more even than actors; we must be the
authors of the history of our age." It was a statement of great ambition,
phrased in the kind of exceptionalist language that has been so familiar
in America's history-and oftentimes so damaging to a clear-eyed vision
of what America's true resources and vital interests actually are.
Last February, Albright-self-proclaimed child of Munich, refugee from
Nazism and Stalinism, and now America's first female secretary of state-leaned
forward over the conference table of the North Atlantic Council's Great
Hall in Brussels, gazed at the fifteen other foreign ministers gathered
about her, and heralded the new world. "We have chosen as our common
purpose to do for Europe's east what NATO did fifty years ago for Europe's
west," the secretary declared, "to integrate new democracies,
eliminate old hatreds, provide confidence in economic recovery, and deter
To "do for Europe's east what NATO did fifty years ago for Europe's
west"? For a Czechborn stateswoman who lets pass no opportunity to
underline her personal connection to the great European tragedies of this
century, thecomparison seemed stunningly inapt. A half-century ago, Germany
found itself in a state of utter devastation, its people clawing through
ruins and brambles in search of scraps of food; France and Britain were
financially and spiritually exhausted; and in the occupied states to the
east, the soldiers of the Red Army crouched menacingly, the spearhead
of a nation that had arisen triumphant from the war and now believed there
was no power that could possibly oppose it.
Compare this dark world with the eastern Europe of today. Poland, Hungary,
and the Czech Republic enjoy democratic politics, however tenuously, and
they are forcing their economies through various painful stages of transition
to free-market systems. The Soviet Union has shattered into a congeries
of fifteen separate states and the once-terrible Red Army has almost completely
disintegrated: desertions, lack of money, and plummeting morale have meant
that, far from threatening Europe, Russia, as the world saw demonstrated
most horribly during the Chechnya war, can no longer even invade itself.
If Albright's comparison seems foolish rhetoric, why then has NATO determined
to move east, with all the political and financial expense that it will
entail? On this question, the official voices of the Clinton Administration
have been deeply confused, in part because different audiences-Europeans,
east and west;Russians; Americans-are being addressed, and the messages
required to placate them contradict one another.
To the American and European publics, for example-and in part to the Russians
as well Clinton officials have offered what might be called the "one
Europe" rationale. As Secretary Albright put it last spring, and
reiterated at the Senate hearings on NATO expansion in October, the decision
to extend a formerly hostile military alliance to the Russian border,
far from threatening Russia's security, instead would produce "an
undivided, democratic, and free Europe" and would "anchor Russia
within a European system." "This NATO," the secretary has
insisted, "is not directed against Russia." In this new world,
"it is not us versus them or them versus us. Were all on the same
How all these countries could be on the same side the secretary did not
explain. As Henry Kissinger put it during a TV interview last July, Clinton
officials "keep talking about the absence of dividing lines. With
all due respect, that is nonsense. If you have an alliance, you have a
Of course, if one looks beyond the rhetoric of public
relations-the eloquent appeals of east European leaders, the strivings
of ambitious bureaucrats, the transitory demands of U.S. election campaigns-one
finds that the plan to expand the alliance is indeed motivated by an "us
versus them" mentality, and is the product of an exfoliating tree
of assumptions about Europe's past, Europe's probable future, and the
inevitable behavior of powerful states. "If this request is rejected,"
writes Kissinger in the Washington Post, "and the states bordering
Germany are refused protection, Germany will sooner or later seek to achieve
its security by national efforts, encountering on the way a Russia pursuing
the same policy from its own side. A vacuum between Germany and Russia
threatens not only NATO cohesion but the very existence of NATO as a meaningful
institution. NATO cannot long survive if the borders it protects are not
threatened while it refuses to protect the borders of adj oining countries
that do feel threatened."
Such reasoning carries a great ring of authority but is fraught with contradictions.
Like many "realist" arguments, it pretends to set out timeless
truths but instead is saturated with history. It broods about the grim
past and the morbid future while ignoring almost entirely the possible
present. It is not statesmanship. It is fatalism posing as realism.
A statesman might have proposed a different path. He might have insisted
that the United States-by making full use of its diplomatic weight-persuade
the Europeans to "protect" and "stabilize" the states
of eastern Europe by integrating them firmly into their economic system,
of which Germany forms the vigorous heart. He might have recognized that
the armsreduction agreements of the late 1980s and early 1990s had strongly
bolstered the stability of central Europe, and understood that the key
to preventing any so-called vacuum between Germany and Russia is to avoid
taking a fateful and unnecessary military initiative sure to poison relations
with the Russians at a time when their domestic politics are delicate
in the extreme.
More broadly, the statesman might have asked himself whether the American
people are committed to defending the countries of eastern Europe-whether
Americans are willing to send their young people to fight in Poland or
willing to launch their nuclear weapons to defend it. And, if they are
not, he might have wondered what effect building such an empty guarantee
into the alliance would eventually have. He might have acknowledged that
the United States should look first of all after its own principal interests,
and that those interests are broader than so-called NATO cohesion for
its own sake. They are a stable and increasingly self-reliant Europe,
with a prosperous and secure Germany at its center, and an unthreatened
and unthreatening Russia.
It is not at all clear that rushing to absorb eastern Europe into the
Western alliance at this time will advance those interests; in fact, the
evidence thus far strongly suggests the contrary. Not only has the unprecedented
collaboration between Washington and Moscow come to an abrupt halt but
members of the Duma are now stalling ratification of the all-important
START II agreement, which would reduce both sides' nuclear arsenals by
more than twothirds from Cold War levels. And although Russian leaders,
given the state of their army and economy, were scarcely in a position
to block the entry into the alliance of the eastern European countries,
President Clinton, for reasons known only to him, felt bound to grant
the Russians extraordinary concessions in the Founding Act he signed with
Boris Yeltsin last May in Paris, in which he vowed not to station
foreign troops or nuclear weapons on the soil of the newly admitted countries.
In addition, the Russians have been invited to share in making alliance
decisions as a member of a new "Permanent Joint Council"-an
astounding step that led Kissinger to remark acidly that "Russia
seems to be achieving NATO participation before the new applicants."
By offering such sweeping concessions, President
Clinton managed to create a "two-tiered" alliance, in which
security guarantees granted the new members appear much weaker than those
held by the old. Many American military officers originally opposed expansion
because they feared precisely this: that admitting the eastern Europeans
would create an imbalance that might threaten the entire system, rendering
all of its guarantees less reliable. As Secretary Albright pointed out
to the Senate in Oc
tober, if Americans "were to wake up one morning to the sight of
cities being shelled and borders being overrun, I am certain that we would
choose to act, enlargement or no enlargement."
This is certainly true; but how we would act remains more ambiguous. To
work as a deterrent, a firm NATO guarantee should expunge that ambiguity.
Now, however, by admitting new members who may house on their soil neither
nuclear weapons nor foreign troops, the alliance in effect has brought
that ambiguity within its own chambers of decision, and this may ultimately
under mine the guarantees upon which "The current members depend."
Whatever the impact of these concessions on American security, they point
to a much larger question: what will be the significance for us, as Americans?
The United States has come to a critical crossroads, and before the country
can move ahead its leaders and its citizens must reach agreement about
the part their nation will now play in the world. Twice before during
this century, in 1919 and in 1945, Americans have stood on such a precipice.
Out of debates cluttered with ideo logical baggage emerged two very different
views of the country's mission. What remained the same, however, was the
rhetoric, the jargon of American exceptionalism. Now, as the Senate debates
the amended treaty and as American taxpayers learn how much they will
be expected to pay to modernize the Polish and Hungarian and Czech militaries,
this rhetoric will once again echo loudly through the land. Must not Americans
be, as SecretaryAlbright said, "the authors of their age"?
Imbued as we are with such romantic notions, it has become difficult
to recognize that the answer to Albtight's question is plainly no. Americans
need not be the authors of their age. Americans have a choice to make,
one that must be based on an informed discussion of interests and resources,
not on a flurry of fine phrases. In the words we see flowing already from
the Clinton Administration, we can make out the shape of the rhetoric
to come, and it seems all too strangely familiar. Once again, we will
be told that Ameticans, because they are Americans, must step boldly forward
and bear the burden of leadership, for if they do not, who will? Is not
America, after all, "the indispensable nation"?
We have in front of us a grave decision to make. It is a time for thinking,
not poetry. If we must take as our starting point an image, however, let
it not be that of some mythical "indispensable nation" but rather
of somerhing more timely and more telling: those silver fighter planes
tracing their lazy arabesques in the blue sky, high above the carnage
of bleeding Sarajevo.