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Still Living in a Cold War World
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By Mark Danner December 1997
Tags: Cold War | Foreign Affairs Print

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 conflict."
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 side."
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 dividing line."



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 [eastern European]
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.


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© 2017 Mark Danner