Marooned In the Cold War: An Exchange between Mark Danner and Richard C. Holbrooke
By Mark Danner
and and Richard C. Holbrooke
January 01, 1998
To the editor:
I thought Mark Danner's essay, "Marooned
in the Cold War," made a strong case against NATO
enlargement, cogently presenting the negative arguments. In fact, we were
aware of each of these points, and considered them carefully, during the
formulation of the policy. In the end, we concluded that the positives far
outweighed the negatives, the gains were greater than the risks, and the
risks were manageable.
One of Mr. Danner's core arguments seems to be that it will upset the Russians,
perhaps drive them toward a xenophobicreaction. From the outset, this
was the primary argument of opponents of NATO enlargement,
but so far such dire predictions-from, among others, [Marshall] Shulman,
[George F.] Kennan, and [Michael] Mandelbaum (once he reversed his initial
pro-NATO enlargement position, as argued in October 1993 in the
Washington Post)-simply have not panned out. Moscow has
much bigger problems, and while NATO is certainly a four-letter
word to some Russians who were indoctrinated during the Cold War, they know
NATO poses no offensive threat to them. Like many other issues,
Russian concerns are mostly empty rhetoric. It may seem unlikely to Mr.
Danner, but I believe that NATO enlargement will have no fundamental
effect on Russia's relations with the West, which will be driven by other
factors. Nor will it lead to the rise of ultra-nationalists.
First, Mr. Danner states that we should have brought these countries into
the European Union. It may surprise him that I agree with this point. When
I arrived in Germany in September 1993, I believed that EU membership was
more important and would arrive first. What turned me around was the realization
that the EU, mired in its own Euro-mess (the common currency, the endless
arguments about pro-cess, its inner-directedness, and its failure on
Bosnia), was not going to invite any of these countries in, at the earliest,
before 2003. They had lived through a terrible century, and were still plagued
by instability, insecurity, and immaturity. In short, they were vulnerable
to a number of different scenarios that would have sent them back into new
I concluded it would be irresponsible and potentially dangerous to leave
these countries outside the "West" for so long after the fall of communism.
Close association with the West seemed the best inoculation against such
an outcome-but only if it could be accomplished without a setback to Washington's
efforts to forge a productive relationship with Russia, the administration's
most impressive and sustained foreign policy achievement. In short, could
we have our cake and eat it too?
After I agreed, in May 1994, to return to Washington, I spent the summer
in a long series of telephone calls to [Deputy Secretary of State] Strobe
Talbott, who was not only a close friend but the key figure in the "plot"
that brought me back, much against my initial desire, to the European Bureau.
Strobe and I agreed that we should try to reach a common position on NATO
enlargement before I returned, and that he was perceived as its main opponent.
Strobe can speak for himself on how his own position developed, but I want
to stress that he has been unfairly characterized by both opponents and
proponents of NATO enlargement. His contribution to the policy's
intellectual development, its execution, and its public defense has been
extraordinary. It was vital that this role was carried out by the same person
who was responsible for our relations with Moscow, someone whom the Russians
knew was committed to a closer relationship. (Imagine, for a moment, an
expansionary NATO policy in the hands of a person who would use
it to irritate and provoke Moscow.) In this regard, it was also important
that Strobe and his wife, Brooke, had served in Eastern Europe for Time,
thus giving him a balanced view of both sides of this issue. He needed no
persuading that [the countries of] Central Europe needed the reassurance
of an American commitment to their security; the issue was whether or not
this could be accomplished without wrecking the emerging U.S.-Russian relationship.
By the time I returned to Washington, Strobe and I had reached a common
position: it was possible to bring new members into NATO,
slower than the Kissingers and the Brzezinskis wanted but faster than the
Pentagon and some others desired. Other key people included Tom Donilon
[then counselor to the secretary of state], who had great influence over
Warren Christopher, and John Kornblum [then deputy assistant secretary for
European affairs], whose knowledge of the technical details was valuable.
From the outside, Ron Asmus was important long before Strobe succeeded in
bringing him into the State Department [as deputy assistant secretary for
The Europeans were, not surprisingly, torn by internal balancing acts and
disagreement, but this gave Washington a chance to push its views more effectively,
provided we had our own ducks lined up. Mr. Danner has suggested, as have
many others, that we did all this in secrecy-a sort of "stealth policy."
The truth is quite different, and should interest him as a journalist. We
tried to tell the story immediately but almost no one was interested. Look
at the coverage of that December 1994 foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels,
where Christopher laid out the policy to meager press interest. I took a
New York Times reporter to lunch several weeks before Brussels and outlined
our two-year plan, one that was very close to the final product, hoping
to get the debate started early so we could see how people felt about it.
The reporter was fascinated, but her editors in New York, after sitting
on her story for several weeks, buried a highly shortened version of it.
There are other similar stories. We offered a national debate but no one
else seemed interested.
A few years from now, I suspect, people will look back at the debate and
wonder what all the fuss was about. They will notice that nothing has changed
in Russia's relationship with the West, and that democracy in the nations
that have joined NATO has been strengthened. Other, more
difficult issues will hold center stage. And by bringing these countries
in now, when there is no threat, we will have greatly reduced the chances
that a threat arises later. For these and other reasons, I leaned toward
bringing Romania and Slovenia in on the first round, although the arguments
that prevailed against them were powerful.
As for Bosnia, your vivid commentson it only strengthen the administration's
case. Bosnia was precisely the sort of crisis that demanded a revitalized
NATO (andair power). As David Gompert [a formerNational
Security Council staff member]has argued cogently and bravely, thiswas
the greatest failure of the previousadministration.
There may be, of course, a deeper, underlying disagreement between us over
the American role-and responsibility-in the post-Cold War world. While Mr.
Danner writes passionately and powerfully about the failure in Bosnia, he
leaves me with a sense that he is concerned over the dangers of a sort of
American imperialism and arrogance. I see precisely the opposite danger-that
Americans may turn inward after the Cold War, even though history-and our
vital international interests-did not end in 1992.
Mark Danner replies:
Richard Holbrooke is such a good storyteller that it
is easy to miss the fact that his letter sidesteps much of what he calls
my "strong case against NATO enlargement." Holbrooke's
letter strikes one more for what it does not say than for what it does.
The "dire predictions" that the alliance's move east will "perhaps drive
[the Russians] toward a xenophobic reaction...simply have not panned out,"
he writes. And yet, as I wrote, "the question is not Russia's current
weakness but the long-run effect of the policy" on the Russians. On the
other hand, what has "panned out" is an agreement that President Clinton
concluded last spring specifically to avoid "upsetting the Russians,"
whereby the new East European members will not be permitted to have foreign
troops or nuclear weapons stationed on their soil, and NATO
will establish a "Permanent Joint Council" to which the Russians themselves
will be invited. These concessions have left many of the enlargement policy's
most vigorous early enthusiasts, such as Henry Kissinger, distinctly disenchanted.
Mr. Holbrooke concedes that it would have been more appropriate to accept
the Eastern countries into the European Community, had this been possible.
And yet,if the East European countries' "terriblecentury" and their
subsequent "instability, insecurity, and immaturity" made it "irresponsible
and potentially dangerous to leave [them] outside the `West' for so long"-a
deeply arguable point-why did the United States not move quickly to give
them serious financial help? Why did it not pressure the West Europeans
to open the trade barriers that even now cripple the economies of the
East? If "instability, insecurity, and immaturity" is really the problem
in Eastern Europe-and not a "security threat" that Mr. Holbrooke admits
does not now exist-then how can admission into a military alliance be
the right solution?
Mr. Holbrooke writes that Bosnia was "precisely the sort of crisis that
demanded a revitalized NATO." I find this comment puzzling. As David Gompert
has observed, the decisions taken at Rome in 1991 "implied NATO
responsibility to respond to precisely the sort of conflict by then raging
in the Balkans." The allies, with Bush in the White House, did not respond;
nor did they after the arrival of Bill Clinton. Would the ascension to
its ranks of the Czechs, or the Hungarians, or the Poles, so "revitalize"
NATO as to make it more likely that the alliance would be able
to muster the collective will for such politically thankless "crisis management"?
It seems equally possible that the larger the alliance, the more varied
its interests and less defined its purpose-which happens to be the direction
in which NATO is heading-the more difficult it will be to muster
the will to act.
Finally, as for my supposed concern over "American imperialism and arrogance,"
I believe there are occasions when the country must act abroad, with or
without its allies; the former Yugoslavia was clearly one. What worries
me, in the lack of debate over the historical step of NATO enlargement,
is the uncovering of a deep chasm between the leaders who are responsible
for foreign policy and the people who elect them. Mr. Holbrooke is quite
right about the disinterest of the press, and that saddens me. In the
end, however, it falls to the president to lead the debate on such a crucial
matter. Harry Truman knew that. Bill Clinton, apparently, does not.