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Marooned in the Cold War: An Exchange between Mark Danner and George F. Kennan, Strobe Talbott and Lee H. Hamilton View other pieces in "World Policy Journal"
By Mark Danner , George F. Kennan, Strobe Talbott, and Lee Hamilton Spring 1998
Tags: Cold War | Foreign Affairs Print

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 comments.

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 else.

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 alliance.

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 stunned.

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 resignation.

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 defense."

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 itself.

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 foreign relations.

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.


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