The Dangers of Expansive Realism

The Dangers of Expansive Realism

Mini Teaser: The Clinton administration's conversion from indifference, or even skepticism of NATO, to insistence on NATO expansion was the result of a combination of disparate events and pressures.

by Author(s): Owen Harries

". . . it is sometimes necessary to repeat what all know. All mapmakers should place the Mississippi in the same location and avoid originality. It may be boring, but one has to know where it is. We cannot have the Mississippi flowing toward the Rockies, just for a change." --Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler's Planet

In many ways NATO is a boring organization. It is a thing of acronyms, jargon, organizational charts, arcane strategic doctrines, and tired rhetoric. But there is no gainsaying that it has a Mississippi-like centrality and importance in American foreign policy. When, then, proposals are made to change it radically--to give it new (and very different) members, new purposes, new ways of conducting business, new non-totalitarian enemies (or, conversely, to dispense altogether with the concept of enemies as a rationale)--it is sensible to pay close attention and to scrutinize carefully and repeatedly the arguments that bolster those proposals. Even at the risk of making NATO boring in new ways, it is important to get things right.

Before getting down to particular arguments, the proposed expansion of NATO into Central and Eastern Europe should be placed in the wider context that made it an issue. For nearly half a century the United States and its allies fought the Cold War, not, it was always insisted, against Russia and the Russian people, but against the Soviet regime and the ideology it represented. An implicit Western objective in the Cold War was the conversion of Russia from totalitarianism to a more or less normal state, and, if possible, to democracy.

Between 1989 and 1991, a political miracle occurred. The Soviet regime, steeped in blood and obsessed with total control as it had been throughout most of its history, voluntarily gave up its Warsaw Pact empire, collapsed the Soviet system upon itself, and then acquiesced in its own demise--all with virtually no violence. This extraordinary sequence of events was by no means inevitable. Had it so chosen, the regime could have resisted the forces of change as it had on previous occasions, thus either extending its life, perhaps for decades more, or going down in a welter of blood and destruction. That, indeed, would have been more normal behavior, for as the English scholar Martin Wight once observed, "Great power status is lost, as it is won, by violence. A Great Power does not die in its bed." What occurred in the case of the Soviet Union was very much the exception.

A necessary condition for its being so was an understanding--explicit according to some, but in any case certainly implicit--that the West would not take strategic and political advantage of what the Soviet Union was allowing to happen to its empire and to itself. Whatever is said now, such a bargain was assumed by both sides, for it was evident to all involved that in its absence--if, that is, it had become apparent that the West was intent on exploiting any retreat by Moscow--events would not be allowed to proceed along the liberalizing course that they actually took. Further, there seemed to be no basis for the United States objecting to such a bargain. For, after all, its avowed objective was not the eastward extension of its own power and influence in Europe, but the restoration of the independence of the countries of the region. In effect, the bargain gave the United States everything it wanted (more, in fact, for the breakup of the Soviet Union had never been a Cold War objective), and in return required it only to refrain from doing what it had never expressed any intention of doing.
Now, and very much at the initiative of the United States, the West is in the process of reneging on that implicit bargain by extending NATO into countries recently vacated by Moscow. It is an ominous step. Whatever is said, however ingenious and vigorous the attempts to obscure the facts or change the subject, NATO is a military alliance, the most powerful in the history of the world, and the United States is the dominant force in that alliance. And whatever is claimed about spreading democracy, making Europe "whole", promoting stability, peacekeeping, and righting past injustices--all formulations that serve, either consciously or inadvertently, to divert attention from the political and strategic reality of what is now occurring--cannot succeed in obscuring the truth that the eastward extension of NATO will represent an unprecedented projection of American power into a sensitive region hitherto beyond its reach. It will constitute a veritable geopolitical revolution. It is not necessary to accept in its entirety the resonant but overwrought dictum of Sir Halford Mackinder ("Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World") to recognize the profound strategic implications of what the U.S. Senate is being asked to endorse.

Why is the Clinton administration acting in this way? And--a different question--does it serve American interests that it is doing so, and that its expressed intention is to proceed much further along the same path?

Immediately after the end of the Cold War there was no great enthusiasm either in America or Western Europe for enlarging NATO. In the early days of the Clinton administration, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, and Ambassador-at-Large Strobe Talbott were all opposed to it.

How, then, did it come about that by the beginning of 1994 President Clinton was declaring that "the question is no longer whether NATO will take on new members, but when and how"? It was certainly not by a process of ratiocination, vigorous debate, and the creation of an intellectual consensus concerning interests, purposes, and means. To this day there is no such consensus, and no coherent case for NATO expansion on which all of its principal supporters agree.

How Enlargement Happened

The Clinton administration's conversion from indifference, or even skepticism, to insistence on NATO expansion was the result of a combination of disparate events and pressures:

--The strength of the Polish-American vote, as well as that of other Americans of Central and East European origin.
--The enormous vested interests--careers, contracts, consultancies, accumulated expertise--represented by the NATO establishment, which now needed a new reason and purpose to justify the organization's continued existence.
--The "moral" pressure exerted by East European leaders, for whom NATO membership is principally important as a symbol that they are fully European, and as a means of back door entry into the European Union.
--Conversely, the growing eagerness of some West European governments to grant these states membership of NATO as an acceptable price for keeping them out of, or at least delaying their entry into, the European Union.
--The concern and self-distrust felt by some Germans, and not least by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, at the prospect of their country's being left on the eastern frontier of NATO, adjacent to an area of political weakness and potential instability.
--Growing doubts about democracy's prospect of success in Russia, and fear of the reemergence of an assertive nationalism there.
--The need of some American conservative intellectuals for a bold foreign policy stroke to "remoralize" their own ranks after some dispiriting domestic defeats, the enthusiasm of others for "a democratic crusade" in Central and Eastern Europe, and the difficulty of yet others to break a lifetime's habit of regarding Moscow as the enemy.

Formidable as this combination of pressures was, it is doubtful that it would have been capable of converting the Clinton administration on NATO expansion were it not for the addition of one other crucial factor: Bosnia. The war in Bosnia focused American attention on post-Cold War Central Europe, and it did so in a most emotional way. Bosnia also raised in acute form the question of the future of NATO, as the alliance's feeble response to the crisis cast doubt on its continued viability, and it raised the question specifically in the context of instability in Central and Eastern Europe. The domino theory, forgotten for two decades, was quickly resurrected and applied. "Bosnia" was increasingly understood not as referring to a discrete event but as a metaphor for the chronic, historically ordained instability of a whole region.

Russia is Russia is Russia

Taken together, these pressures were politically formidable, especially for an administration as sensitive to pressure as was Clinton's. But they had very little to do with America's national interests, and the administration's subsequent attempts to make a case for NATO's eastward expansion in terms of those interests have been perfunctory and shallow. A much more serious attempt has been made outside the administration, mainly by commentators of a realist persuasion. The case they have made, however, is badly flawed.

The realist case is based largely on the conviction that Russia is inherently and incorrigibly expansionist, regardless of how and by whom it is governed. Henry Kissinger has warned of "the fateful rhythm of Russian history." Zbigniew Brzezinski emphasizes the centrality in Russia's history of "the imperial impulse" and claims that in post-communist Russia that impulse "remains strong and even appears to be strengthening." Thus Brzezinski sees an "unfortunate continuity" between the Soviet era and today in defining national interests and formulating foreign policy. Another realist, Peter Rodman, speaks in the same vein, explaining the "lengthening shadow of Russian strength" by asserting that "Russia is a force of nature."

In arguing in this way, these commentators are being very true to their realist position. But they are also drawing attention to what is one of the most serious intellectual weaknesses of that position--namely, that in its stress on the structure of the international system and on how states are placed within that system, realism attaches little or no importance to what is going on inside particular states: what kind of regimes are in power, what kind of ideologies prevail, what kind of leadership is provided. For these realists, Russia is Russia is Russia, regardless of whether it is under czarist, communist, or nascent democratic rule.

That approach is enormously counter-intuitive, and its weaknesses have been particularly evident in this most ideological of centuries. Has it really made no significant difference to Russian foreign policy whether it is in the hands of a Stolypin, a Stalin, or a Yeltsin? Or to German policy whether Stresemann, Hitler, or Adenauer was in power in that country? In foreign policy terms, was it pointless to have exerted great effort to bring down the Nazi and Soviet regimes?

For most people, merely to ask these questions would seem to answer them. But not so long ago such prominent realists as E.H. Carr and A.J.P. Taylor were prepared to argue an essential foreign policy continuity between the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany. Indeed, and more seriously, it was the assumption of such a continuity--that Hitler was an ordinary compromising politician in the same mold as the Germans of the 1920s--that led Chamberlain fatally astray with his policy of appeasement. Already in this century, then, Western statesmen created a terrible crisis and allowed an unnecessary world war to happen because they falsely assumed that the foreign policy of a totalitarian regime would be no different from that of the struggling democracy it replaced. It would be inexcusable--and, almost certainly, again disastrous--if at the end of the century we made the same error in reverse, this time by proceeding on the assumption that the behavior of another struggling democracy will be no different from that of the totalitarian regime that preceded it.

Spheres of Influence

If in this one respect those who make the case for NATO expansion err in overemphasizing what is weakest in the realist position, in other respects their mistake has been to forget some of the precepts that are its strength. If realism is about anything, it is about a conscientious effort to try to see things as they really are. One of the ways things are in international politics is that great powers have spheres of influence. It is one of their basic characteristics, one of the features that qualifies them as "great", that their power radiates out to immediately adjacent regions in the form of significant influence, and that they take a particular interest in those regions. This is as characteristic of democratic great powers as it is of autocratic or totalitarian ones: one of the first important foreign policy acts of the United States, engaged in even before it was an authentic great power, was to claim for itself a huge sphere of influence with the Monroe Doctrine.

To embark on a policy whose deliberate aim is to deny Russian influence in Central and Eastern Europe, to corset Russia within its own boundaries, is therefore a policy fraught with danger. It retains what meager plausibility it has for two reasons: first, because of revulsion at the fact that in the communist period the Soviet Union ruthlessly and crudely translated the traditional concept of sphere of influence into a totalitarian one of a sphere of dominance, involving puppet regimes, occupying armies, terror, economic exploitation, and ideological regimentation; and second, because for the time being Russia is exceptionally weak. But as Russia recovers, and even if it becomes a functioning democracy, NATO expansion will become a risk-laden, destabilizing policy--not because extreme Russian nationalists or neocommunists are bound to come to the fore, but because, in the nature of things, Russia will again assert its normal prerogatives as a great power.

Indeed, if some of the arguments now being advanced forcefully were to prevail, the global picture that would result could be even worse. For at the same time as the United States appears determined to commit itself to denying Russia a sphere of influence, many powerful voices are insisting that it should do the same with respect to China. That country too should be strictly contained within its borders, and any attempt by it to extend its influence beyond them should be seen as illegitimate. Meanwhile, as these two huge countries would be so constrained, the United States itself, armed in virtue, should feel free to treat the entire globe as its sphere of influence, extending its presence and imposing its will as it sees fit. Far from promoting stability, such a policy would create new and dangerous tensions in world affairs.

Ends and Means

Another of the central tenets of realism is that if the end is willed, so should be the means. The two should be kept in balance, preferably, as Walter Lippmann urged, "with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve." In the case of NATO expansion, this tenet is being ignored. The NATO members are moving to assume very large additional commitments at a time when they have all made substantial cuts to their defense budgets, and when more such cuts are virtually certain. (The French Cabinet, for example, announced in August that the military draft, which dates back two centuries, is to be phased out and that defense procurement expenditure is to be cut by 11 percent.) The irresponsibility of such a course of action raises the question of the seriousness of the new commitments being undertaken. After all, such pledges have been made in the past, only to be broken: Munich, 1938, was the last occasion on which Western powers guaranteed the security of what is today the Czech Republic.

It is not only in terms of power that realists should be concerned with the balancing of ends and means. They should also consider the suitability of the instruments involved--particularly the human instruments--for the tasks at hand. Not to do so is likely to result in the sort of unpleasant surprise that some realist supporters of NATO expansion got as a result of the March 1997 Helsinki summit. At that meeting, so many concessions were made to Moscow by the Clinton administration that we now have an almost lunatic state of affairs: in order to make acceptable the expanding of NATO to contain a potentially dangerous Russia, we are coming close to making Russia an honorary member of NATO, with something approximating veto power.

Some of the initially most ardent supporters of expansion are now deeply dismayed by these developments. But surely the likelihood of such an outcome was foreseeable. After all, they knew from the start that the policy they were pushing would be negotiated not by a Talleyrand or a Metternich--or an Acheson or a Kissinger--but by Bill Clinton, the man who feels everyone's pain. Kissinger has been clear-eyed enough to label what happened at Helsinki a fiasco.

This image of a Europe "made whole" again after the division of the Cold War is one that the advocates of NATO expansion appeal to frequently. But it is not a convincing appeal. For one thing, coming from some mouths it tends to bring to mind Bismarck's comment: "I have always found the word Europe on the lips of those politicians who wanted something from other Powers which they dared not demand in their own name." For another, it invites the question of when exactly was the last time that Europe was "whole." In the 1930s, when the dictators were on the rampage? In the 1920s, when Germany and Russia were virtual non-actors? In 1910, when Europe was an armed camp and a furious arms race was in progress? In the 1860s, when Prussia was creating an empire with "blood and iron"? When exactly? And then there is the simple and undeniable fact that at every step of the way--and regardless of how many tranches of new members are taken in--the line dividing Europe will not be eliminated but simply moved to a different place. Only if Russia itself were to be included would Europe be "whole." Anyone who doubts this should consult an atlas.

One final note: During the last few months advocates of expansion have been resorting more and more to an argument of last resort--one of process, not of substance. It is that the United States is now so far committed that it is too late to turn back. That argument is not without some merit, for prestige does count, and undoubtedly prestige would be lost by a reversal at this stage. But that granted, prestige is not everything. When the alternative is to persist in serious error it may be necessary to sacrifice some prestige early, rather than much more later. To proceed resolutely down a wrong road--especially one that has a slippery slope--is not statesmanship. After all, the last time the argument that it is too late to turn back prevailed was exactly thirty years ago, as, without clear purpose, we were advancing deeper and deeper into Vietnam.

Essay Types: Essay