NATO Uncle Sam
NATO Uncle Sam; drawing by David Levine


In January 1992 the then prime minister of Hungary, Mr. Jozsef Antall, bemoaned to a Hungarian audience the West’s lack of appreciation for Central Europeans’ heroic role in the downfall of communism: “This unrequited love must end because we stuck to our posts, we fought our own fights without firing one shot and we won the third world war for them.”1 Whatever his shortcomings as a historian, the late Mr. Antall had inadvertently identified an enduring confusion surrounding the events of 1989 and after. In the course of less than two years the cold war came to an end, a string of authoritarian regimes in Central Europe collapsed, the Soviet empire imploded, and communism, as an ideology of government, disappeared.

These developments are all, of course, intimately connected; but the ways in which they relate to one another—what came first, what was pure chance and what careful planning, what was likely or predictable and what truly unexpected—are already the subject of embittered historical and political contention. The sequence of events, their meaning and outcome—and in particular their consequences for NATO—look quite different depending on whether one is seeing them from Budapest or Washington, Berlin or Warsaw, not to speak of Moscow.

Under normal circumstances, historians would not get involved in such debates until many years later, when the archives have opened and the motives of participants have emerged with some clarity. But the years 1989-1992 were not normal. In the wake of the fallen regimes of Central and Eastern Europe the records of defunct Communist parties and governments have become available, at least in part. High-level advisers and actors from the former Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, Poland, and elsewhere have published their memoirs, drawing on restricted materials otherwise not accessible. In the West, too, men and women who participated in the hectic diplomatic rondo have hurried into print, drawing on copious excerpts from their own and others’ records of decision-making and decision-taking. None of this means that we are any closer to a single, undisputed version of what happened and why; but the picture is far more detailed than is usually the case so soon after the fact.2

Two new books by Washington “insiders” tell the story as seen from the US. Condoleezza Rice and Philip Zelikow (she is a political scientist who was then on leave from Stanford, he a career diplomat currently teaching at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard) were attached to the National Security Council (NSC) White House staff during the negotiations leading to German unification; Robert Hutchings, a former deputy director of Radio Free Europe, worked for the NSC and then the State Department in the years 1989-1993. Their books tell essentially the same tale, though Hutchings pays more attention to Eastern European matters (he was Lawrence Eagleburger’s special adviser for assistance to Eastern Europe in 1992-1993).

Hutchings is also by far the livelier writer, displaying considerably more wit than his former colleagues.3 But Zelikow and Rice were originally asked to write up their story for the State Department, as a case study in diplomacy; they have accordingly had access to confidential documentary material, copiously and conscientiously recorded and identified in their notes. Between them they have also read widely in German and Soviet sources and conducted interviews with all the leading participants in their story. The result is an unusually detailed insider narrative of the American diplomatic contribution to German unification.

As told here, the story is one of unblemished American achievement. Indeed, it is one of the weaknesses of Germany Unified and Europe Transformed that its authors, who always write of their own contribution in the third person (“Rice said…, Zelikow argued,” etc.), are rather self-satisfied on behalf of the NSC and its employers, President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker. The Bush administration, they argue, saw the chance for German unification on Western terms, took it, and through skill and perseverance achieved their goals, notably the maintenance of an eventually united Germany within the Western Alliance. We won, they conclude; and though they are of course correct, a rather broader perspective might have led to less Panglossian conclusions, as Hutchings—who keeps half an eye on the consequences of Western victory for Eastern Europe—ruefully concedes.

Nevertheless, the story of German unification is a dramatic one, and it is in large measure an American story. As late as 1988 both former Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Manfred Rommel, the Christian Democrat mayor of Stuttgart, had restated the widespread view in West Germany that unification was not on the agenda, then or in the near future. Even Chancellor Kohl, once he began to seize the initiative following the opening of the Wall in November 1989, privately warned his advisers that unification might take another five years. Almost everyone supposed that German unification could only come at the end of the series of unpredictable changes unfolding in the USSR and Eastern Europe, and then only with Soviet consent. In August 1989 the deputy chairman of the German Social Democrats even criticized the Kohl government for “aggravating” the crisis by welcoming East German refugees who were seeking to come west via the newly opened Hungarian border.4


The initiative to move faster thus came from Washington. At the time, as perestroika unfolded in 1989, there were two strategic options apparently open to the US. One, reportedly advocated by Henry Kissinger among others, was something like a new “Yalta”—a peace settlement with a friendly Soviet Union that would secure the benefits of détente, but would take limited account of the interests and demands of the Central Europeans. The other option was less optimistic about Mr. Gorbachev’s long-term prospects at home and more inclined to take advantage of his weakness abroad to secure major changes on the European subcontinent. In-deed Hutchings, who like his NSC colleagues took a strongly “anti-Kissinger” position, points out that the moves toward democracy and free elections in Poland and Hungary in the spring and summer of 1989 had nullified any dreams of a new Yalta even before the collapse of the German Democratic Republic. As recommended by advisers (including the authors of these two books) and adopted by Bush, US policy consisted instead of a two-pronged objective: the unification of Germany inside NATO, and the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe as a precondition for continuing improvement of US-Soviet relations.5

This, as all the authors remind us, was not at all a risk-free strategy. By pressing Mr. Gorbachev hard on highly sensitive issues, notably the political liberalization of Central Europe, the US might well have produced a domestic Soviet backlash. Coming in 1989 or early 1990, this would not only have thwarted US goals but also undone the significant gains already made—in Eastern Europe, in the Soviet Union, and in various arms-reduction negotiations.

The most sensitive issue was of course Germany. As late as May 1990, two months after the first free elections in East Germany and when it had long since been agreed by all parties that German unification would indeed take place, Mr. Gorbachev was still unwilling to concede that a unified Germany could be fully absorbed into NATO. That he did finally concede as much, at meetings with Bush in May 1990 and with Helmut Kohl in the Caucasus in mid-July, is certainly testimony to sustained US pressure—holding out the prospect of improved trading rights and other vital economic benefits in exchange for agreement on Germany.

It also illustrates the weakness of Gorbachev’s own position, as Bush’s advisers had early appreciated. The Soviet reformers had no strategy of their own for the unraveling in Europe of the post-World War II arrangements, and were thus always at a disadvantage when faced with a clear and consistent US policy. Gorbachev’s domestic opponents were aware of this—Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, former chief of the Soviet General Staff, was bitterly critical of Gorbachev on this very point and he was not alone.

It is indeed possible that Gorbachev’s concessions on Germany played a part in his overthrow a year later. But by now the Soviets were no longer a major factor in the diplomatic equation. On May 18, 1990, the two Germanies signed a State Treaty for Currency, Economic, and Social Union. A Treaty of Unification was signed on August 31, by which the GDR was absorbed into the FRG, as approved by its voters in the March 18 elections and permitted under Article 23 of the 1949 Basic Law. On September 12, 1990, the four World War II Allied powers (the US, Britain, France, and the USSR) agreed to give up the rights they had exercised over Berlin since 1945, and on October 3 a sovereign and united Germany came into existence. Following the so-called Two-Plus-Four agreements (of the two Germanies and the Four Powers) Soviet, and then Russian, troops were withdrawn as of 1994, the year in which all four powers also withdrew from Berlin; Germany remained in NATO, with a small presence of foreign (NATO) troops on its soil.

Just how far this outcome represents a success for US diplomacy can be gauged by the fact that even the Germans were ambivalent about it, as Zelikow and Rice make clear. In a February 1990 poll, 58 percent of West Germans favored a united but neutral Germany—the very outcome the US (and many West German politicians) feared most. Keeping a united Germany in NATO was the prime objective of US diplomacy—an enlarged Germany floating neutral and unattached in the middle of Europe would not only destabilize and frighten its immediate neighbors on both sides but would be prey to future pressures and enticements from a revived Soviet (or Russian) state.


Nevertheless, the US was not responsible for the torrent of East Germans—some 2000 a day—heading West by early 1990. By March it was clear that the only way to staunch the flow west was to provide the East Germans with at least the formal symbol of West German prosperity—in other words to send the Deutschmark east. The decision, in effect to buy East Germany from the Soviet Union, represented a victory for Kohl’s opportunist instincts—combining his sense that unification was a popular political goal with his intuition that the USSR was vacillating on the issue and remained open to financial persuasion. Gorbachev indeed tried at first to hold the unification negotiations hostage for a ransom of $20 billion, before finally settling for approximately $8 billion together with some $2 billion more in interest-free credits.

In that dénouement the Soviet Union played Sidney Greenstreet to Washington’s Bogart, making the best of a bad hand and abandoning its diminutive, resentful East German sidekick with some protestation but only a few regrets. The role of Britain and France is rather less flattering. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern they had a marginal plot function, in their case as occupying powers, but exercised no initiative and were cast aside when their usefulness had expired. Both the British and the French were at least as unhappy as the Soviets at the prospect of German unification, in or out of NATO; but they too had no idea what to propose instead, once the postwar status quo began to unravel. As Rice and Zelikow remark, “Fortunately for Bonn, the Soviet, British, and French governments seemed to have an attitude without a policy.”6

The British eventually came around to the American position. The French were more deeply unsettled by the course of events, both in Germany and in the Communist bloc as a whole—it was not by chance that President François Mitterrand, perturbed at the rapid collapse of the stable and familiar arrangements in Europe’s eastern half, was the only major Western political figure to accommodate himself without hesitation to the apparent overthrow of Gorbachev in the abortive Moscow coup of August 1991. Mitterrand did reluctantly agree to accept German unification, but only in return for Helmut Kohl’s promise of compensation: Kohl made it clear that henceforth European unity would be reinforced around the existing FrancoGerman condominium, an offer consummated in the December 1991 Maastricht Treaty, whose rigorous terms and conditions—notably the insistence on low deficits and limited public debt—would have troubling implications for the liberated countries to the east.7 By that time, however, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the Gulf War of January-February 1991 had turned the attention of the Bush administration away from Central Europe, leaving Europeans to handle or mishandle for themselves the unfinished business of 1989.


Seen from within Europe itself, in this case with the focus upon the dying German Democratic Republic, the story takes on a different cast. The Harvard historian Charles Maier is the author of a classic study of the political economy of Western Europe in the aftermath of the First World War.8 In Dissolution he defends his concern with near-contemporary events by reminding readers that “the history of the interim yesterday needs to be written before preservation of the remoter past takes over.” He too has had access to the sort of inner-party and official materials normally kept under wraps indefinitely, and the result is a densely written scholarly analysis, the best I have read, of how and why the Communist regime in East Germany came apart and disappeared.9

Maier is an economic historian, and his account of the decrepit East German economy is not likely to be surpassed. Despite being long regarded by its admirers and by analysts in the West (including the US intelligence services) as the “success story” of the European Communist states, the German Democratic Republic in 1989 was bankrupt. According to unpublished estimates of its own experts the GDR had a foreign debt of $26.5 billion.10 Servicing that debt absorbed over 60 percent of its yearly export earnings. Since the early Seventies the regime had kept its citizens pacified by substantial subsidies on retail prices, social services, and the provision of leisure. These subsidies in turn had been made possible by loans, credits, and transfers from the West—mostly West Germany in the wake of the latter’s Ostpolitik.11

Within the closed barter system of Comecon (the Soviet-directed Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) East Germany was the privileged supplier of industrial and other manufactured goods to the Soviet Union and the rest of Eastern Europe—thanks to the availability of raw materials (energy especially) furnished by the USSR at prices well below those of the world market and paid in kind, not hard currency. But even where it exercised an apparent comparative advantage—the production of machine tools or advanced technology—the GDR was absurdly uncompetitive: in the manufacture of computers it produced in 1989 just 2 percent of the output of tiny Austria, and what did come off its production lines was technologically obsolete and poorly made. By the end it could not sell enough to the West to generate even the money needed just to buy (from the West) the consumer goods required to satisfy its citizens.

Since the construction of the Berlin Wall, in 1961, the residents of the GDR had had little choice but to accept their circumstances—despite being increasingly aware of the distance separating them from the condition of their neighbors to the west. The neo-Stalinist restrictions of earlier decades had been loosened, replaced by a claustrophobic, intrusive, and authoritarian police state, humiliating and oppressive in myriad small ways. As Maier notes, “Since the GDR’s economy could not provide vast rewards, it functioned by making access to small rewards arbitrary.” But once the neighboring “fraternal” regimes began to crumble, in the summer of 1989, the citizens of the GDR seized the chance to go west by going east. Thousands of East Germans headed out through the newly opened border between Hungary and Austria, or sought refuge in the West German embassies in Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, whence they were allowed to pass to the Federal Republic, crossing East Germany in sealed trains with the embarrassed consent of the regime. By November 9, when the East German authorities hastily announced the opening of its own frontiers and the Wall was overrun, some 32,000 people had already escaped through the West German embassies in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw.

Looking back, we can see that the fate of Communist East Germany was already sealed. As Maier makes clear (and as East Germany’s economists well knew), fundamental economic reform in the Soviet Union—exemplified by its decision the following year to accept only hard currency at world market prices for its exports—would precipitate the collapse of Comecon and the GDR with it. Perestroika was thus a disaster for the East German Communists in every way, which is one reason why their gerontocratic leadership resisted it so stubbornly; as late as May 1989 the regime was still holding local “elections” in which the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) still secured the support of 98.85 percent of the electorate.

Once exposed to a free market in labor and goods the economy and society of Communist Germany would just disintegrate. To be sure, the West German “takeover” in the course of 1990 was certainly no bargain: in the short run the remaining residents of East Germany received Deutschmarks for their worthless local currency at the advantageous exchange rate of 1:1, but in the longer run they also got chronic unemployment and social disruption, as some 80 percent of East German enterprises proved helplessly uncompetitive and went under. On the other hand, it is not clear just what alternative was open to them.

Nonetheless, there were those who still sought a “third way,” and Maier takes great pains to show just how the East German revolution unfolded, without reading back into it the “rush to unity” that soon ensued. The demonstrators in Leipzig on October 9, 1989, and the intellectuals and pastors who joined together in civic organizations like New Forum, were demanding not unification but political liberalization and basic freedoms. In the first weeks they contributed significantly to the decomposition of their rulers’ authority and self-confidence; acting collectively, the East Germans for once “had a decisive impact on their own history,” in Maier’s words. But within three months the time for citizens’ initiatives and reforms had passed; there was no longer a socialist state to reform. This was obvious to the East German electorate, nearly half of whom backed the CDU-led “Alliance for Germany” in the March 18 elections.12

There remains the question of whether anything could have been saved from the wreckage of what Maier calls “Biedermeier collectivism.” It is a question that Maier poses on a number of occasions. “Was it hopeless,” he asks, “for the SED to try and retrieve its fortunes at the end of 1989?” That is a legitimate inquiry for a historian, but in this case readers may think it somewhat rhetorical in view of the overwhelming evidence, provided by the author himself, of the Party’s terminal decline. In effect, Maier is asking two questions in one. Did the “system” have to fail in 1989? Obviously not—had Kohl so chosen, and had the whole architecture of Soviet Europe not begun to crumble around it, the West Germans could have continued to underwrite their eastern counterpart for some time to come.

But was it doomed? Surely. Maier’s own answer is that the failure of the German Democratic Republic, and the consequent unification, were the outcome of a political crisis, not a socioeconomic one. But that is a misleading distinction. To the extent that it accurately describes what took place between October 1989 and March 1990 it is a truism about all major revolutionary upheavals: in 1789, 1848, and 1917 no less than in 1989. In the case of the GDR, its utter dependence on Soviet and West German support meant that its survival was always a political issue, not an economic one. Once that support was withdrawn the socialist puppet state simply disappeared.

The unification of Germany has not come without cost. It placed unexpected burdens upon the hitherto thriving economy of the Federal Republic. The decision to exchange the two currencies at parity was a political one of course, and duly popular with East Germans. But when added to the huge and unanticipated expenses entailed in the takeover and restructuring of the East German economy, it risked fueling inflation—by 1992 the transfers and subsidies from Bonn amounted to $170 billion per year. Accordingly the Bundesbank imposed rigorous controls, including high interest rates, which protected the Deutschmark but had disastrous deflationary consequences for the economies of France and other EU countries, which were obliged to follow the German lead.

The economic costs of unification have been accompanied by domestic political stresses. Just as many former East Germans have lost not only their country but also their jobs, so West Germans who initially welcomed their “Ossie” cousins now see them as a burden. Neither side would wish to return to the old division, but the peaceful, prosperous, and somnolescent world of the pre-1989 Federal Republic is gone for good.13


The same is true of the Europe of which the Federal Republic was a constituent element. The new, enlarged Germany may be as committed as ever to European unity, but its place in that unity is more divisive and troubling than before. The Federal Republic of Germany is now the richest, most populous state in Europe. It is not the largest country in the European Union—France will always have that distinction—but it sits athwart the historical dividing line of the continent, with one frontier on the Baltic and another just a short drive from Italy. The western German border is just eighty miles from Brussels, while to the east the frontiers of unified Germany reach within 250 miles of the Russian frontier on the Baltic. The Federal Republic’s disproportionate presence and influence in European affairs is a disconcerting reminder to all Europeans—including Germans themselves—of the continent’s troubled past, something that many had found it easier to forget in the context of the pre-1989 configuration.

In the longer run the question of Germany’s role as a European power will have to be raised again, but at present the difficulty it poses is an economic one. The criteria for membership of a post-Maastricht, post-Euro-currency Union were set, at German insistence, at a deliberately high level so as to exclude the weaker economies of Southern (or Eastern) Europe, whose presence would dilute a common currency and whose cheaper labor might undercut Germany’s own high-cost domestic producers. Even the Federal Republic itself is unlikely to meet these same criteria in time for the introduction of the Euro in 1999, as its Finance Minister, Theo Weigel, now tacitly admits. But the moral damage to the unity of Europe has already been done.

In spite of his reluctance to abandon the GDR to the cruel embrace of historical inevitability, Charles Maier’s account of the transition from socialism to democracy in Germany is vastly more informative and insightful than any of the innumerable analyses of post-Communist “transition” now being published. The latest and best of these, by Professors Juan Linz of Yale and Alfred Stepan of Oxford, at least has the virtue of broad comparative reference and deserves fuller discussion than I can give it here. But from their lengthy investigation of the variables at play in the “transitions to democracy” in Central Europe, Southern Europe, and South America the authors are perforce condemned to limit their conclusions to a series of general propositions.

Where markets and liberal political forces and leaders already existed—as in Spain, or Chile—the move to democratic politics was smoother; older political parties re-emerged, their constituencies surprisingly intact after years or decades of dictatorship, and parliamentary government was restored. Where an established sovereign state had a reasonably competent administration and bureaucracy in place to absorb the impact of radical political and economic changes (as in Portugal, or Hungary), these changes were less disruptive than in the semi-anarchic conditions of the successor states in the former USSR. And, above all, when the sequence of change began with politics and only then moved to the transformation or creation of social structures and markets, the success of the transition seemed more assured.

It is not markets that make democrats, the authors point out; democracy makes democrats (and markets, too). Linz and Stepan might point to the thriving “market economies” of several undemocratic Asian states, or Chile during military rule, in support of this claim. lt follows that the survival of political cliques is not in itself an impediment to their conversion into well-behaved denizens of a pluralist society—it depends on the sort of system into which they have managed to survive. Thus in Poland and Hungary (or post-Franco Spain) men and groups associated with the “old” regime (Franco-ist, Communist) have in recent years returned to parliamentary and presidential power without provoking a crisis. But in Croatia, Slovakia, or Ukraine, where no prior effort had been made to put in place the legal forms and institutional restraints of a pluralist polity, the same sort of men and women represent a continued barrier to any democratic transition.

This argument is persuasive within its limits, and in Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation it is accompanied by an abundance of detail and example which helps explain just why this transition has been so much harder in some former Communist lands than in most countries that passed through even extensive periods of populist, authoritarian, or military rule. But like so much comparative political analysis this book is at its most convincing when it is telling us in a rather obscure way something that we already know. Democratic transitions, the authors conclude, may be judged successful when certain criteria have been met; but those criteria, duly enumerated, turn out to be none other than the conventional definitions of pluralist democracy. The transition to democracy is thus said to have been achieved when the country in question has become…democratic.14


The contrast with Michael Mandelbaum’s elegant and pithy book could not be more striking. The Dawn of Peace in Europe engages the central question for post-’89 Europe, and one which subsumes all other considerations: now that there are no great military powers in Europe (Russia is not great, Germany is not military, and France and Britain have ceased to be powers) how should the continent’s security be organized? And if the answer to that is still through NATO, what then should NATO do and who should be in it? Until these questions have been addressed and resolved, the vital move, from cold war to stable peace in Europe, remains incomplete—as the practitioners of transition from dictatorship to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe well know.

On European security Mandelbaum is explicit. It now rests much less on NATO than on the steady sequence of arms reductions agreements since 1987, notably the November 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, which all but eliminated the threat of Soviet or Russian conventional attack that has hung over Central and Western Europe since 1947. Whereas the arms control agreements and treaties of the years 1963-1979 were largely symbolic, designed to reassure the two great powers of their mutual good intentions, the changes of recent years have apparently rendered NATO—called into being to redress the imbalance of military power in continental Europe—redundant. That is not a reason for dismantling it, but it calls into question its objectives and its scope.

NATO was formed in 1949, in the words of Lord Ismay, its first secretary-general, “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” Although it is not good form to say so, these objectives—all three—are still the only ones of interest to many Europeans. This may seem a paradoxical observation—after all, many West Europeans (the French and Germans among them) have chafed at American supervision of their affairs in the postwar decades, and the Russians are no longer an imminent threat. But the US presence has relieved European states from the obligation to practice, or even design, a foreign policy of their own, as their present confusion demonstrates; and even the Russians, as Rice and Zelikow have shown, were quite pleased to keep the US in a post-cold war Europe, as a counterweight to a revived Germany.

It has been suggested that NATO now transform itself into a sort of regional police force, preventing or stopping ethnic conflict and small wars within and between countries in Europe and adjacent regions—the Balkans, the Near East, and perhaps even North Africa. Mandelbaum would favor such an objective but recognizes that it will not happen. NATO’s present members are extremely reluctant to agree to commit themselves to such “out of area” undertakings, not least because of their domestic political unpopularity. The more plausible outcome, the one currently under discussion and likely to be approved this summer, is that NATO will retain its present goals—the military organization and defense of Western Europe and the North Atlantic—but take in new members.

The Clinton administration’s initial ambition was to develop the concept of a “Partnership for Peace” (PFP), a loose organization of those European countries not in NATO (Russia included) which would take part in joint exercises with NATO, be kept abreast of its intentions, perhaps even join in shared peacekeeping missions, but which would not benefit from the formal military guarantees availed to NATO’s present sixteen-country membership. But pressure from would-be new members (and their supporters in the Polish-American and other domestic constituencies), combined with the difficulty of defining the precise relationship of NATO and the PFP, led Clinton’s strategists to drop the PFP conception in favor of a limited expansion of NATO itself. That is what the administration has been promoting and what the former Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, always suspicious of halfway houses or “second-class” membership in Western “clubs,” fervently desire.

Mandelbaum thinks this is a grievously mistaken strategy, and he is right. First, it is dangerously divisive for the lands of former Communist Europe. The candidacy of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic may be accepted this summer, but it is unlikely to be followed by admission of Slovakia, Romania, and the Baltic republics, much less Croatia, the rest of the Balkans, and Ukraine.15 From the point of view of the countries thereby left out that is of course very bad news. Membership in NATO, they believe, would contribute to stabilizing their shaky and incomplete transition out of authoritarianism and could even help inhibit ethnic and communal conflict and repression.

The example of post-authoritarian Greece or Spain is sometimes adduced by Clinton administration officials in support of this argument, though that is unconvincing; it was not membership in NATO that ensured Spain’s relatively untroubled progress toward parliamentary democracy—and the Greek instance is hardly reassuring. Moreover both Turkey and Portugal were for many years members of NATO without making much progress toward democratic regimes or an end to ethnic, religious, or colonial conflicts. In any case, times have changed. It is just because the Balkan states, or countries like Romania and Slovakia, are marked by past or present instability, corruption, and division that they are likely to be left to their own devices and be unwelcome in NATO for the foreseeable future.16

Second, any move to project the frontiers, resources, and authority of NATO even nearer to the borders of post-Soviet Russia can only contribute to the latter’s domestic political difficulties and the creation of what Mandelbaum dramatically but not wholly unrealistically calls “Weimar Russia”—by which he means a country whose political culture could come in time to be decisively shaped by the memory and mismemory of its “humiliation” in the post-(cold) war settlement. For nationalist politicians in search of a platform, this would be promising terrain.

It is not just a question of wounded Russian pride. The uncertain future of Ukraine, and its proximity to new NATO installations, are a sensitive issue for Russian politicians with long historical memories. “Kievan Rus”‘ evokes for nationalists and romantics the tenth-century kingdom whose capital is now the seat of government of an independent Ukraine, but which remains for many the first Russian state. Catherine the Great is “great” in large measure for her absorption into the eighteenth-century Russian empire of much of today’s Ukraine, including the still-disputed region of the Crimea. It took a bitter war with the new Polish state in 1920, followed by bloody losses in World War Two, before the Soviet regime was able to secure for its empire the coveted control of what is today the western Ukraine. For Russian politicians, to lose direct control of this region is a misfortune; to let it fall under Western domination, or join a Western alliance, looks like carelessness and would be punished accordingly in domestic politics. All in all, it would be a pity for the US to have ended the cold war with such initial success only to reproduce the mistakes of the settlement that followed World War I.

Third, and assuming that NATO retains its present structures, the inclusion of even a few countries to the east implies an incoherent and perhaps disingenuous commitment. Under its articles of membership, NATO requires all of its members to defend any one of their number against future aggression. Would the US Congress, much less the British or French parliaments, really ever agree to send troops to defend the Polish-Ukrainian border, or the Hungarian frontier in the Carpathians? We have already seen the results of Western governments’ reluctance to place soldiers in the line of fire rather closer to home in the Balkans, just a few dozen kilometers from the existing NATO frontiers in Italy. As former Secretary of State James Baker famously observed when refusing to engage the US in the Balkan imbroglio, “we got no dog in that fight.” And if it is absurdly histrionic to envisage a situation in which US marines will be invited to “die for Debrecen”—because there is no realistic scenario in which Hungary’s eastern city would be attacked—by whom?—why engage in the provocative and costly expansion in the first place?

For Poles and others, of course, these arguments are beside the point. They want to be in NATO for reasons as much psychological as political: just because history has all too often left them out, abandoned in “the lands between” Russia and Germany and prey to the unpredictable attentions of both their great neighbors. For them, the achievements of 1989 and after will be incomplete, and will be badly undermined, if they end up back where they were in the aftermath of earlier conflicts and transformations. How can their future be secured without equal and full membership in a stable (Western) community of nations?

But just because this is the right question it does not follow that NATO is the correct answer. It is true that Communist East Germany was absorbed into NATO. But the real advantage that accrued to its citizens, and that has been denied to Poles, Czechs, and others, was entry into the European Union. Linz and Stepan quote Laurence Whitehead’s accurate observation that the prospect of joining “Europe” has “produced a substantial long-term pressure for democratization” in every candidate country, as well as holding out the hope of tangible and immediate economic benefits.


“Europe,” then, is what the lands of Central and East-Central Europe urgently need. But the present members of the European Union have no desire to expedite such an expansion to the east—on the contrary, from the Maastricht plan for a common currency to the Schengen Accords facilitating movement within the core states of the EU, they have been spending the last few years instituting conditions and structures that make equal access to the EU for its neighbors to the east an ever more distant prospect. No former Communist state can now hope to compete or survive under the requirements imposed at Maastricht for participation in the Euro-currency, and it is just such would-be immigrant workers as those migrating west from Poland and its neighbors that Schengen is designed to keep at a distance. In Mandelbaum’s sardonic words, “In the post- Cold War era it seemed politically easier for Western governments to agree to risk nuclear annihilation in order to protect Hungary’s borders…than to allow their own citizens to buy Hungarian tomatoes.”

NATO expansion will come, if only to a few countries of Central Europe. It will probably be accompanied by assurances to the Russians that significant NATO weapons installations will not be moved east, and by invitations to Russian officials to participate frequently in meetings at NATO headquarters in Brussels. It is unclear just how far this will appease Russian sensibilities. What is clear, however, is that the effect will be to dilute NATO itself into something not much more meaningful than the toothless Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which already includes Russia.

The conclusion ought to be obvious: either NATO is to be maintained in its present form, in which case its expansion to the east is perhaps redundant and certainly unwise. Or else NATO is to be rendered empty of substance, and eventually of capacity—in which case its expansion is pointlessly provocative and will render no service to its new members. Furthermore, the enlargement of NATO is now the excuse and the cover for further delays in Europe’s own reluctant opening to the east. For the prospective beneficiaries, then, the expansion of NATO is fools’ gold.

Lech Walesa’s response to the opening of the Berlin Wall (voiced to Helmut Kohl himself on the day after it happened)—that Poland would “pay the price” for this historical event—has thus proved prophetic, and not just for Poland. German preoccupation with unification and its costs has combined with France’s defensive response to a newly united Germany to deprive the countries of former Communist Europe of some of the anticipated rewards of liberation. NATO or no NATO, this is a harsh reminder of the historical destiny of the region—vulnerable not only to the rise and fall of Russia to its east, but also to the sometimes selfish and always self-interested concerns of the democracies to their west.

Jozsef Antall was not the first to speak of the “unrequited love” of Central and Eastern Europeans for their more fortunate Western neighbors (Czeslaw Milosz made the same point in The Captive Mind half a century ago), but the observation retains its force. Mr. Antall was wrong to suppose that “we” (Hungarians, Central Europeans) ended the “third world war”—that honor is still shared by the Americans and the Russians, a further reminder that Central Europeans have rarely if ever had the opportunity truly to shape their own fate. So often the pawns in the wars of others, the little countries of Europe’s eastern half seem set, once again, to be the losers in the peacemaking, too.

May 1, 1997

This Issue

May 29, 1997