Honoring the Mindset of A Generation: In Memory of Ronald Asmus Răspunde

Richard C. Hollbrooke (1941-2010) și Ronald D. Asmus (1957-2011)

Ronald Asmus was definitely, as Ivan Krastev highlighted in an article for opendemocracy.com, part of a generation “that emerged on the stage in the last days of the Cold War, it was baptized by the fall of the Berlin Wall, inspired by the thinking of dissidents and it never lost its belief in the transformative nature of democracy. It was a generation shaped by the end of the Cold War, the dilemmas of the Balkan wars and the success of the enlargement policy. It is a generation that came to importance at the moment when American power was at its height and American leadership was taken for granted”.

In short, he was for many years the preeminent representative, the hallmark of the so called “Eastern European generation of policymakers” in the US foreign policy. But today, it seems that on both sides of the Atlantic, we see the emergence of a new generational landscape with new policy instincts. To paraphrase Secretary Gates’s farewell address, I am afraid that today, when the center of gravity of the global stability is moving to the Far East and away from Europe, in a total different economic power position for the West, “the kind of emotional and historical attachment that American leaders have had to this alliance for nearly 65 years is aging out”.

The taste of euro-atlanticism is aging out. Broadly speaking, his writings, thoughts and interviews remain the geopolitical statement of a generation for which the emotional and historical attachment for Europe was never in question. I see no better way to honor Ron’s memory than to re-run, this time in English, the interviews he gave along the years to Revista 22. Let’s hope we never forget his lessons and beliefs!

It seems that the real stakes in the debate concerning the missile defense project is not the shield per se, but the informal security guarantees provided by the presence of the US facilities in the Central Europe. Over time the political message sent by the New Europe’ political elites was that of a gradual crisis of confidence in the security guarantees provided by NATO through the article 5 commitment. In fact, how did we get here and which were the concrete mistakes the Alliance did over time that triggered the current crisis of confidence? What has caused this chronically insecure state of the Eastern flank?  

I think two very different processes have contributed to the situation we are in.  The first is that Russia has become more assertive.  We had hoped that after the countries of Central and Eastern Europe had joined NATO and the European Union, Russia would finally accept that Central and Eastern Europe was gone from its sphere of influence once and for all and stop trying to interfere in the politics of this region.  We sort of mentally checked the box and thought „mission accomplished.”   But that was wrong. Geopolitical competition didn’t stop.  Moscow simply switched tracks to a new policy of still trying to pressure and interfere in new ways using energy and other weapons.   It tries to marginalize these countries in NATO and the EU by going above their heads.  It still seeks to make this region a zone of special Russian interest, influence and lesser security.

The second mistake is that we have allowed NATO to atrophy.  This is especially true when it comes to its crisis management role in Europe. The reality which people don’t like to talk about in public is that many allies have lost faith in NATO’s own capabilities.  Given the low threat environment when NATO enlarged, we decided NATO did not need to forward deploy troops on their territory.  Instead, we pledged to create a reinforcement capability that could be deployed in times of crisis.  I personally sat at the table in the mid-1990s as Washington promised Polish leaders NATO would have a corps sized or three division reinforcement capability to provide for their security in a future crisis.

We did not fulfill that pledge.  There is no NATO corps-sized reinforcement capability.  There are not even official defense plans for these countries.  The power of Article 5 was never simply the words on paper.  It was always the fact that these commitment were backed up by planning, exercises and boots on the ground.   Yet again, a lack of leadership and divisions within in NATO prevented the Alliance from fulfilling such pledges.

The Alliance has also decayed in its role as the key crisis manager in Europe into a shadow of what it once was.  After all, what most Poles worry about is not a Russian attack but Russian mischief stirring a crisis in Ukraine which then escalates and where NATO is unable to play any meaningful role in stabilizing the situation. Central and East Europeans have watched as one ally after another have prevented NATO from acting effectively on different issues over the last decade.   NATO was also AWOL during the Russo-Georgian war. When Tbilisi quietly approached the Alliance several months before hostilities broke it for consultations, NATO demurred.   When the war broke out, the Secretary General interrupted his summer holiday for one day to hold a token meeting and issue a statement.  SACEUR did not even bother to break his vacation.   And the NATO Military Committee managed to meet only after the war was over.  Hardly an inspiring performance.  We should perhaps not be surprised that Central East Europeans, looking at this track record, have doubts about what NATO would do to help them in a pinch.

I personally believe it is the NATO weakness side of this equation that has created this crisis as much as the Russia side.  But in a certain way this is better news as I also believe it is easier to fix NATO than it is to fix Russia.

How should a future comprehensive strategic reassurance package look like in concrete terms in order to effectively correct the trust deficit of the Central Europe in the security guarantees provided by NATO?

Well, we have to start work by fixing NATO’s current internal weaknesses, above all in the realm of crisis management.  That is the debate we need to have within the Alliance in the context of the strategic concept.  In the mid-1990s NATO played the role as an effective crisis manager in the Balkans, for example, But we have largely lost that capacity or at least let it atrophy.

We also need to rethink our policy towards Russia.  That policy was a dual track approach whereby as we enlarged NATO we would also deepen cooperation with Russia.  It assumed that Russia was not an adversary and that it wanted to come closer to our western community.  We also said at the time that if Russia started to move in the wrong direction, we would change course and cut back on cooperation with Russia.  Today Russia is moving in the wrong direction and frankly no longer wants to be part of our Western community – yet we keep on talking about offering it more cooperation which Moscow may not even be that interested in.  So we need to rethink.

But is there is one thing that your readers should also understand. This is hardly the first time we have had such a debate in NATO.  For 40 years during the Cold War it was the Germans who worried about whether Article 5 was robust enough.  Today it is the Central and Eastern Europeans.  These debates are not new.  And we can look into our own history as an Alliance for lessons on the fixes we need to find.

In my view, too much of the debate is focused on defense planning.  We should have defense plans. Period. And one of the first things President Obama decided after he came to office was that this needed to happen.  But let’s be honest. A secret defense plan in a safe in Mons by itself will not solve this crisis of confidence. It will not produce more political solidarity.  It will not make NATO a better crisis manager.  It is only a small part of the answer.  By itself It won’t address the core problem which is less a Russian attack than Russian political intimidation – the threat of energy blackmail and Russian interference in your internal affairs.  So we need a bigger and smarter package

Has the Obama administration the political will to reassure strategically the Eastern flank ? The recent public statement by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Financial Times that “an attack on one ally is an attack on all. An attack on London or Warsaw is an attack on New York or Washington” although necessary, is far from being sufficient. Let’s not forget that statecraft is stagecraft and that the current confidence crisis is not a pure European matter but also a US one. Moreover has the Obama administration the political will to pressure and leverage the Old Europe (especially France and Germany) to support some concrete and real-world measures of strategic reassurance?

Of course it does. After all, the man just won the Nobel Peace Prize.  This is a fixable problem.  But we first have to accept it exists and then put our thinking caps on in order to fix it.  The Alliance has been in denial that this problem even exists up until recently.  The issue is less one of political will and more of time and attention.  The Administration is – understandably – focused don Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and the Middle east. They have thus far not been focused on much Europe let alone Central and Eastern Europe.  I think that is starting to change.  I would hope that they would look at this debate, the letter by Central and East Europeans leaders and conclude that we have a problem that requires some attention. As I mentioned earlier, one of the first steps this President took before Strasbourg was to order defense plans to be drawn up for all new allies, something President Bush frankly never did.

But let’s also be smart and not act hastily.  And let’s think strategically.  At the end of the day it will be a combination of political, political-economic, political-military and military steps that, when taken together will provide the reassurance we are looking for.  We can do it without violating the premises of the NATO-Russia Founding Act.  I think we can do it with limited resources.  And I think we can do it without provoking the kind of counter reaction from Moscow we obviously want to avoid.  Let me just leave it at that.

Could we interpret the current crisis of confidence also as a major failure of the Old Europe to provide credible security guarantees to the new members? Isn’t this a crisis of Europe in itself or of the European security?

Why in the world had the New Europe to receive some informal back-door guarantees through the development of a US missile defense shield in Central Europe when the European security architecture stands on a collective defence clause provided through the North Atlantic Treaty and on a mutual assistance clause provided by the Lisbon Treaty (similar to the former article 5 commitment provided by WEU)?

It was never the words on paper that by themselves gave Article 5 its power.  If it was, then the language of the old WEU treaty would have been more important than the similar clause in NATO because that language is even stronger.  What gave those words meaning was that they were backed by political will as expressed through the means and mechanisms to actually come to each other’s defense.  And it is the lack thereof that helps explain the problem we have today.   And if allies could not get what they felt they needed through the front door, it is not surprising that they seek it through the back door.

So what we need to do now is to have the debate we should have had all along – and solve this problems through the front door of NATO.  The problem NATO faces today is that threat perceptions across the Alliance do differ.  You are worried about the central front and not so much about the South. The Spanish are worried about the South and the Mediterranean and not about the Central front.  The Norwegians are worried about the North.  There are risks and dangers in all of these.  NATO is some ways faces a similar issue across the board—how do you address regional causes of instability while maintain political solidarity, cohesion ad effective crisis management across the Alliance as a whole.  But we can – and must figure out how to do so.

Octavian Manea

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