Nato Expansion: Postscript or Prelude?

PRINCETON: Few politicians nowadays -- Russians or Americans, Europeans or Asians -- possess a sense of history. Judging from the fact that most need ghostwriters for their memoirs, they don’t even know their own personal histories very well. Had Boris Yeltsin read Leo Tolstoy's "Khadzhi-Murat" and "The Captive of the Caucasus" carefully, he might not have triggered the tragic war in Chechnia. If Bill Clinton had read the books of George Kennan, that father of the Marshall Plan and policy of "containment" toward the USSR, and a lifelong scholar of Russian civilization, the thoughtless rush to expand NATO might not have occurred, at least not as it did.

Clinton didn’t have to read Kennan, he could have listened to him. Last year Kennan tried to make himself heard, even corresponded with Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, but to little effect. In a New York Times op-ed piece of February 5, 1997, he suggested that the period between announcing the decision to expand and its official acceptance could be used "to alter the proposed expansion in ways that would mitigate the unhappy effects." Again, no one listened. Last week, expansion was approved in the US Senate by a vote 80 to 19. Sadly, in overlooking Kennan's suggestions the world may soon encounter an eerie feeling of deja vu.

When the Yalta Conference divided Europe into spheres of influence, giving the Soviet Union control over Poland and other Eastern European countries, America could not have done much to prevent this division. According to Professor Kennan, "eighty percent of Europe's liberation was on Russian shoulders. We understood that Stalin would submit his bill at Yalta and that this bill had to be paid." The only way for America to prevent Russia from securing its influence over the East would have been to start a war against the Soviet Union, something out of the question.

With Hitler’s war not yet over, something realistic could still have been achieved with Stalin over the issue of Poland. In the first volume of his memoirs (great literary works in themselves, and with no ghostwriter in sight), Kennan suggested "a realistic political showdown with the Soviet leaders: when they should have been confronted with the choice between changing their policy completely and agreeing to collaborate in the establishment of truly independent countries in Eastern Europe or forfeiting Western-Allied support and sponsorship for the remaining phases of their war effort."