How Our View of the Past Can Thwart the Right Path Forward

June 23, 2018

Reading Benn Steil’s magnificent book, The Marshall Plan:  Dawn of the Cold War*, reminds me how easy—and tragic—it can be for us to project earlier genuine and existential conflicts to the present—despite importantly different circumstances—with devastating results.

I refer to the projection of the Cold War conflict following World War II between the West and the Soviet Union to current times.  The Soviet Union then had an unmistakable and unshakeable ambition to expand globally.  It was driven by an ideology deeply opposed to that of the West.  I submit that the projection of the dynamic which existed then to the relationship of Russia and the West following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990 has been a huge barrier to developing the relationship and policies supporting the best interests of our nations and the world.

Looking back, the United States following World War II generously and strategically (in terms of its own self-interest) undertook an extraordinary economic investment to help rebuild Western Europe through what became known as the Marshall Plan.  The motivation for this plan reflected a deep human concern about the impact of the devastation on the people of Europe. It was also believed that an economically healthy Western Europe would allow the United States to withdraw its military force, something already underway.  U.S. Armed Forces shrank from 12 million in 1945 to 1.6 million in 1947.  An economically healthy Western Europe was also seen as vital to thwart the increasingly emerging threat from the Soviet Union. 

From the very beginning, the Soviet Union worried that the underlying intent of the Marshall Plan was to encircle the Soviet Union, as a prelude to potentially attacking it.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

But life develops unexpectedly. Before long, the point of view developed that the Marshall Plan had to be complemented with a defensive military alliance.  As the financier-philanthropist Bernard Baruch testified in January 1948: “The Marshall Plan was no more than a good start; it had to be accompanied by political and military union in Western Europe.  The United States and its European allies, he argued, should “mutually guarantee…against aggression.  By guarantee, I mean a firm promise to go to war in joint defense if any of them are attacked.”  

As the Marshall Plan was carried forward in the U.S. Senate, Senator Arthur Vandenberg thought it doubtful that economic stability could take hold in Europe without American military backing.  “I am inclined to think,” he wrote, “that ‘physical security’ is a prerequisite to the kind of long-range economic planning which Western Europe requires.”  

*I am indebted to this book for much of the central argument of this essay, as well as many of the cited quotations from involved leaders.
The U.K.’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ernest Bevin echoed Vandenberg.  “I have done and will continue to do all I can to bring the Marshall Plan to fruition; but, essential though it is, progress in the economic field will not in itself suffice to call a halt to the Russian threat.  The time is ripe for the consolidation of Western Europe. We are entitled to organize kindred souls in the West, just as [the Soviets] have organized kindred souls in the East.”

So, the Marshall Plan geographic bloc was well on its way to becoming a militarized bloc—NATO—much as Stalin always asserted it would.  Soviet officials wrote:  “The agreement presents itself as a military alliance, directed first and foremost against the Soviet Union…and is an instrument of American expansion.” 

The resolution establishing NATO was approved by the Senate by a note of 64-4 on June 11, 1948. Newly-elected President Truman, in his January 1949 inaugural address, pledged to buttress the Marshall Plan with a “collective defense arrangement,” tying the United States and Canada with Western Europe.  

Contrary to what was originally planned and expected, this economic alliance would expand over the course of two years into a “defensive military alliance”—NATO—which was intended properly at the time to contain the expansionist ambitions of the Soviet Union.


Rolling the clock forward to early 1990, the Soviet Union disintegrates.  In one gasp after another, the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, which had been satellites of the Soviet Union, become independent. NATO still exists, extending as far as Western Germany.  The economies of Western Europe have recovered strongly; though not yet operating within the Common Market, they are tightly integrated.

The former Soviet Union, led by now-independent Russia is in economic meltdown.  The size of its military implodes.  Yeltsin follows Gorbachev as president.  Vladimir Putin takes over in the year 2000.  

Little could one have imagined in 1948 that the Soviet Union would dissolve and that the expansionist intent of the previous Soviet Union was neither credible nor present. Despite this reality, we have seen, especially post the year 2000, a building conviction that Putin’s Russia is intent on restoring the Soviet Union, and that we are facing an existential ideological chash that is summed up in all-too-simplistic, bumper-sticker fashion as “autocracy versus democracy.”

This growing dangerous perception, fueled by mainstream media, combined with Russia’s perception bordering on paranoia that the West’s actions are part of an imperialistic plot, has brought us to where we are today—in the middle of what the former Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, rightly describes as a “Hot Peace.”

I believe the central issue which has poisoned the relations between Russia and the West, even if not recognized by many at the time, was whether and how far to expand NATO to the East.  

As Benn Steil writes, ending the American military presence close Russia’s border had been a strategic priority of Stalin’s going back to the 1940s.  The Soviet commitment to create the buffer represented by the Eastern and Central European countries drew majorly from this strategic commitment.  Despite glasnost and perestroika, and Gorbachev’s genuine desire for cooperative relations with the West, little with regard to providing these buffers had changed in 40 years.

Yet, much to Secretary of State Baker’s surprise, when he met with Gorbachev in Moscow on February 9, 1990, the Soviet leader showed signs of flexibility.  He was open to Germany’s being part of NATO.  However, Baker told Gorbachev that  he agreed with Gorbachev’s insistence that, following a hypothetical unification of Germany, “any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable.” In a letter to Helmut Kohl summarizing the discussion, Baker reported that Gorbachev was taking the position that Germany could unify but that “NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position.”

President Boris Yeltsin’s aides would prove to be no more accepting of NATO expansion than Gorbachev. They stressed to the United States that it would be a historic error.  Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev warned that his countrymen saw the alliance as a “monster directed against Russia.” 

In trying to assure their Russian counterparts that NATO was not a threat, State Department officials took it for granted that legitimate Russian interests, in an era following glasnostand perestroika, should not clash with NATO interests.  But this view presumed that the problem of the Cold War had been driven by Marx, and not Mackinder.  Ideology and not geography.

Again, as Steil writes, this was a view George Kennan had sought to dispel half a century ago.  “At bottom of [the] Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is [a] traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” he wrote in his Long Telegram.  Vast, sparsely populated, and with huge transport challenges, Russia’s natural tendency was to fracture.  Looking outward, Russia was a “land which had never known a friendly neighbor.”  Its defining characteristic was indefensibility.  No mountain ranges or bodies of water protected its western borders.  In consequence, it suffered repeated invasions over centuries.  These features encouraged the emergence of a highly centralized and autocratic leadership obsessed with internal and external security.  Communists had been just one variety of such leadership, peculiar to the age in which they emerged.  

An influential RAND Corporation study controversially estimated only modest NATO expansion costs on the grounds that the alliance had no enemy; the “premise [was] avoiding confrontation with Russia, not preparing for a new Russian threat.”  Such doubletalk could not ease Russia’s concerns.

Even many of NATO expansion’s most prominent advocates could not abide this thinking.   Clinton officials “keep talking about the absence of dividing lines,” observed Henry Kissinger at the time.  But “with all due respect, this is nonsense. If you have an alliance, you have a dividing line.”  And Russia was on the other side of the line, just as it was in 1949.  

Kennan, who had died only a decade earlier, age 101, would not have been surprised at the rising tensions. In 1997 he had written an op-ed in The New York Timesarguing that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”  Kennan predicted that it would “inflame nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion,” “have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy,” “restore the atmosphere of cold war to East-West relations,” and “impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

Thus, the Marshall Plan, which was aimed at aiding American military disengagement from Europe, ended up, through NATO, making it both deeper and more enduring.  That Moscow believed Washington had planned this all along only helped make it so.

The expansion of NATO to Russia’s border and the threatened further expansion into Ukraine and Georgia, combined with what Putin’s Russia saw as the unilateral overthrow of governments  of Iraq, Libya and the attempt to do so in Syria has led to Russia’s conviction, bordering on paranoia, that the U.S. and the West were pursuing an imperialistic expansionist strategy.  At the same time, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support of the Russian dominated portions of Eastern Ukraine gave credence to the view in the United States and West that the expansionist commitment of the U.S.S.R. was being reborn in Putin’s Russia.  

So, we have seen since 1990 a replay of the dynamics that existed following World War II.  Yet, the circumstances are very different. While Putin’s incursion into Ukraine was wrong, as is his support of President Assad of Syria, it is a tragic mistake to read from this an intent on Russia’s part for broad scale expansion. While Russia has undoubtedly tried to influence elections in the United States and Western Europe (just as the Soviet Union did in the 1940s-1960s and we did as well in the Soviet Union), this is a far cry from the threat which was posed by the U.S.S.R.  Most important, the commonality of our interests are overwhelmingly greater than what separates us.  I refer particularly to the interests of avoiding a nuclear disaster which could end life on this planet as we know it.

And at a more personal level, research and my own people-to-people contacts in Russia and the United States show that our peoples overwhelmingly desire the same things:  peace and a satisfying life for our families.

My point in writing this is to establish that the altogether valid belief in the need for a defensive alignment (NATO) to thwart a Soviet Union committed to expanding its ideological and physical presence during the post-World War II era has carried over to the current day, erroneously, in a way that is preventing a relationship and, from it, the policies and actions that are demanded for the future well-being and maybe even existence of our countries and the entire world.

As a friend of mine, Cynthia Lazaroff wrote, we have “applied with a sense of moral authority historical lessons from the past that do not fit with the current circumstances.”  

Let me close with these two statements:

Former Defense Secretary Bill Perry, Interview, November 2017

 “We are, today, inexplicably recreating the conditions of the Cold War. We're recreating the dangers of the Cold War...Today the danger of some sort of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War, and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger. We don't understand that...Because we don't understand the dangers we make no attempt, no serious attempt, to repair the hostility between the United States and Russia. And so we are allowing ourselves to sleepwalk into another catastrophe. We must wake up.”

Vladimir Pozner, Russia’s most influential TV political-talk show host, Interview, October 2017

“We can simply say ‘Look, let’s agree or disagree on these things.’ But we have to find common ground. If we don’t, then we are pretty sure to destroy ourselves one of these days.  In the final analysis, all human beings are human beings. You can’t distinguish Chinese blood from Russian blood from Jewish blood. And we all die. And we all love... So I think we have to find this common ground and we should not insist that you have to be like me.  I have always felt that if the United States and Russia were able to be partners, we could probably solve the world's problems.”

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