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Not Much Kinder and Gentler

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
February 3, 2005
The New York Times

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AS Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves today for a fence-mending swing through Europe, many Europeans have seized on her experience working for President Bush's father as a reason to hope that she will revive a pragmatic, nonideological, less unilateral foreign policy.

They forget what the diplomacy of the first Bush administration was really like. In dealing with the biggest European security issue raised by the end of the cold war -- German unification -- the United States opposed the major European powers (other than Germany, of course), ignored their views, got its way, and gave them almost nothing in return.

In ''Germany Unified and Europe Transformed,'' her much-praised history of this period, Dr. Rice made clear that American policy was not based on consensus-building and respectful give-and-take. Her experience, she said, taught her the importance of pursuing ''optimal goals even if they seem at the time politically infeasible.'' She considered single-mindedness as the key to diplomatic success: a government that ''knows what it wants'' can usually get it.

Is this just memoir braggadocio? Not at all. When the Berlin Wall fell, European leaders hated the idea of German unity. Francois Mitterrand told President Bush it would lead to war. Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev proposed a peculiar scheme to keep a united Germany in both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. But the bloody historical experiences behind such views didn't sway Mr. Bush. If others didn't trust the Germans, that was their problem, not his.

Washington favored unification and wanted to achieve it as quickly as possible. In particular, American officials hoped for the rapid dismantlement of the East German state -- a prospect our allies viewed with horror. Robert Zoellick, then the State Department official responsible for German policy and now Dr. Rice's deputy-to-be, recalled that once the United States decided to accelerate the process, it encouraged the East German public to demand immediate unification and to vote out leaders who favored gradualism.

American policymakers hoped that consultative mechanisms would disguise their effort to override allied views. Secretary of State James Baker has written that the ''two plus four'' framework, which ostensibly gave all four World War II victors a role in shaping a deal on German unification, was really intended to exclude them. It worked. German unification is to this day associated with the wholesome-sounding phrase ''two plus four,'' yet not one major issue was handled in this forum.

American tactics were sometimes less subtle. Just before deciding to speed up unification, Mr. Bush promised Mr. Gorbachev he would not do so. Changes in NATO strategy were rammed through with little warning. Mr. Bush recalled in his memoirs that the issue was ''too importantto review with the allies in the usual way.''

In the end, President Bush and his advisers made no real adjustments to conciliate worried allies. The memoirs of Mrs. Thatcher, Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Mitterrand are shot through with frustration over how Washington kept them divided.

What explains this high-handedness? The Bush administration believed what most recent administrations have believed: our allies were shortsighted and confused, and not tough-minded enough to achieve lasting success on a large scale. This was Ronald Reagan's view when he scrapped detente. It was Bill Clinton's view when he abandoned the policy of ''containing'' genocide in the Balkans. And it was Madeleine Albright's view when she explained what she meant in calling the United States an ''indispensable'' nation: ''We see further than other countries into the future.''

Many Europeans might describe such ideas as arrogant or pernicious. But American maximalism needs to be understood for at least two reasons.

First, it is our tradition. Even the first Bush administration, for all its reputed pragmatism, reached for big solutions that cut against the grain of events. When it acted more cautiously -- like the ''Chicken Kiev'' speech warning Ukrainians not to seek independence and the muddled end of the Persian Gulf war -- the results were less favorable. Dr. Rice and her colleagues, who learned maximalism early, may need a new approach, but they won't find it in a mythical past of multilateral consensus-building.

More important, over the past quarter century, maximalism has worked: one of its clearest results is the post-cold-war emergence of a stable and unified Europe. Iraq may illustrate the hazards of a maximalist approach. But anyone who wants to frame an alternative, not least the allied leaders whom Dr. Rice will meet this week, must begin by reckoning with this record of success.


Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia, was United States ambassador at large to the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.

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