- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2000

This book is a collection of essays by 16 prominent political thinkers, who describe themselves as "conservative internationalists." They include people of the caliber of William Kristol (who, with Robert Kagan, is the editor), Elliott Abrams, William J. Bennett, Jeffrey Gedmin, Richard N. Perle, Peter W. Rodman and Paul Wolfowitz.
"Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy" appears at a time when the American public seems to have lost any sense of danger. The Soviet Union is no more. The United States remains the only superpower, with a military force unmatched by any other country or any imaginable coalition of countries. Little wonder, therefore, that in this year's presidential election campaign foreign policy issues are relegated to the back burner.
The book is also an important and timely reminder that we may be living in a false state of calm before the approaching storm. True, any all-out direct attack on the United States or NATO is simply inconceivable. The authors identify, however, several potential sources of conflict, which could endanger the vital interests of the United States. The proliferation of nuclear and bacteriological weapons could make America's urban centers prime targets for terrorist attacks. China may emerge as a hostile superpower intent on establishing its hegemony over Asia. More imminently, Beijing may attempt to take over Taiwan by force or intimidation.
There is considerable uncertainty over the future course of Russia's domestic and foreign policy. North Korea, armed with nuclear weapons, poses a continuing threat to democratic South Korea, Japan and the entire region. Ballistic missiles in the hands of rogue states,Iraq and Iran may encourage one or both of them to take control of the Persian Gulf or to attack Israel. In view of these potential threats, all of which are likely to require American intervention, the authors express justifiable alarm over the decline of American military capabilities since the Gulf War.
One might add to this list of dangers the lingering Vietnam War syndrome, which makes the American public unwilling to accept loss of blood in military entanglements far from home. Military superiority is largely meaningless without the political will to use it and to make unavoidable sacrifices when national security is at stake.
On a list of chapters dealing with possible crises and opportunities the book places China before Russia. The order should be reversed. It is true that today's Russia is too weak in an economic and military sense to pose a direct threat to Western democracies. President Vladimir Putin, however, makes no secret of his goal to reduce American global influence as much as possible. And he has considerable means at his disposal.
Mr. Putin has the ability to block any American initiatives undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations by using Russia's veto power. He provides support to countries hostile to the United States. His huge arsenal of nuclear and conventional weapons creates opportunities to arm rogue states. By fueling and encouraging regional conflicts, Russia can play the role of aggressor by proxy, dragging the United States into armed conflict while Russia officially stands aside.
Maybe these stimulating studies need one more point. Changing this present Russian mindset will be the most important challenge to the next president. The Clinton-Gore administration has tried to achieve this objective through accommodation with Russia's superpower ambitions. In this view, nothing should be done which could offend Russia's perceived sense of pride and nationalism. A blind eye has been turned to the negative aspects of Mr. Putin's foreign and domestic policies. The worse Mr. Putin's actions are, the more reason to "engage" Russia, according to the Democratic platform. Such willing and unconditional engagement can only mean appeasement.
The current dangerous mindset of the Russian political elite will be changed not by appeasement, but by effectively blocking any realistic prospects of rebuilding the Russian empire. In practical terms this means the further enlargement of NATO, to eliminate the present unprotected region lying between the borders of the alliance and Russia. Economic assistance to Russia through international institutions should be conditional upon Russian acceptance of a true partnership relationship with NATO and respect for human rights within its own borders. Such conditions, strictly enforced, could be used as leverage for positive change.
This is by no means an anti-Russia proposal. Any threat to Russia from the United States or NATO is pure political mythology. The true threat to Russia is the demographical disaster resulting from uncontrolled pollution, corruption and the dire poverty of its people. The Russian population shrank from 151 to 146 million in just the last 10 years. If present trends continue, it will drop to 135 million in the next quarter of this century and to 89 million at the end of it. In view of this catastrophic outlook, the spending of 5 to 6 percent of GNP on its armed forces and the costly research on new weapons seem totally irrational. A Western policy that would force Russia's ruling elite to accept the country's present borders as final and would redirect its resources to improving the daily life of the Russian people would surely best serve Russia's future, as well as the interests of the Western democracies.

Jan Nowak is a former consultant to the National Security Council on Central and East European Affairs. For 25 years, he was director of the Polish Service for Radio Free Europe.

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