The loyalty of the central and eastern European countries to the United States ahead of possible military action in Iraq should not come as a surprise to many. Less than two months ago in Prague, NATO invited in another round of seven states from Estonia to Romania, which had fought for almost a decade to be included in the security alliance. In his timely book “Opening NATO’s Door,” Ron Asmus chronicles their struggle from his view as an insider who helped create momentum for NATO’s expansion first as a RAND scholar and later as deputy assistant secretary under Madeleine Albright.
Sitting in a beautifully painted palace room in Prague last November, Mr. Asmus and Mrs. Albright looked around at a table of familiar faces: Polish dissident Adam Michnik, former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, former NATO Secretary-General Klaus Naumann, Republican philanthropist Julie Finley, and many other dreamers from the United States to Slovakia who had worked hard for almost a decade to make eastern expansion a reality.
There, Martin Butora, the then-Slovakian ambassador to the United States, announced that Slovakia had been invited to become a NATO member, the culmination of a treacherously difficult journey faced by NATO expansion advocates for more than a decade. Nowhere is that battle as meticulously chronicled as in Mr. Asmus’ book.
Drawing on the classified archives of the Department of State and his own conversations and meetings during his time in the Clinton administration, the author focuses on the dual challenge of schisms within the White House and tensions between the U.S. government and Russia over the issue of eastward expansion of NATO.
Mr. Asmus gives most of the credit for initiating the process of NATO enlargement to the tireless efforts of the leaders of the first three eastern European countries to join NATO in 1999: Polish President Lech Walesa, aided by Czech President Vaclev Havel and Hungarian President Arpad Goncz. Though President Clinton was initially impressed by their passion to join the alliance, Mr. Asmus writes, his meeting with them in April of 1993 did not lead to immediate action. This the author attributes to controversy within the administration, especially from the Pentagon and Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
In the book, Mr. Asmus relates how Mr. Walesa was able to get Boris Yeltsin to sign a Russian-Polish communique stating that Poland’s desire to join NATO “does not go against the interests of other states, including the interests of Russia.” Shortly thereafter, in a twist of the truth, Mr. Yeltsin met with Mr. Havel and told him that it was his free choice whether or not to join NATO. Though the United States did not wholeheartedly endorse expansion-fearing to offend Russia by moving too quickly, Germany and NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner strongly supported expansion.
Though Mr. Asmus gives Mr. Clinton credit for being firm with Mr. Yeltsin on the expansion issue, the Russian and American presidential elections, the war in Bosnia, the eastern Europeans’ lack of readiness for membership, alliance infighting and U.S. administration schisms continued to slow the process.
A former government official attending the Prague meeting in November has criticized Mr. Asmus’ book for not giving enough credit to the Republicans for NATO’s expansion, but the author devotes an entire section to praising the efforts of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and key Republican senators. Their efforts were realized when the Senate voted to approve NATO expansion in the spring of 1998, with 45 Republicans and 35 Democrats approving the measure.
Mr. Asmus’ book is not just the work of a historian, but of a visionary. He concludes that NATO expansion was just the beginning of a new alliance that would need to “confront issues such as weapons of mass destruction beyond Europe that could nonetheless threaten NATO members.” Back at the Prague palace in November, the hushed moment of silence following the Slovakian ambassador’s announcement was followed by a statement that the invited candidates had pledged their support for any possible military U.S. action in Iraq. This was the reality of the new NATO.
Sarah Means Lohmann is a Fulbright scholar and journalist working in Berlin.