Commentary Magazine

Creeping Talbottism

When it took office last year, the Clinton administration’s conception of America’s responsibilities in the world seemed to be an extension of the 1992 campaign’s most memorable slogan—the bon mot attributed to Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Absent the disciplines imposed on all previous postwar Presidents by what John F. Kennedy had called the “long, twilight struggle” against Communism, and given the President’s campaign pledge to focus his attention on the economy “like a laser,” it came as no real surprise that the Clintonites were most attracted to international issues that could be tied directly to questions of American economic self-interest.

Judged by its own standards, Carvilleism had its moments of success in 1993—passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), as well as the alerting of Americans to the rising importance of our East Asian trading partners. But the gross inadequacy of economic solipsism as the conceptual framework for foreign policy was fully revealed when the Clinton administration faced its first tough call on the strategic design of the post-cold-war world order: namely, whether to accept the urgent request of several new democracies in East Central Europe for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).



By early 1993, as the hard road to political and economic freedom grew ever more rutted in Russia, it became clear to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary (the three former inmates of Stalin’s external empire who had most successfully consolidated their transition to democracy and the market) that the best hope for the security essential to their further economic and political progress lay in joining NATO.1

This sense of urgency in the “Visegrad Group” (named for the small town outside Budapest where these countries first formulated plans for regional cooperation in 1991) was heightened by the powerful showing in last December’s parliamentary elections in Russia, both of ex-Communists and of the ultranationalist and neofascist forces under the leadership of the demagogue, Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

It was not, however, Zhirinovsky’s emergence onto the world stage that precipitated the Visegrad Group’s request for NATO membership. Rather, Zhirinovsky intensified concerns that were already present. Nor were these concerns simply the phantoms of overwrought politicians in notoriously volatile Mitteleuropa. They were, in fact, based on disturbing evidence that elements within President Boris Yeltsin’s reform coalition were not immune to the siren song of Russian neoimperialist assertion that too many Western observers (and public officials) identified solely with the ultranationalists and neo-fascists.

Exhibit A on this front was the new official Russian military doctrine promulgated in November, presumably with the support of those senior officers who had supported Yeltsin during his bloody confrontation with the old Russian parliament the previous month. In addition to rescinding the former USSR’s pledge of “no first use” of nuclear weapons, the new doctrine threatened nuclear retaliation against a conventional attack from any country allied with a nuclear-armed state. This was a not-so-subtle shot across Turkey’s bow, to be sure, but it was also an unmistakable warning to Poland (of the East Central European democracies, the closest to Moscow, and thus the most vulnerable) not to join NATO.

The new doctrine also resuscitated an old bogey by warning of the “considerable” danger that “local conflicts” in the territory of the late Warsaw Pact “might be used as an excuse” for a NATO attack on Russia. Further, the doctrine asserted Russia’s right to intervene militarily in the new republics of the post-Soviet Confederation of Independent States(CIS), either to restore stability or to protect ethnic Russians resident in those lands. Threats to these Russians were described by the doctrine as a military threat to the security of Russia itself.

Some might argue that this muscle-flexing does not necessarily indicate a neoimperialist recrudescence in Russia; it might, rather, simply be the normal behavior of military chieftains uncertain of their future and eager to reassure their troops (and themselves) that history has a role for them. But such a soothing interpretation quickly runs aground on the rhetorical and paper trail left in recent months by Yeltsin’s Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev.

Kozyrev laid out the basic terms of a new Russian geopolitical Weltanschauung in an article published in NATO Review in February 1993. There, he argued that the Russian Federation was the natural successor state to the old Soviet Union; that Russia could and should “painlessly” take the late USSR’s place in all international organizations and forums; and that this would “help to create a distinctive zone around Russia of good neighborly relations and cooperation.” And, because “the Confederation of Independent States brings together people who have been linked to Russia for centuries,” the “entire geographic area of the former USSR” constituted a “sphere of vital interest” for Russia.

Kozyrev went on to hint, later in the year, that the Russian “near abroad”—what the Foreign Minister was also given to describing, on occasion, as Russia’s “special and exclusive sphere of influence”—did not stop at the former USSR’s borders; it also included the countries of the old Warsaw Pact. Thus in August, Kozyrev maintained that “East Central Europe has never ceased to be an area of interest for Russia.” This curious historical claim (when, prior to 1945, was Prague within Russia’s sphere of interest?) he combined with an admonition to the new democracies of the region not to form any alliance among themselves in lieu of, or en route to, NATO membership. The new democracies, Kozyrev warned, “should not become a new ‘little entente,’ a buffer, which could be crushed at any time.”

Finally, in late 1993, Boris Yeltsin wrote a letter to the leading NATO powers in which he seemed to propose what to many in Central Europe—and not there alone—sounded like Yalta II. According to Yeltsin, Russia “would be willing—together with NATO—to officially offer [the new democracies of East Central Europe] security guarantees . . . [that] could be enshrined in a political declaration or a treaty of cooperation between the Russian Federation and NATO.” Yeltsin further said that “the relations between our country [i.e., Russia] and NATO should be several degrees warmer than the relations between the alliance and Eastern Europe.” And he declared that even “moderate circles” in Russia would regard the inclusion of the new East Central European democracies in NATO as threatening a “new kind of isolation for our country.”



The Clinton administration paid little public attention to these developments or to the increasingly urgent distress signals coming from the Visegrad Group until it was forced to do so late last year by two unavoidable realities: the Zhirinovsky phenomenon and an impending NATO summit conference in Brussels, which the President was committed to attending in January 1994. In the run-up to the NATO summit, a fierce argument over NATO reconstruction reportedly broke out within the administration. On one side were those who wanted to admit the Visegrad Group into NATO in short order. On the other were the believers in a “Russia First” policy shaped and championed by the former Time correspondent, long-time Friend-of-Bill, ambassador-at-large to the former USSR, and suddenly Deputy Secretary of State-designate, Strobe Talbott.

In Talbott’s view, the central strategic imperative at this juncture in history was essentially negative: take no action that would, by inflaming nationalist passions, tip the delicate balance in Russia against Yeltsin. “Moving NATO’s border East” was, on this reading of things, likely to do just that. But the administration, whose wiser heads were already worried about NATO’s future in the wake of the alliance’s inability to forge a coherent policy on Bosnia, evidently realized that something had to be done for the new democracies clamoring to be America’s friends. And so an alternative to NATO membership was devised. A Partnership for Peace (PFP), including joint military exercises and training with NATO troops, would be offered to the Visegrad Group, and indeed to all the former states of the Warsaw Pact and the late USSR.

PFP was not quite so hollow as some of its most vocal critics (not least the Polish President, Lech Walesa) charged. Were it taken seriously by the NATO political and military leadership, and were sufficient Western aid forthcoming, PFP could provide the occasion for a significant upgrading of Czech, Polish, and Hungarian defense capabilities, such that any future security arrangements with these countires would strengthen, rather than incrementally weaken, NATO’s capabilities. The Czech President, Václav Havel, also seemed to believe that Clinton’s blurry assurance at the Brussels summit that PFP “sets in motion a process that leads to the enlargement of NATO” could be seized upon in order to hold American and West European leaders’ feet to the fire, and hence to prevent PFP from deteriorating into a mere political dodge.

But PFP’s lack of any defined criteria for NATO membership, and the absence of any timetable for the incorporation of new NATO members, left the post-Brussels correlation of forces (to borrow an old Soviet term of art) almost exactly where it had been at the end of last year. No new strategically significant facts on the ground had been created; Russian assertiveness toward East Central Europe had not been challenged; Russian leaders could reasonably imagine that they had achieved a tacit veto over any reconfiguration of NATO; British and French squeamishness on the question of NATO enlargement had been rewarded, and the firmer German posture largely ignored; and little had been done to alert American public opinion and the Congress to the hard strategic fact that the peace of Europe, in which the United States has a direct national-security interest, might be in jeopardy, and not only in the Balkan hinterlands.

Which is to say that Talbottism had carried the day, replacing Carvilleism as the administration’s lodestar on matters of foreign policy, at least in Europe.




Talbottism represents any number of things. It is, in some respects, a curious throwback to an earlier era: a form of the higher cronyism in which the President and his generational peers (who not infrequently exhibit the sense of superiority that the young of the 60’s so notoriously felt) seem to imagine themselves in the roles of Truman, Kennan, Acheson, Bohlen, Harriman, McCloy, and Lovett in a remake of the “Wise Men” of the late 40’s. Talbottism’s intense focus on Russia also reflects Strobe Talbott’s own love affair, with which many will empathize, with the Russian language and Russian literature—a passion that friends report as dating back to his prep-school days.

But what Talbottism represents analytically and strategically is the triumph, for the moment, of a liberal-revisionist view of the history of the cold war, now retooled for policy-making in a post-cold-war world.

During his tenure at Time, Talbott was never a mere reporter. Rather, he was a prolific exponent of cold-war revisionism—a position he expressed with few cautionary qualifications in a lengthy essay he contributed to Time‘s January 1, 1990 issue anointing Mikhail Gorbachev as “Man of the Decade.”

“For more than four decades,” Talbott wrote, “Western policy [had] been based on a grotesque exaggeration of what the Soviet Union could do if it wanted, therefore what it might do, therefore what the West must be prepared to do in response.” Indeed, NATO “scenarios for a Soviet invasion of Western Europe . . . always had a touch of paranoid fantasy about them.” Moreover, the American “obsession” with the cold war fed an “arithmetic of fear,” which was intensified by an “ideological multiplier” that led, on occasion, to “paroxysms of Spenglerian gloom” about the future of the West. As for Soviet military capability:

The big red military machine may still look formidable from 22,000 miles up, the altitude from which American spy satellites snap pictures of armored columns on maneuver. But at ground level, the Soviet army looks more like a lot of bewildered seventeen-year-olds . . . bouncing around in the back of clunky trucks on potholed roads leading nowhere.

In sum:

The doves in the Great Debate of the past 40 years were right all along. . . . If the Soviet Union had ever been as strong as the threat-mongers believed, it would not be undergoing its current upheavals. Those events are actually a repudiation of the hawkish conventional wisdom that has largely prevailed over the past 40 years, and a vindication of the Cassandra-like losers. . . .

This view of things—not even slightly chastened by the events that prepared, and then consummated, the Revolution of 1989 in East Central Europe—involved four other judgments that shape Talbottism today, and through Talbottism, the foreign-policy strategy of the United States.

First, and in terms of the recent debate over NATO reconstruction, Talbottism seems to reflect the notion that Yalta ratified a rather natural division of Europe into “West” and “East.” And given the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Warsaw Pact, this historical-cultural judgment lends itself without too much analytical ado to the notion of an expansive Russian sphere of influence on the Continent. But such a relaxed acceptance of the dyad of “Western Europe” and “Eastern Europe” (a phrase of Stalinist provenance, by the way) ignores some basic facts of geography and culture.

Prague, for example, is some 150 kilometers west of Vienna; if the Czech Republic constitutes “Eastern Europe,” one wonders what happened to Central Europe. A similar question would be instantly raised by the Poles, whose culture (embodied, for example, in their use of the Latin alphabet and their intense Roman Catholicism) has oriented them toward the West for a thousand years.

To minimize the historic cultural affinity of Poles and Czechs—and Hungarians—for the West is not only off-putting to the parties involved; it also debases the currency of an enormous strategic asset. And this problem is further exacerbated by the second component of Talbottism: its general lack of “feel” for the moral claims of these newly free societies.

In his Brussels speech to the NATO summit, President Clinton did make mention of the heroic struggle for freedom that had animated the human-rights resistance during the 1980’s and that had eventually produced the Revolution of 1989. But perhaps out of a sense of embarrassment at Western indifference to East Central Europe since 1989, and also, one assumes, for fear of giving politically-incorrect offense to the side that lost the cold war, the theme of freedom’s hard-won moral victory over totalitarianism was not stressed.

Such tone-deafness is not without ideological, and hence political, significance. Ideologically, it is an extension of the “moral-equivalence” sensibility, which was given its classic cold-war formulation by Paul Warnke (Jimmy Carter’s arms-control negotiator and a key source for a book Talbott wrote on Salt II) in his image of the United States and the Soviet Union as “two apes on a treadmill,” mindlessly caught in the trap of the “arms race.” That image, in turn, reflected, not a value-neutral Realpolitik, but a diminished sense of the moral worthiness of the West: a prominent theme of the 60’s “movement” that shaped the politics both of Talbott and his Oxford roommate, Bill Clinton.



No doubt the President and his old friend have tempered their Vietnam-era views somewhat in the ensuing years; both are intelligent men, committed to maintaining their viability in the mainstream of American public life. Still, like Talbott, the President seems to find the mental habit of “moral equivalence” hard to break. Thus, in his January press conference in Moscow, Clinton described possible Russian interventions in the “near abroad” as not dissimilar to U.S. actions in Grenada and Panama in the 1980’s.

Their old, and evidently persistent, inability to grasp, much less acknowledge, the real civilizational stakes in the cold war hardly prepares Clinton and Talbott to deal intelligently and sympathetically with the new East Central European democracies. The leaders of those democracies, after all, recently staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor (as an earlier generation of Americans put it) on the moral, as well as economic and political, superiority of Western institutions.

Beyond that, Talbott’s “balanced” view of the cold war, and the sharp critique of containment on which it is based, has surely influenced his rejection of what he terms “neocontainment” on the grounds that any NATO reconfiguration would constitute, not an enlargement of the sphere of European democratic stability, but another threat to Russia.

Politically, Talbottism’s apparent lack of appreciation for the accomplishments of the East Central Europeans over the past decade also bodes poorly for the future. As is clear from the very title of his most recent book (At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War), Talbott does not regard “the end of the cold war” as having had very much to do with the revolution from below that toppled, first, the regimes of the old Warsaw Pact and, ultimately, the USSR itself. Rather, in Talbott’s world, “the end of the cold war” was what happened in negotiations between the Bush administration and the Gorbachev regime. Whatever else might be said of such a perspective, a U.S. foreign policy guided by it will not focus much of its energies on what many observers believe is the sine qua non of democratic and market reform in formerly Communist countries: strengthening the sinews of civil society.

Talbott’s shrill criticism of Western “paranoia” and “threatmongers” during the cold war is also of more than antiquarian interest. For (and here we come to the third problem) Talbottism’s historical myopia about the danger that Communism posed to the West may well inform a potentially disastrous and shallow misreading of precisely how much damage Communism wrought in Russia itself over 75 years.

Communism, it has to be emphasized time and again, was not simply traditional tyranny wedded to modern technological means of social control; Communism was also a metaphysic, an ethic, and a world-historical view, all of which legitimated the fantastic damage that it did to Russia’s economy, to Russia’s ecology, and, finally, to Russian souls.

Hence, to suggest, as Talbottism does, that Russia is capable of playing a great-power role in Europe (and elsewhere) today not only lays the groundwork for mischief (and worse); it is in fact a grave disservice to the Russian nation. For it gives a green light to what can only be regarded, objectively, as an enormous distraction from the already Herculean task of national reconstruction that ought to be absorbing the great energies of the Russian people. But, of course, a generally tolerant view of Russian neoimperial assertiveness is precisely what one would expect from a man who thought there was something to the old Soviet saw about NATO “isolating” or “encircling” Russia.2

Lastly, Talbottism tends to minimize the importance of military capability today, just as Talbott and his fellow arms controllers did during the 1970’s and 1980’s. In his view of recent history, NATO force modernization (including the bitterly contested deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe) had little or nothing to do with the West’s winning the cold war; neither did SDI. Nor did NATO’s conventional forces perform any serious work of deterrence. As we have seen, Talbott believes that concerns about a Soviet conventional attack toward the West exhibited a “touch of paranoid fantasy.”

The distortion of history aside, such an interpretation hardly positions Talbott, or other exponents of Talbottism, to understand, much less to sympathize with, and still less to do something serious about, the security concerns of the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, and others today. (One wonders what Talbott makes of the Swedish Defense Minister’s recent call for increased defense spending in response to Russian rumblings.)

Nobody was about to invade Russia from the West during the cold war, any more than anyone is about to do so today. But so long as Russian political leaders are allowed to play on what really is something of a “paranoid fantasy,” we will not be able to satisfy legitimate Russian security concerns without simultaneously acceding to the traditional Russian method of enhancing Russian security by subjugating others.




Despite the fact that he, too, seemed reluctant to celebrate the West’s victory in the cold war, and notwithstanding his eagerness to buttress Mikhail Gorbachev’s political position, George Bush was capable of both serious strategic thinking and hardheaded diplomacy on matters affecting Central Europe during his term of office. Faced with a situation with interesting parallels to the recent debate over NATO reconfiguration—the German drive for reunification, the strategic imperative of keeping Germany within NATO, bitter Soviet resistance to the latter idea, and skittish NATO partners—Bush doggedly worked the problem with America’s allies, with the Germans, and with Gorbachev. In the end, the West got precisely what it wanted—and got it despite the historic Russian fear of a vigorous and unified German state in Central Europe.

Bush could have acceded to Gorbachev’s initial demand that a unified Germany be a neutralized (i.e., non-NATO) Germany. These things are always “judgment calls,” to use Clinton’s phrase about his decision to propose Partnership for Peace rather than to move quickly toward the admission of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into NATO. But in this instance one also has to wonder about the judgments that led to the call.

In particular, one has to wonder about the administration’s very definition of the problem as posing a hard choice between the concerns of the new democracies of East Central Europe and the “Yeltsin imperative” in Russia. By conceding false Russian claims about the dangers posed to Russian security by a reconstructed NATO, Clinton’s “Russia First” policy and his Partnership for Peace strengthened, at least temporarily, the position of both the Zhirinovsky extremists and, perhaps far more dangerously, those tempted by neoimperialism within the current Yeltsin/reformist camp. In this way, Clinton, presumably under the influence of Talbottism and its tendency always to cut the Russians a little more slack, missed an opportunity to challenge the old shibboleths about Russian isolation and encirclement and to demonstrate, in strategic fact as well as in abstract rhetoric, the Western conviction that any revival of Russian imperialism in East Central Europe is a nonstarter.

Foreign policy is not therapy, and there are limits to the influence of the West over Russia’s post-Communist evolution (much less over Russian psyches). But a fairly rapid incorporation into NATO of successful new democracies—under such criteria as secure democratic and market transitions, proven compliance with international human-rights and nuclear nonproliferation agreements, and demonstrated noninterference in the internal affairs of other nations—could have provided genuine Russian reformers with a set of benchmarks by which they could press forward toward their goal of acceptance by the West as a partner in modernity. Far from jeopardizing Russian security, a new NATO, unmistakably assembled as an alliance of free-market democracies and with troop deployments of an indisputably defensive nature, could have served as a magnet for Russian reform (and demilitarization), rather than as a threat to the position of Russian reformers.

Conversely, if the reformers’ position is as fragile as Talbottism supposes, would not prudence dictate at least a greater sense of Western urgency about the security of East Central Europe? The notion that we can deal with that problem if and when it breaks out is fatuous, particularly in light of NATO dithering on ex-Yugoslavia. The point is to create strategic facts, now, that make the evil decree less likely, later.

On top of all that, accepting the Visegrad Group’s basic proposal, and strengthening it by the articulation of clear criteria and a timetable for NATO membership, would have had a desirable effect on East Central Europe itself. The Western commitment it represented would have bolstered the processes of democratic and market consolidation and strengthened the hand of the more pro-Western political forces in the region. It would also have been regarded, in the Visegrad countries in particular, as a recognition that the anti-Communist resistance of East Central Europe, by bringing about the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, made an enormous contribution to the security of the West.

And it would have helped to keep the lid on. Indeed, one of the things that NATO membership seems to have done for fragile and fractious new democracies is to temper some of their aggressiveness: witness the relative quiet between Turkey and Greece since their incorporation into the alliance. A reconfigured NATO might well do the same for Slovak/Hungarian and (over a longer period of time) Hungarian/Romanian conflicts over the Hungarian minorities in Slovakia and Transylvania—conflicts which could lead to serious bloodshed, and thus to massive refugee problems, and thus to regional destabilization.

Time will tell whether the Partnership for Peace was a tough call, rightly made, or an error of world-historical proportions. Just now, it looks uncomfortably like a hard call that was ducked, and for reasons that take us back, via Talbottism, to some old, but evidently unsettled, arguments about the recent past.


1 The same judgment was shared by many other political leaders in Central and Eastern Europe, most notably in the new republic of Slovakia, but also in Lithuania and Romania. But Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary pressed the issue of NATO reconstruction most consistently, and it is on them that I focus here.

2 Talbott, student of the “Wise Men,” might ponder Dean Acheson's reply when asked, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, whether NATO was a threat to the USSR: “Any nation which claims that this treaty is directed against it should be reminded of the biblical admonition that ‘the guilty flee where no man pursueth.’”

About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the author most recently of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins).

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