The end of the Great War and the American grand strategy in the American century

On December 13, 1918, Woodrow Wilson arrived in France, the first US president to leave American soil while president, aiming to make peace of a new kind at Versailles. The Allies had won the Great War, as World War I was known at the time, thanks to US power, and Wilson was trying to use military success to lock in a strategic breakthrough at the upcoming peace conference in Versailles, which was to begin the next January. Instead of a settlement which gave a province or two to the winners, Europe’s practice for centuries, Wilson—in a breathtaking combination of vision and ambition—would try to set to order a rules-based world which favored freedom, a lasting peace built on a foundation of US power, and reflected US values.

Wilson had set out US war aims—his famous Fourteen Points—in January 1918. These challenged the imperial, balance-of-power system of the European powers (on both sides) that had started the war, and at the same time took on the revolutionary alternative which Lenin’s Bolsheviks had proclaimed. The French, British, and Italians, US allies, had fought for territorial prizes, spelled out in secret treaties between them.

Wilson was trying to have none of that.

Point One of his Fourteen Points—open covenants openly arrived—was not just a call for good process, but a challenge to the Old World’s way of war and peace. Wilson was going for a bigger prize: a world order of a new type. The Fourteen Points included freedom of navigation and “equality of trade conditions” instead of closed economic empires; qualification of (though not yet an end to) colonialism; welcomed post-War Germany and post-Revolutionary Russia into the new system if, but only if, they respected its rules; welcomed the emergence or re-emergence of national states in Central and Eastern Europe, such as Poland; and called for a League of Nations, backed by US power, to enforce the peace.

What we demand in this war,” proclaimed Wilson in January 1918, “…is that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression.” In short, Wilson was bringing to the Versailles Peace Conference one year later a rough draft of American Grand Strategy at the beginning of what would be called the American Century.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points were not abstract “idealism” or charity, but reflected canny assumptions, that:

    • Yankee ingenuity would flourish best in a rules-based, open world without closed economic empires;
    • The United States’ interests would advance with democracy and the rule of law;
    • The United States would prosper best when other nations prospered as well, and thus;
    • The United States could make the world a better place and get rich in the process.

In short, in Wilson’s view, US interests and values were indivisible. Assumptions about peace resting on principle were not original to Wilson: Immanuel Kant’s Theory of Perpetual Peace between Republics made similar assumptions about international security resting on a set of values shared among nations. But Wilson had the audacity to try to put this into practice. This made the United States exceptional among the Great Powers.

Historians have not been kind to Wilson or the Fourteen Points. They have fairly noted the inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and nasty unintended consequences of Wilson’s plan for US global leadership. Self-determination is easier stated as principle than put into practice. Wilson’s racial bigotry, awful even for his time, is a hard mark against him. But consider the Fourteen Points against its competition: Lenin’s world socialist revolution or French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau’s great power system. Given that, Wilson’s vision of a rules-based, liberal world order, aka the Free World, stands up well one hundred years later.

Arguably, US foreign policy ever since has been a struggle between Wilson’s bold theses and the traditional view that nations don’t have permanent friends, merely interests. This tension has played out over the past century of US foreign policy, especially toward Europe, both Central as well as Western. It is with us still.

Failure at Versailles

Wilson’s Fourteen Points needed to survive their first encounter with reality at Versailles. They did not do well. Clemenceau gave a prophetic assessment in his quip, “God gave us the Ten Commandments and we broke them. Wilson gives us the Fourteen Points. We shall see.

At and after the Versailles Peace Conference, the American vision failed in three ways. The first was in Central Europe. People did not live in territories convenient for the drawing of new international borders. Self-determination could not be applied cleanly. When the post-1918 wars of imperial succession and revolution ended, Central Europe consisted of free and hopeful, but insecure, badly organized, vulnerable, and often poor countries, each of which contained large and often unsatisfied minorities, and in many cases had territorial disputes with its neighbors.

The second failure involved Germany: Wilson did not achieve its integration into the postwar system, nor was he willing to invest the resources to occupy and control it. This failure was linked to the larger problem of European recovery. At Versailles, Clemenceau and British Prime Minister Lloyd George looked to German reparations to make up their wartime losses and loaded the Germans with insurmountable debt. The alternative would have been some sort of Marshall Plan or early version of the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the European Union.  But this was too much for most Europeans or even the Americans of the time.

The most profound failure was the United States’ unwillingness to underwrite the flawed but potentially workable peace which emerged from Versailles. The Bolsheviks were weak and inward-looking; the emerging nations in Central Europe were still democracies, seeking allies and models; even after Versailles, the Germans still had pro-Western leaders. Versailles’s weaknesses might have been overcome had the United States taken responsibility for implementation of the peace of which we were co-author. The United States might have offered cancellation of Allied war debts owed to it (as advocated by John Maynard Keynes) in exchange for less onerous reparations from Germany. It might have offered to underwrite European security, leveraging that offer to convince Clemenceau to ease up on Germany, perhaps making Weimer Germany viable.

Instead, the United States went home. Wilson’s tactical rigidity killed Senate ratification of the League of Nations. The United States left the Germans to themselves; the French to deal with the Germans; and forgot about the Poles, Czechoslovaks, and Yugoslavs, of whose independence we were a sponsor. The United States retreated from the Fourteen Points, a high point of American strategic vision. It was a long way down.

The Road to Yalta

At the end of the Yalta Summit in February 1945, Roosevelt and his chief of staff had the following exchange:

This [agreement on Poland] is so elastic that the Russians can stretch it all the way from Yalta to Washington without ever technically breaking it,” Adm. William Leahy.

I know, Bill, but it is the best I can do for Poland at this time,” Franklin Roosevelt.

Both were right: the Yalta agreements may have been the best Roosevelt could do for Poland at that time, but it was a terrible deal for Poland, for Europe, and for the United States.

“Yalta” has come to mean a betrayal of US allies and values. But Yalta was not simply the mistake of one US president at one meeting. It was the consequence of strategic weakness, created by isolationism and America First, which followed Wilson’s death.

Isolationism held that World War I had been generated by a cabal of amoral European powers and arms merchants, the phrase “Merchants of Death” being then in fashion. These views dominated how the United States reacted to the rise of Adolf Hitler. Walter Lippmann, one of the drafters of the Fourteen Points, had become by the 1930s the United States’ most influential foreign affairs commentator, almost on his own defining the baseline views of the US foreign policy establishment for two generations. Lippmann had retreated far from his high-water mark of 1918.

Lippmann shared the isolationist view that the Versailles Treaty had been too harsh on Germany, and even argued that some of Germany’s former colonies and some Polish territory should be returned to it.

After Hitler’s rise to power, Lippmann opposed territorial concessions to Germany. But he also opposed US leadership in seeking to contain Hitler. Lippmann expressed sympathy for those “resisting the spread of tyrannical government. But sympathies do not make a national policy…and a cold appraisal of the American interest…lead[s] to the conclusion that we can contribute nothing…our best course is to stand apart from European policies.” The depth of isolationist feelings, on the right, left, and establishment center as exemplified by Lippmann, hemmed in Roosevelt, whose tentative efforts to resist Hitler came to little.

When war came, it was not the fall of Poland, but the fall of France that shook the United States, Lippmann included. On June 18, 1940, Lippmann shifted his tone, reflecting a deeper shift in American thinking. “We here in America may soon be the last stronghold of our civilization—the isolated and beleaguered citadel of law and of liberty… Organized mechanized evil” was loose in the world, Lippmann said, its victories made possible by the “lazy, self-indulgent materialism, the amiable, lackadaisical, footless, confused complacency” of the democracies. “Finally, we begin to see that the hard way is the only enduring way.”

Given a new political context, the Roosevelt administration, no longer as stymied by the isolationists, could reach back to the thinking of the Fourteen Points. When Josef Stalin occupied the Baltic States in 1940, pursuant to the Nazi-Soviet alliance, Acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles issued a statement, known since as the Welles Declaration, putting US opposition to that act in principled terms.

In August 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter, drafted in large part by Welles, which sought to apply the principles of the Fourteen Points to a prospective post-World War II settlement. Welles later wrote that those principles “must be guaranteed to the world as a whole” and Henry Luce, publisher of Time magazine, declared that the United States would have to lead the world in the American Century. After Pearl Harbor, the Roosevelt administration started to use the term “Free World” to explain its war aims.

But the military reality of World War II, the consequence of the years of US isolationism, had stacked things against this vision. In World War I, the Allies did not need Russia to defeat Germany. This time, the Western Allies did.

Lippmann argued against a post-war return to isolationism. He recognized that the United States would have to underwrite the peace. But Lippmann also argued that the United States would have to do so in concert with the other great powers, including the USSR. This meant, Lippmann concluded, that Soviet interests would have to be respected in designing a post-war settlement and specifically, that Eastern Europe not be made a cordon sanitaire of anti-Soviet states. As early as 1943, Lippmann argued that a post-war settlement depended on “whether the border states [his phrase] will adopt a policy of neutralization, and whether Russia will respect and support it.

It is not clear whether Lippmann understood the nature of Stalin’s rule and the consequences of “neutralization.” Nevertheless, Lippmann, setting out an emerging “realist” option, implicitly posited that the Atlantic Charter applied only to Western Europe, not to all of Europe.

The inconsistency between the “realist” and Atlantic Charter visions of a post-war settlement started emerging as the Soviet army advanced West. As Stalin’s armies entered Poland in 1944, he started imposing Communist rule.

Roosevelt and Churchill still hoped that the momentum of wartime alliance would moderate Stalin’s ambitions. This, like subsequent attempts at détente or reset over the years, would fail because the Western Allies did not comprehend the nature of Moscow’s rule.

George Kennan, then a diplomat at the US Embassy in Moscow and one of the few Soviet hands in the US Foreign Service, did understand it. He remained skeptical about Washington’s optimistic hopes for post-War alliance with Moscow and unpersuaded by Lippmann’s argument to give Stalin a sphere of influence in Central Europe. Kennan recommended a showdown with Moscow over Poland:  to offer the Soviets continued support from the United States only under the condition that they change their policy toward Poland and Central Europe.

In 1944, the United States was still at war and Roosevelt was not willing to risk anything like Kennan’s recommendation of a showdown with Stalin. But neither was the administration ready to accept the realist alternative, advocated by Lippmann, of buying Soviet post-war cooperation by recognizing Moscow’s right to “friendly” governments in Central and Eastern Europe. The United States simply hoped for the best and approached the Yalta Summit in February 1945 in that spirit.

At Yalta, Roosevelt got Stalin’s agreement to enter the war against Japan and Stalin’s acceptance of the United Nations.

In parallel, Roosevelt and Churchill negotiated the Declaration of Liberated Europe, as the “best we could get” for Poland and Central Europe. A key passage referred to “the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live [including] establishment through free elections of Governments responsive to the will of the people.”

This was not enough to forestall Soviet domination over the eastern third of Europe. As Lippmann pointed out, in the territories the Soviet army held, “Stalin had the power to act; we had only the power to argue.… The West paid the political price for having failed to deter Hitler in the 1930s, for having failed to unite and to rearm against him.” Lippmann was right. The principles of the Atlantic Charter were not supported by the power to make good on them. Of course, through his earlier advocacy of isolationism, Lippmann had contributed to this debacle. Lippmann recognized this. Yet he neglected to add that while the West paid a “political price” for its mistakes, Poland and other countries of Central Europe paid a much higher one.

The Cold War Consensus

Almost immediately after Yalta, Roosevelt and Churchill sought to reopen the issue of Poland and pushed Stalin to take seriously the Declaration of Liberated Europe. Why? If Roosevelt were serious about applying the Atlantic Charter to Poland and Central Europe, why had he accepted such a weak document? If the Declaration of Liberated Europe was mere cynical cover for a deal with Stalin, why was Roosevelt raising Poland at all?

Roosevelt appeared to believe that allowances for what he thought were legitimate Russian interests would convince Russia to take a more tolerant interpretation of those interests. Roosevelt seemed to hope that the prospect of post-war US support would appeal to Stalin as much as it appealed to him. If so, Roosevelt would not be the last president to project his open mind to Russian leaders who did not share it. Naïve hopes, if that explains Roosevelt’s actions, are not the same as cynical betrayal.

After Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, Harry S. Truman continued to press Stalin to open Poland’s post-war government to non-communists. Stalin was having none of it and made a frank sphere-of-influence argument: “Poland is to the security of the Soviet Union what Belgium and Greece are to the security of Great Britain.”

Stalin intended to impose Soviet domination over Poland and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. The Americans had drawn a line, too late.  Stalin had Eastern Europe, but that was not enough for him.

In a major speech on February 9, 1946, Stalin spoke of the capitalist world with principled hostility, at a time when Moscow was putting pressure on Iran and Turkey. Truman and his administration did not know what to think about Soviet motives. George Kennan told them.

In his famous “Long Telegram,” in February 1946, Kennan explained Russian thinking in ways that could apply to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Soviet hostility, Kennan wrote, reflected an overwhelming political imperative: general insecurity in the face of their relative backwardness compared to the West, unwillingness to address that backwardness by reforms, and the subsequent desire to isolate the USSR on the one hand while engaging in subversion against the West on the other.

Fortunately, Kennan concluded, while “Impervious to the logic of reason…[Soviet power] is highly sensitive to logic of force….” Therefore, if a Soviet opponent “has sufficient force and makes clear…readiness to use it, [it] rarely has to do so.

On March 5, 1946, Churchill, now out of power, gave his Iron Curtain speech in which he echoed Kennan’s themes: the Soviets could be held in check only by a “fraternal association of English-speaking peoples,” backed by the United States’ nuclear arsenal.

That evening, at the Georgetown home of Dean Acheson, Lippmann and Roosevelt’s Vice President Henry Wallace, now Truman’s secretary of commerce, argued about Churchill’s Fulton speech and the Soviet Union.

Acheson said it was time to stand up to Stalin. Wallace, of the left, objected that Churchill’s call for an Anglo-American alliance would intensify Stalin’s fears of encirclement. Lippmann still supported a sphere-of-influence deal with Russia over Central Europe and supported Wallace but was uncomfortable with Wallace’s sentimentality about the Russians.

Truman accepted the Churchill-Acheson-Kennan approach and framed it in universal terms, in effect applying the principles of the Atlantic Charter to the post-World War II world. In March 1947, responding to Soviet pressure against Turkey and Greece, Truman made his famous Truman Doctrine speech:

    • “…It must be the policy of the US to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
    • “…we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.”
    • “…our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.”

The schools of American thinking were crystalizing. Truman and Acheson, influenced by Kennan, were hostile to Stalinism and communism, and wanted to organize systematic Western resistance to it. On the left, Wallace argued that the Cold War was a grave misunderstanding, mostly on the part of the West.

Lippmann led the Realists, whose influence grew over time. By 1947, he had concluded that the United States had to defend Western Europe, then in economic crisis. He called for a “large capital contribution” to European recovery, tied to a European economic union. This formed the conceptual basis for the Marshall Plan and US support for what became the European Union. But Lippmann did not accept Kennan’s arguments, now public in the “Mr. X” article of 1947, about the long-term struggle with the USSR and communism. He thought of the Cold War in terms of defending Western Europe against a limited Soviet threat and was still looking for a sphere-of-influence deal with the Soviets, which would include a neutral Germany and Eastern Europe “friendly” to Moscow.

By the late 1940s, US Cold War strategy was set: the United States would guarantee European security as we had failed to do after 1919; we would resist Soviet aggression; and we would reintegrate Germany into the West. The Americans would apply the principles of the Atlantic Charter—and by extension the Fourteen Points—to Western Europe.

Where did this leave Central and Eastern Europe? According to the Truman/Acheson principles, the United States sought the “liberation” of Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet domination. But whatever US administrations said about liberation, their reactions to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 reflected a Cold War realist consensus along Lippmann’s lines. US President John F. Kennedy denounced the Berlin Wall but saved his actual resistance for the defense of West Berlin; Kennedy’s line, like Dwight D. Eisenhower’s, lay at Iron Curtain. As Lippmann had said in 1959: “Every responsible European statesman realizes that [Germany] cannot be united within any foreseeable future.” German partition is “regarded on both sides as not intolerable, and on the whole, preferable to reunification.

Détente’s Rise and Fall

By the early 1970s, US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger consolidated this realist variant of the United States’ Cold War strategy: they continued containment of Soviet power, but added arms control, to reduce the risks of superpower confrontation and a general relaxation of tensions with the Soviet Union. This was détente, a long-term “structure of peace,” as Nixon called it.

The United States’ Cold War strategy had a great achievement to its credit: the United States held Soviet power at the Iron Curtain and defended Western Europe, which grew wealthy, democratic, and peaceful. But implicit in the Cold War “structure of peace” was acceptance of the lines of Yalta Europe. Détente was the best deal the Soviets Union ever got from the Americans during the Cold War. They knew it, which explains Soviet (and later Russian) affection for the Nixon administration.

In 1972, Nixon became the first US president to visit Warsaw, on his way back from his famous détente summit in Moscow. Nixon’s arrival remarks in Warsaw reflected the assumptions of Cold War Realism at its highpoint. “The major purpose of my visit here… is to build a new structure of peace in the world. Poland… wants peace, and that is our goal: to achieve a world of peace for all nations.”

Peace for Poland and Central Europe, but not coupled with freedom. Such a peace, guaranteed by the Soviet Union and the United States, was compatible with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s views of Central Europe’s proper place. Under the Nixon administration, the Atlantic Charter would not apply east of the Iron Curtain.

Détente would have worked well for the Soviets if communism had worked at all. But communism didn’t work. The Soviets might have taken the opportunity of détente to reform their economy. But they couldn’t. Lack of reform of the Soviet system was not a weakness, it was an essential feature. Just as détente was reaching its peak, the Soviet system began its terminal decline, driven by its internal weakness. Western loans and credits, one of the fruits of détente for the Soviets, were unable to compensate. Détente’s impact was strong, but in ways neither its adherents nor critics anticipated.

Under détente, conditions on the ground in the Communist bloc loosened. This meant new opportunities for Westerners to learn about Communist countries in ways impossible under Stalinism. US-Soviet student exchanges expanded. A generation of US journalists and students, myself included, now had access to Russian, Polish, Czechoslovak, and other societies in the “East,” in ways unthinkable for Kennan.

Western journalists in the Soviet bloc developed contacts with dissidents. US embassies started assigning officers to a “human rights” portfolio, maintaining contacts with independent thinkers. Dissidents’ ideas entered the consciousness and vocabulary of journalists, students, diplomats, and intellectuals, and filtered out to society throughout the West.

Détente also had consequences for the structure of East-West relations. The CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) process started in Helsinki in 1972, intended as a framework to formalize détente. In 1975, negotiations produced the Helsinki Final Act, with three “Baskets.” “Basket I” gave political backing to post-WWII European borders and by implication the status quo in Europe. The USSR liked this part a lot. “Basket II” covered economic cooperation and Moscow liked that, too. But “Basket I” also contained reference to human rights and fundamental freedoms, and “Basket III,” with equal standing, included an agenda of social and cultural contacts and access to information.

The Soviet Union had agreed to human rights language to achieve a document enshrining détente and the European status quo. After all, the human rights commitments in the Helsinki Final Act might turn out as meaningless as the Declaration on Liberated Europe.

But it turned out otherwise. The Helsinki Final Act was embraced by dissidents throughout the Soviet Union and Central Europe and held up by their US and European supporters. “Helsinki” groups sprang up. Dissidents used the Helsinki commitments as protection and a tool.

Under these new conditions, US President Jimmy Carter and his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski brought human rights into relations with the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc. This generated tensions with Moscow just as the economic assumptions that underlay Soviet interest in détente were coming apart. The Polish economy especially was under stress, and Western credits intended to fill the gap between Polish social expectations and Polish economic performance were mounting into unsustainable debt.

Détente was not sustainable, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 ended it. Moreover, Solidarity’s astonishing rise in August 1980—from a local strike to a mass national movement—meant that the West’s tacit acceptance of Soviet domination of Central and Eastern Europe was again being challenged on the ground, just in time for Ronald Reagan.

Reagan Returns to the United States’ Grand Strategy

US President Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981 opposed to détente. But détente was effectively dead, so in operational terms, Reagan’s initial policies reflected continuity with post-Afghanistan Carter policies.

Tensions in Poland helped change that. Under pressure from Moscow, Polish Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law in Poland in December 1981. In the wake of martial law, Reagan challenged the “realist” assumptions about the Cold War. He began to question the viability of communism and resurrected Republican language about the roll back of Soviet power generally.

In his Westminster Speech of June 1982, Reagan identified US interests with the advance of democracy, echoing Wilson, Roosevelt, and the Atlantic Charter, putting the United States’ Grand Strategy from 1918 to work in the final phase of the Cold War. Reagan was not willing to define Europe as limited to Western Europe. Nor was Reagan willing to accept “legitimate security interests of the Soviet Union” (Nixon’s phrase from 1970). “Some argue,” Reagan noted, “that we should encourage democratic change in right-wing dictatorships, but not in Communist regimes. Well, to accept this preposterous notion—as some well-meaning people have—is to invite the argument that once countries achieve a nuclear capability, they should be allowed an undisturbed reign of terror over their own citizens. We reject this course.”

In 1987, Reagan described the origins of the Cold War in terms Nixon or the older Lippmann would not have accepted, but Wilson and the younger Lippmann would. “Yalta,” Reagan noted, “produced… an endorsement of the rights upheld in the Atlantic Charter, rights that would ‘afford assurance that all men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.’ And so, too, the right of self-determination of Eastern European nations like Poland were—at least on paper—guaranteed. But… [t]he Yalta guarantees of freedom and human rights in Eastern Europe became undone. And as democracy died in Poland, the era of Allied cooperation ended.”

Reagan had turned away from Nixon’s application of realism and insisted that the Atlantic Charter applied to all of Europe. Few thought this would mean much in practice.

The Power of Freedom

But the liberation of Central Europe—the United States’ avowed goal since 1945 which it had long since abandoned—arrived in 1989 in the form of self-liberation nobody expected.

In the Soviet Union, Communist Party of the Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had concluded that the Soviet system needed major reform to survive. By the late 1980s, he had launched these reforms (“glasnost and perestroika”) which had a foreign policy corollary of outreach to the West. Reagan was willing to work with Gorbachev on this basis. This would constrain Soviet options in Central and Eastern Europe, because Gorbachev’s agenda did not allow for a return to the deep freeze in Soviet-US relations that followed martial law in Poland in 1981.

New labor unrest broke out in Poland in the spring of 1988 and again in the fall of that year.  The Polish communists realized that low-level harassment against Solidarity was failing to crush it and a return to martial law ran counter to Gorbachev’s desire to improve relations with the West. The regime concluded that it needed to approach Solidarity, hoping to coopt it or reach an acceptable accommodation.

This led to the so-called Roundtable Talks on February 6, 1989. The regime’s intention was not democracy, but a looser political arrangement with themselves still in control. It didn’t matter what they wanted. Solidarity wanted its country back and had a Polish pope at its side.

Almost all official Washington dismissed the Roundtable negotiations as another hopeless effort at reform in the Soviet bloc. As Polish desk officer then, a modest position in the State Department, I thought that the Communists had lost control of the Polish political process and began to convey this to anyone in the administration willing to listen. I had few takers until Condoleezza Rice, new on the National Security Council staff, dropped by my office in February 1989. She understood the point at once. Rice had studied the USSR and Eastern Europe with Josef Korbel, Madeleine Albright’s father and a former Czechoslovak diplomat. Rice was prepared to consider the possibility that Yalta might not be permanent.

In late March 1989, Rice telephoned me to say that if the Communists and Solidarity reached an agreement, US President George H.W. Bush might want to welcome it in public and pledge US support. She asked me to write a speech for the president along those lines.

This was an unusual request. State Department desk officers are not supposed to draft speeches for presidents. Rice, new to government, either did not know the rules or did not care. In any case, I wrote a draft and, in according with State Department procedure, submitted it to the State Department’s “Secretariat” for transmittal to the White House. The Secretariat immediately rejected the draft with the following note, “Fried:  you’re giddy.”

I phoned Rice. If she wanted the draft speech, I would have to deliver it directly by hand (this was pre-e-mail). She agreed, and I walked from the State Department to the White House and handed it over, saying that, “From this point forward, I work for you.”

Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and Polish Interior Minister Kiszczak signed the Roundtable Accords on April 5, 1989. On April 17, the day that Solidarity was returned to legal status in Poland, in accordance with the Roundtable Accords, Bush gave in Hamtramck, Michigan, the speech Rice had arranged. It contained two major points:

    • First: the Cold War would not end without freedom restored to Central Europe and Poland. “The true source of [Cold War] tension is the imposed and unnatural division of Europe.… The United States—and let’s be clear on this—has never accepted the legitimacy of Europe’s division. We accept no spheres of influence that deny the sovereign rights of nations.” That wasn’t quite true, but it made for good policy.
    • Second: the United States would support Poland, including the Polish economy, in the uncertain transition period ahead. “Democratic forces in Poland have asked for the moral, political, and economic support of the West, and the West will respond.”

Bush had rejected the Nixon/Kissinger axiom, returning to the Wilson/Truman/Reagan tradition. He deepened this in his famous May 31, 1989, Mainz speech, when he used the phrase “Europe whole and free” as a US objective. Bush was committing the United States to a European policy rooted in the Atlantic Charter and the Fourteen Points.

On June 4, as specified in the Roundtable Accords, Poland held parliamentary elections. The Solidarity-backed group won every contested seat in the lower house and ninety-nine of one hundred seats in the newly-established Polish Senate.

Poland and the West were now on new ground.

Bush visited Poland and Hungary in July 1989. In his July 10 speech to the Sejm, he pledged more US support for Poland. “Poland is where the Cold War began,” Bush stated, “and now the people of Poland can help bring the division of Europe to an end… [the] opportunity exists for all of us to build a Europe which many thought was destroyed forever in the 1940s. That Europe, the Europe of our children, will be open, whole, and free.”

Walesa had made the critical decisions about how far and fast to push, judging correctly that democracy’s time had come. A Solidarity-backed government was in place by September. Communist rule in Central Europe could not survive this precedent. By the end of 1989, it was gone or on the way out.

As it turns out, overthrowing communism was the easy part.

Walesa said in those years that communism was like turning an aquarium into fish soup:  no special skill is involved. But building democracy after communism was like turning fish soup back into an aquarium.

No one had considered that communism would end, so no one had considered what post-Communist transformation would look like. The Poles, trendsetters for the region, were, as a contemporary saying went, flying blind, piloting a failing aircraft, and trying to repair it mid-flight. With no instruction manual.

The new Polish government made the decision to front-load the pain of economic reform, accepting the political cost while their political strength was at a peak, and hoping that the economy would turn around before their political capital was exhausted. I was then at the US Embassy in Warsaw and saw how fraught the early transition was.

The Bush administration deepened its economic support for Poland. Walesa and a series of Polish governments held to their reforms. The economy turned around—GDP has tripled since—and politics stabilized for a generation. The political capital of liberation was deep enough.

The Warsaw Pact was gone. The Poles started to ask themselves and the Americans, now what?

The Decision to Grow the Free World

Events forced the United States to deal with the “now what?” Through US leadership, Germany was reunified in October 1990, on Western terms, as a NATO member and not a neutral country, as Lippmann had earlier suggested. The precedent of erasing the Iron Curtain line on Western terms was established, but would this model apply further East?

In early 1993, the US foreign policy establishment thought it would not. In the prevailing view, the United States’ principal strategic challenge was to find a satisfactory relationship with post-Soviet Russia. That achieved, the argument went, European security would follow. NATO enlargement would be destabilizing.

The NATO enlargement debate was about the same questions Lippmann had dealt with starting in 1943: did post-Cold War peace require a “neutral zone” of countries between the West and Russia? Would the United States seek to apply the Fourteen Points and Atlantic Charter to all of Europe or just Western Europe? The arguments of the opponents of NATO enlargement, dominant at first, started looking less attractive when the implications began to emerge, especially when Walesa, now Poland’s president; Czech President Václav Havel; and others from the region started spelling them out in personal terms.

In April 1993, Walesa and Havel visited Washington for the opening of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. They urged US President Bill Clinton to open the doors to NATO, warning against letting their countries fall into a gray zone of insecurity.

Instead, the Clinton administration announced its Partnership for Peace initiative. PfP, as it was called, was a light cooperative framework, open to all European countries, without a security guarantee. Most in the Clinton administration regarded PfP as a permanent alternative to NATO. For that reason, the Poles were wary of it.

Clinton took this limited vision on his first trip to Europe in January 1994, including a stop In Prague. I was now on the NSC staff and in Prague. There, Havel and Walesa, joined by Hungarian President Arpad Goncz and Slovak President Michal Kovac, again pounded Clinton. Walesa argued that the United States had to advance a united Europe while still possible by advancing NATO enlargement. PfP alone, he argued, would not do the job.

Clinton and his National Security Advisor Tony Lake came out of those meetings uneasy about their own policy. It wasn’t equal to the moment, Lake told me. Soon after, Lake commissioned me to draft for him alone a new concept for post-Cold War European security. I brought in colleagues, including R. Nicholas Burns, later ambassador to NATO; John Beyrle, a future ambassador to Russia; Sandy Vershbow, later ambassador to both NATO and Russia; and Ron Asmus, then at RAND Corp. and later at State. Asmus and I actually read aloud the Atlantic Charter for inspiration.

We developed a dual-track approach. One was NATO enlargement, holding aspirant countries to strict criteria but not holding them back should they succeed. In parallel, we would develop NATO-Russia relations—an alliance with the Alliance, as Vershbow put it—which would develop as fast and as far as Moscow would permit. We urged the administration to set up the policy in the first term and act early in the second. This triggered heated debate in the administration.

Strobe Talbott, later deputy secretary of state, was at first reserved about but later a champion of NATO enlargement. He knew the history of Soviet behavior in Central Europe and his evolution led others. Meeting in 1994 with a group of Central and East European-Americans, Talbott argued that Russian leader Boris Yeltsin was no Stalin and that the United States should not exaggerate Russia’s threat to Central Europe. A Pole at that meeting, Jan Nowak, had spent World War II as a courier between London and the Polish underground. Nowak remarked that Talbott’s optimism about Russia recalled what British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden had told him in 1944. “And what if you’re wrong, too?” he asked.

The opponents’ arguments against NATO enlargement faltered in other ways. The pro-enlargement group suggested criteria for NATO aspirants, for example, they would have to be democracies with functioning free-market economies, have good relations with neighbors, establish civilian control over the military, and make progress toward military compatibility with NATO. Opponents countered that the United States should not offer criteria for membership, because of the risk that aspirants would meet them, thus putting a burden on NATO to accept them. Opponents of NATO enlargement seemed uncomfortable with the potential success of post-Communist transformation.

As a fall back, opponents urged the United States to hold NATO enlargement in reserve, deployed only if Russia became a threat to European security. But as Lake pointed out during one contentious meeting, those arguing for NATO enlargement as an insurance policy only would argue against it in the event of a Russian threat, claiming that enlargement under such circumstances would make things worse.

Clinton and Lake made the call: they saw NATO enlargement as critical to a united Europe and a united West, and the alternatives as perpetuation of the Cold War line. In 1997, NATO invited Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join. The US Senate ratified enlargement in May 1998 by a vote of 81-19; the next question was whether NATO enlargement would continue.

George W. Bush ran for office in 2000 making the case for foreign policy caution, of realism rather than values. The new administration—I was NSC senior director for Europe—decided to hold off decisions about NATO enlargement, especially about the Baltics. The debate about Baltic membership in NATO mirrored the original debate about NATO enlargement generally. Some in the administration and others outside argued that Baltic membership would be destabilizing with Russia. Others argued the reverse:  that leaving the Baltics in a gray zone would invite instability or even become a tacit green light for Russian aggression.

Bush’s own position developed toward a more forward-looking option, paralleling Clinton’s own evolution. In his first trip to Europe in June 2001, Bush met with NATO and European Union leaders in Sweden, and Putin in Slovenia, but he gave the trip’s major speech in Warsaw, before meeting Putin. In that speech, Bush argued against a “Yalta” approach and a “gray zone.” Referring to the upcoming 2002 Prague NATO Summit, Bush said that NATO “should not calculate how little we can get away with, but how much we can do to advance the cause of freedom.”

That speech, an example of Bush’s “freedom agenda” before 9/11 and the Iraq War, framed Bush’s Slovenia meeting with Putin (the one where he looked into Putin’s eyes). Bush offered Putin US friendship, but no sphere of influence. Bush maintained that position through 9/11 and it worked for some time: the US government received Russian support for its Afghanistan operation and cooperation, including arms control, continued in other areas. In the fall of 2002, during the high point of cooperation with Putin, Bush instructed me to see to it that all three Baltic States received an invitation to join the alliance, which they did later that year.

Yeltsin accepted NATO enlargement to Central Europe and Putin accepted it to the Baltics. Putin could not, however, accept the pro-Western “Color Revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004, and held the United States responsible for them. Like Stalin, Putin was (and is) seeking to dominate Russia’s neighbors where he still could. The United States did not organize or instigate the Color Revolutions but did support their immediate consequences of new pro-Western governments which promised reforms. Unlike 1972, the United States would not defer to Russian power over its neighbors. Relations started a downhill course which, with a brief interruption for US President Barack Obama’s “reset” policy, continues to this day.

Clinton and Bush made NATO enlargement the instrument of a united Europe, with the door open to Russia. As intended, EU enlargement followed NATO enlargement. By the mid-2000s, Europe whole, free, and at peace, once an aspirational slogan, had nearly been achieved.

Achievement and Aftermath

One hundred years ago, the United States articulated its Grand Strategy, just as empires were falling and Poland and other nations of Central and Eastern Europe were poised to gain or regain their independence. We advocated a rules-based world composed of nation states and treated emerging nations of Central Europe as part of a European order, not objects to be traded.

Despite the flaws of the Fourteen Points and failure of US leadership, that Grand Strategy remained compelling and the United States returned to it. After 1945, the United States put it to work in the open part of Europe. After 1989, the United States extended the Free World. Since the end of World War II, the West and much of the world have enjoyed the longest period of great power peace in history, with unprecedented prosperity and democracy.

But if things have gone so well, why do things seem so bad? The West faces aggression from Putin’s Russia and challenges from China. More alarming are doubts and divisions from within, including the West’s questioning of its own model and values.

These challenges have been years in the making. Economic stresses are one source. Another is concern about national identity in a time of increasing ethnic diversity, which has generated nativist reactions.

Policy responses from mainstream political parties on both sides of the Atlantic appear inadequate, at least judging by electoral blowback, and a perceived failure of political systems is generating reaction against what many thought were settled fundamentals.

In the United States, this reaction includes elements both familiar and ugly. US President Donald J. Trump’s skepticism about Europe recalls earlier America First arguments. Trump administration language against immigration, legal as well as illegal, parallels nativist, even racist arguments from the 1920s. Praise for Putin and other authoritarians recall early right-wing sympathy for Benito Mussolini. The president seems to dismiss values as bunk, in favor of the bottom line, another US tradition. The struggle between broad and narrow US strategic concepts remains with us.

The United States’ current political debates have their parallel throughout Europe.

What then should guide America as it begins the next hundred years of its Grand Strategy?

US leadership is essential. The alternative isn’t pretty, as Americans discovered the last time they tried to withdraw from the responsibilities of leadership.

But leadership to what end? Security? Commercial benefit? Certainly. But how should Americans achieve those valid ends? What is the deeper US national interest?

Values are neither a luxury nor peripheral. The West is composed of sovereign nations. Patriotism is a good thing. That thought was integral to the Fourteen Points. But sovereignty and the nation are not absolute. They are qualified by responsibility before higher values. The Declaration of Independence makes that clear. As Abraham Lincoln observed, the American nation exists through common values rather than common blood. Thus, we support, in our better moments, a rules-based international order reflecting these common values. The alternative—indifference to values and deference to power—was tried and found wanting. Happily, we also learned that a rules-based world can work for our bottom line. The foundation of the US Grand Strategy remains valid.

This is not to minimize the challenges, whether from rejectionist powers like Russia or from an ambitious and potentially aggressive China or other authoritarian powers, or from economic stresses, environmental degradation, climate change, or a host of other problems. The right strategic principles won’t spare us from bad decisions (the Vietnam or Iraq Wars come to mind), nor are they protection against over-extension.

The principles of a rules-based order have nothing to say about the details of solutions to these and other problems. But they are a place to start.

The United States should build on what we achieved in the hundred years since the first draft of our Grand Strategy, working with those friends with whom we achieved it. With our Allies, we have the power still to tackle challenges both acute and long term. We should remember the linkage between interests and values through which we have achieved so much. As the saying used to go, that’s the American way.

Daniel Fried is a distinguished fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative and Eurasia Center. He played a key role in designing and implementing US policy in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. As special assistant and National Security Council senior director for Presidents Clinton and Bush, ambassador to Poland, and assistant secretary of state for Europe, Fried crafted the policy of NATO enlargement to Central European nations and, in parallel, NATO-Russia relations, thus advancing the goal of Europe whole, free, and at peace.

This blog post draws on the Sibley-LaFeber Lecture that Fried delivered at Cornell University on October 18, 2018.

Videos courtesy of US National Archives.


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Image: US President Woodrow Wilson arrives in Brest, December 1918. Contemporary painting. (Property of Andrew Marshall)