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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 10:39–46.


The Reluctant Sheriff

The USA, NATO and Central Europe from an American point of view*



America’s unique military, economic, and cultural influence internationally is a decisive fact. It is barely a decade ago when her decline was being written about; it must be said, with some good reason. Japan was on the rise, as was Germany, and China, despite remaining a harsh communist dictatorship, was breaking records with its economic reform. The Soviet Union was mentioned in one breath with America, if not for its technical advancement, then for the strength of its land forces and its expanding empire across Eurasia. This view of the world was not authentic then, but is even less so today.

America’s power and influence today is not only unique, but is unmatched in history. The Roman Empire, as did America, similarly relied on its military strength as well as its technical prowess to expand within a relatively defined area. And although the English ruled the waves in the 19th century, in Europe they had to fight with the Germans and the French and with the Russians in Eurasia. In the light of this, America is genuinely the first global power, because it can make its influence felt without geographic limitations or real adversaries.

True, many dislike America, many would like to trim Uncle Sam’s beard. There are many who shrink from its civilisation, or are just jealous of its successes, while the intellectuals pour scorn on its “neo-colonial” culture. Neither China, Russia, the Near-East dictatorships nor even France like its hegemony. Her global presence and influence is rejected not only by fundamentalists but also by extreme right nationalists. Her foreign policies are often opposed by her allies.

This is not the main point however. The point is that America’s opponents are unable to unite against her on a common platform. There is no reason for this other than that they have less in common with each other than each has with America. It was only this year that the majority of member countries agreed with France that from 1999 Romania and Slovenia should become part of NATO. Despite this, they supported the American recommendation, because in the end they found the goodwill of Washington more important.

The 1990’s have not seen the realisation of fundamental political principles with which the balance of power can re-create itself. However, the world seems fairly stable in this unipolar state; there is no balance of power, and perhaps there will not be for some years to come.

This is so because America’s power and influence has not been built on military might alone. The United States is that country which idealises change; it is the practical successor and the embodiment of the French revolution. It regards the spirit of change as sacred, while Europe regards the spirit of tradition sacred. The new takes root in America, and this is why the USA has become a trailblazer in virtually every walk of life. America is unequalled in basic research, in its level of technical advancement and its many museums, symphony orchestras and in the number of Nobel Prize winners – who are more often than not from Europe. It is also true that business makes the most of this interest in everything new, or the seemingly new – for example the umpteenth newest toothpaste or washing powder. Even here in Europe, the average citizen, especially the youngsters, watch American films or listen to American music, buy American products and use the largely American dominated net to read or to send messages. Nevertheless, that Frenchman who shrinks from America, and the Pole who is disappointed in America, both look to Washington for Europe’s stability and even the guarantee of world peace. Perhaps this is why anti-American demonstrations are so rare nowadays, which have for the most part disappeared in Europe.

The USA’s position in the political world looks ensured for some years to come, partly because Americans do not suffer from being flushed with victory. Americans lack the feelings associated with responsibility of empire. The ideals related to leadership are attractive to them but in practice they reduce military expenditure and are fearful of all actions that may result in blood being shed. The typical stance today is that during the cold war America did her part, and this is true – apart from Central and Eastern Europe having been neglected. And now it’s someone else’s turn. America today wants to solve her internal problems. Clinton waited for years for Europe to pull herself together and to create order in Yugoslavia. Only after seeing that Europe is impotent without America did Clinton start convincing himself and then the Senate that something had to be done. Even then the stress was not on intervention but on an “exit strategy”. What first had to be explained was when the troops would be withdrawn, even before they went in, in order to make clear the reason for their intervention in the first place. Therefore, America today is somewhat of a reluctant sheriff, who given his vast powers arising from the situation as it stands, does not reject but rather reluctantly accepts responsibility.



This is the background without which it is difficult to understand the Clinton administration’s rough road towards NATO expansion. At the outset in the summer – autumn of 1993, there was only a small group within the State Department which entertained the idea of expansion. This group found support among such senators as the Republican Richard C. Lugar, and the Democrat Joseph Lieberman, and among such authoritative and influential experts as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger. Within the administration no one yet dealt with the details. This was given over to Volker Ruhe, the German defence minister, who asked the independent (yet close to the Pentagon) Rand Corporation to do the groundwork. At this point not one of the NATO member countries supported this.

The situation changed at the end of December 1993, before Clinton embarked on his January visit to Brussels and Prague. The President had decided on an important announcement. He said that the question was no longer whether there will be an expansion, but when and how. This decision can be traced back to three things:

1 – The Russian parliamentary elections resulted in a non-reform oriented communist victory. This raised the question of the administration’s total support of Russia and its simultaneous lack of interest in Central and Eastern Europe. This one-sided approach was dismissed by the Republican Paul Wolfowitz, in the January 1994 issue of “Foreign Affairs”; others analysing this in a variety of forums also rejected it.

Concurrently numerous Central-European politicians and the Polish- American lobby strongly supported the Visegrád signatories’ cause in Washington.

2 – The President’s most senior aids, among them Tony Lake, the national security advisor, probably influenced by Brzezinski and Madeleine Albright, then the USA ambassador to the UN, supported an accelerated expansion plan.

3 – From later announcements it is clear that towards the end of 1993, Clinton began to understand that how history would remember him would also depend on his foreign policy initiatives. After all, history remembered Truman and his idol J.F. Kennedy mainly for their bold and ingenious foreign politics.

Well, it began something like this... In the summer of 1994, Richard Holbrooke, who was the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, became responsible for initiating the diplomatic ground work. The Republicans then, more united than the democrats, supported expansion. It was the administration’s task to convince the allies, the American public, the very independent Senate and to dampen Moscow’s objections. Its one time opponent Strobe Talbott, who had been promoted to first deputy to Clinton’s Secretary of State, threw himself into energetically supporting the expansion.

The detailed work and preliminary studies took two years. It was not easy to convince either public opinion, the senate, the allies or the Russians of the importance of expansion, let alone its legitimacy. Whilst the Republicans were urging expansion and the President was being accused of procrastinating, the opposition hastened to pose the following questions to the public: from what precise danger does NATO protect the four Visegrád signatories (of which later there were only three)? Why is a new and costly commitment necessary? Why create a new problem with the Russians? What will happen with those who for the time being do not become members? Wouldn’t it be more useful if the European Union expanded its membership rather than NATO? Clinton chose to react to the urgent voices of the Republicans, when in the autumn of 1996 on the night before elections to Congress he announced that the USA would recommend to NATO that a number of countries should become members on the occasion of NATO’s 50th birthday.

This gave the necessary impetus the full stop to the process that had been underway since January 1994, and it also gave the reply to the question – when would the expansion begin. A few months later at the Madrid summit, in the summer of 1997, the conference accepted Washington’s recommendations, and it also decided as to which countries could be the first to join NATO.



The groups favouring for expansion fell into four categories, some in part complemented each other while others seemed in opposition to each other. The first and most important group was geopolitically made up of Euroatlantics – as we shall call them. Its members could be called “NATO savers” or even “NATO protectors” – those who expected that a NATO searching for its new role would ensure Central Europe’s security in the second group are the idealist revisionists – those who wish to put an end to the world order brought about by Yalta, and they see this expansion as the first step towards a united Europe. The third comprises the optimistic Russophiles – who believe that the document signed between NATO and Russia will draw Moscow closer to NATO, and thus become one of Europe’s secure pillars. And finally in the fourth category are the hard-line Russophobes – who believe that a larger alliance could more effectively curtail Moscow’s pursuit of power.

Therefore there are a number of fundamental reasons for the expansion of the alliance, but it lacks one decisive strategy. It is odd that Washington accepted all four categories as legitimate. If there were a decisive goal (which all experts in Europe expect), it would only weaken the unusually heterogeneous supporters’ camp. It was astute political thinking on the part of the government to accept all categories, let the “NATO protectors” Euroatlantics hear that Clinton will save the alliance from lack of direction. Let the revisionists hear that America finally eliminates the Yalta world order. Let the Russophiles hear that due to the document signed, Moscow has an opportunity to co-operate in the interests of European security. And let the anti-Russians hear that in the event of Russian aggression, an enlarged NATO will not hesitate to act. These are all legitimate goals, after all. And it is not to be dismissed either that Clinton wanted to enhance his reputation.



On current assessment, the Senate’s two-thirds seem secured. However, there will be debate and hard questioning. The questions will mostly be for the benefit of the voting public – highlighting that their senator is enthusiastically doing his job. Not long ago twenty senators turned to Clinton in a letter, and from their questions it was apparent that they were opponents of expansion. Since then it has surfaced that Republicans and Democrats, in equal part, whilst full of doubts, are tending towards the aye camp. It may easily happen that instead of the required 67 votes we may even see as many as eighty.

What will the debate be about? At its centre will be the cost of expansion, although other questions concerning foreign policy may arise. The NATO-saving Euroatlantics will want to know from the government whether expansion will dilute and thus weaken the alliance. The revisionists will want to know what will happen after 1999 – after all the end of the Yalta regime will not be brought about by three countries joining NATO. The pro-Russians will want to know whether the document signed with the Russians will really facilitate their becoming part of mainstream Europe. And the anti-Russians will be interested in whether the new members can be trusted in the event of Russia pulling itself together and its empire building ambitions re-emerging. Can the new members be trusted if they are militarily stronger, economically stable and politically trustworthy?

The central question regarding the cost of expansion will have the Senate requiring detailed answers about how much and what amount America will be liable for, how much of it are current NATO members liable for, and how much can the three new members pay and how much are they willing to bear. According to the Clinton administration, the total cost of expansion spread over the next twelve years is an annual maximum of $3,000,000,000 which could be interpreted as 0.7% of NATO’s $440,000,000,000 defence budget. In percentage terms this does not seem a lot. Compare this to America’s activities in Bosnia, which have cost it alone $5,000,000,000. It is hoped that the Senate will see the cost of expansion with this in mind; although there is no doubt that some politicians would like to explain just how many schools could be built from this $3,000,000,000.

We must not undervalue the numbers, as the anti-expansionists are reckoning on three things, and of these, two are cost related.

According to the first, during the hearing the hair-raising high cost of expansion will come to light, the old European as well as the new members will want America to shoulder this. The second is related to this – being an economic collapse in America, and this would bring with it budgetary adjustments and thus modifications to the costs of expansion. However stable today’s economy is in America and however unlikely a crash, we have to be aware that in the history of America such a prolonged upturn in its economy has never taken place. The third and the most likely would be another blood bath in Bosnia, and sadly this is the most likely. The sight of reviled, wounded or murdered American soldiers would force the Senate to question the NATO expansion plan, afraid that a similar blood bath would arise elsewhere in Central or Eastern Europe.

These are the three scenarios that would thwart current reckoning. None are probable but all three are possible. There is an American saying that goes: the opera isn’t finished until the ‘fat lady’ sings... By human reckoning it looks as if the Senate will vote for the NATO membership of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic in the spring of 1998.



What will happen to the rest of the Warsaw Pact members, including the three Baltic States?

As the government in Bratislava is not willing to accept the responsibilities that go with democracy, by its own actions Slovakia presently is off the agenda as regards NATO and EU membership. Not so Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, the three Baltic states’ and Ukraine. The official view is that those who meet the requirements in time can become members. This is honest, but it can lead to the harbouring of false illusions. The pre-requisites laid down by the European Union can only be met in the foreseeable future by the three prospective NATO members, and to an extent Slovenia and Estonia. It would be irresponsible to forecast when the others’ turn would come.

Expansion of NATO after 1999 in itself gives cause for doubt; especially, when we recall the worries of the Euroatlantics concerning a watering down of the alliance. The fear is that NATO would become a sort of European Security Council useful but without teeth. Therefore it is doubtful whether the Senate would vote for Slovenia’s and Romania’s membership in the next decade. And it is unlikely that there would be a third phase regarding a membership drive.

While a part of Central Europe, even Eastern Europe draws closer to the west, for the time being neither the division of Europe nor the problems regarding the security of the Baltic States and Ukraine is solved.

The ex-Warsaw Pact Balkan members and the members of the ex-Warsaw Pact Soviet Union can most probably co-operate with NATO through a loose “Partnership for Peace” structure. This subtracts nothing from the Madrid conference historical decisions; it merely means that the future generations will have things to do.

The eradication of the Yalta regime is an extremely complex, time-consuming process.



To the question – what does NATO and the European Union mean for Hungary, allow me not only to coolly analyse the issue, but also to add personal comment. My point of departure is that Hungarian science, culture and sport are an integral part of the western world. This is largely due to individual achievements by those who, like it or not, could simultaneously be Hungarian citizens as well as world citizens. Let us be reminded of but a few: Ignac Semmelweis, Albert Szent-Györgyi, Leó Szilárd and Ede Teller, Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály and Franz Liszt, Arthur Koestler and Tom Lantos, Sándor Lámfalussy and György Soros, Eugene Ormándy and Georg Solti, Éva Marton and Mihály Székely, Gyula Illyés and Péter Nádas, György Cukor and István Szabó, Krisztina Egerszegi and Ferenc Puskás. And there are many more who were deprived of their place of honour in the West during the isolation years. What a pity that István Bibó, this outstanding political thinker, the wise among the wise, is almost unknown abroad. Nevertheless, fame is not everything. What is more important is that painful fact that despite her geographical position, Hungary institutionally never belonged to and still does not really belong to Europe, nor to the West. It has always had a peripheral position economically, politically and militarily. Perhaps this is the ‘unhappy destiny’ so mournfully composed in the national anthem.

Hungary’s membership in NATO and later the European Union will be a milestone in her history for this reason. Neither promises an easy life, but they do promise independence, security and unrivalled opportunities. In the next decades the enforced stance of “we are alone”, the self-reproach, the harmful defeatist mentality can stop. Hungary can finally belong to the camp of the winners. After many heroic deeds, lost battles, lost regions and after many tragic events, Mohács will become the past, Maastricht the future, Berlin and Moscow the past and Brussels the future; the accursed ‘unhappy destiny’ is the past and happy years the future

This reassuring future goes with financial sacrifice and requires political realism. The plans placed before NATO are encouraging; co-operation with NATO in Taszár is a good example, and so are the country’s economic indicators. The Poles are more ahead only with their military expenditure. The unity of the parliamentary parties in this area is encouraging. If the referendum is successful, the only obstacle for Hungary would be the deterioration of the Hungarian -Slovak relationship. Three disturbing situations may create obstacles in Hungary’s foreign politics. One being the minorities within Slovakia’s boundaries. Another is the Hague judgement – probably its ambiguity makes a satisfactory solution impossible. The third being that it is not in Slovakia’s interest to see Hungary a NATO member. It is the challenge to Hungary’s new democracy that the government and the opposition take all the above three into account and react with patience and sobriety to Slovakia’s possible provocations.

Patience and sobriety – these two words remind me of Tibor Déry’s lines. In 1956 ago this week he wrote this in the weekly “Literary Gazette”: “The revolution won, but if we don’t give it time to build its strength, it can falter. Those with a vested interest in it can misappropriate it. Let us stand together: we have one homeland and one life. If my words bear any credibility, then let us unite and not fight against each other”.

What didn’t succeed then can succeed now. The reluctant sheriff and his alliance have made the move. Hungary is no longer compelled to follow a path it does not wish to follow. The nation, from its own sovereign will, up can link with Western institutions.

In her history, Hungary has never had such an opportunity under peaceful circumstances.


If I am asked on what basis does a Hungarian native, abroad, such as I speak from an “American point of view”, then the reply this: I have lived two thirds of my life in America; it is where I went to university and it is where I taught for 35 years. My first and then my second wife and my five children and three grandchildren were all born there. I write and think in English, although I often count and cuss in Hungarian, and my favourite food continues to be goose crackling. Aside from this, I live in Washington where I make a living as an international political analyst.


* Presented in October 1997 at the Europa Institut Budapest.