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I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
The Post Cold War Settlement in Europe: A Triumph of Arms Control
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Michael Mandelbaum

On March 26, Michael Mandelbaum, Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University, addressed the annual luncheon meeting of the Arms Control Association (ACA). Mandelbaum, who is also director of the Project on East West Relations at the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke on the impact of arms control advances on European security. As one of the leading critics of NATO enlargement, he focused on the implications of the expansion policy for future arms control agreements. Mandelbaum delivered his remarks only days after the Helsinki summit meeting between President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Mandelbaum has written and edited several books on U.S. foreign policy, including The Dawn of Peace in Europe (Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1996), and has taught at the U.S. Naval Academy and Harvard University. Mandelbaum earned a B.A. from Yale University, an M.A. from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. from Harvard University. The text is an edited version of his luncheon speech.


If a cure for cancer were discovered, what would be the response? There would be admiration for the discoverers and celebration of the discovery. It would be a great, triumphal public event.

For the political equivalent of cancer, a cure has been discovered. The greatest scourge of our century is war. The worst and most destructive wars—World Wars I and II—have begun and been fought in the heart of Europe. The Cold War began and ended there. The danger of a major war in Europe was the central obsession of the American government for much of the 20th century, and rightly so. But that danger is now at its lowest level in decades, perhaps in all of Europe's modern history.

What is the reason for this? What is the equivalent, for war in Europe, of a cure for cancer? It is, among other things, arms control. The post Cold War settlement now in place in Europe is a triumph of arms control. That statement raises three questions. First, how and why could this statement be true? Second, if it is true, why has this achievement been so little appreciated? And third, why does it matter whether this achievement is appreciated?

In my book, The Dawn of Peace in Europe, I argue that there is a new security order in place in Europe, one that differs from the two most familiar ways of organizing security: balance of power politics and world government. Balance of power politics has been the source of such stability as Europe has enjoyed for most of its recorded history, including during the Cold War years. World government is a utopian dream that has been envisioned and advocated but never implemented, and that might not be a source of celebration if it were implemented, which it almost surely will not be.

The theme of The Dawn of Peace in Europe is that, in the wake of the Cold War, Europe has established a third method for achieving security, which I call common security and that owes something to the concept of cooperative security that was developed at the Brookings Institution. Within this common security regime, Europe is still made up of sovereign states. There is no supranational authority. The states of Europe are still armed. But peace in Europe does not depend—as it has for most of Europe's recorded history—on a finely balanced hostility between and among the most powerful European nations. The new common security order has dramatically reduced both the incentives and the capabilities for war.

The incentives have been reduced by the great political changes of 1989 and 1991. It is important to understand the events of those years as not only liberating the people involved, from whom the yoke of communism was lifted, but also as reducing substantially the threat of war. Communism itself, and the imperial domination that came with it in Europe, were standing causes of war. As long as communism and a communist European empire lasted, those oppressed would struggle to break free and those of us who were already free would struggle against the threat that communism posed.

Not only the end of communism, but also the beginnings of democracy contributed to peace in Europe. For democracy is associated with peace. There is, of course, no iron law that democracies are necessarily and always peaceful. And the most problematical country in Europe for the purposes of European security, Russia, is not fully democratic. Nonetheless, there has been since 1989 and 1991, a marked and remarkable surge of democratization across formerly communist Europe, and that contributes to the unprecedentedly peaceful character of relations between and among sovereign states there.

The military capabilities of the countries of Europe are also less threatening now than in the past, and this has been accomplished by arms control. Specifically, it has been accomplished by the remarkable series of accords that were signed beginning with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces [INF] agreement of December 1987, and culminating with the START II accord of January 1993. These arms control agreements are similar in appearance to those of the earlier part of the Cold War, but as I argue in The Dawn of Peace in Europe, they differ in content in two truly revolutionary ways.

First, the later series of arms reduction agreements is characterized by "defense dominance." That is, they have reshaped military arsenals to make them more useful for defense than for offense in the case of conventional forces, and more useful for deterrence than for actual war fighting in the case of nuclear armaments. Country "X" will be concerned, of course, about the capabilities of its neighbor, Country "Y" no matter what "Y" says about its own intentions. Country "X" will be least concerned about Country "Y" if Country "Y" has no weapons at all. But the nations of Europe have not laid down their arms completely, and are unlikely to do so.

The next best circumstance, from the point of view of peace, is if Country "X" does not feel threatened by the armaments of Country "Y" because those armaments are suitable for self defense and not for attack. That is now the status quo in Europe thanks to arms control.

Country "X" will also want to know that Country "Y" is abiding by the limits to which it has agreed, and that what Country "Y" is actually doing with the armaments that it legally has is not threatening. The later arms control in Europe fulfills both conditions. The 1987 to 1993 agreements, that is, provide for both "static" and "operational" arms control.

The second revolutionary feature of the post 1987 arms agreements, both conventional and nuclear, is that they establish transparency. That is all the countries of Europe and North America now can know what armaments all the other states have, what they are doing with them, and whether they are violating the agreed limits—and they can know this at all times. This is an important development.

Verification did not, of course, begin in 1987. "Verifiability" has been a necessary condition for almost all arms control accords into which the United States has entered since 1945. The issue of verification has been a major theme of the nuclear age. Verification would be available even without formal agreements, through what have come to be known as "national technical means"—that is, satellites.

But verification under the auspices of the later arms agreements is more comprehensive and more intrusive than what was available previously and what would be available in the absence of these agreements. And it is significant that verification is mandated by treaty. This makes violations plainly illegal, which means that it is more likely that countries that detect violations by others will act on them. The reason surprise attacks succeed, as Richard Betts has written, is not that the country being attacked lacks warning, but rather that it lacks the political will to respond. It is easier to muster the requisite political will when the violation is unambiguously illegal. Under the later series of arms control agreements, this would be the case.

To summarize: A balance of power system rests on deterrence. A world government, should it ever exist, would rest on unchallenged authority. Common security, however, the system of security now in place in Europe, rests on confidence. The entire system of security—including changes of regime, changes of borders and changes in the military balance—can be seen as one large confidence building measure. Together, these measures have generated more confidence than ever before in modern history that there will be no war in Europe, and for good reason. Where security is concerned, Europe now enjoys the best of all possible worlds.

This is surely cause for celebration: yet it is not being celebrated. Why's this so? I believe that the sweeping, comprehensive—indeed, revolutionary—arms control accords now in place have been overlooked for the same reason that made them possible in the first place.

Historically, arms control has been tied to, has depended on and has been subsumed by international politics. Arms control is, to use a term common in social science, a dependent variable, and the independent variable on which it has depended has been the status of East West relations. For most of the Cold War, East West relations were hostile and frozen. They were marked by disagreement on fundamental issues. Neither side would budge on these issues and neither dared try to budge the other, which would have been extremely dangerous.

In this context, early arms control took on a symbolic role. It was a form of reassurance. It demonstrated that both sides understood the dangers of the nuclear age and would keep their rivalry within bounds. Arms control in the 1970s and in the 1980s did not, could not, indeed was not intended to, end the East West rivalry. Because this was so, arms accords affected the instruments of that rivalry, namely, armaments—with the notable exception the ABM Treaty—only marginally.

If the effects on actual deployments were marginal, arms control was still important because the rivalry that it addressed was a real one. Arms control riveted the eyes of the world because the world needed reassurance about the rivalry between the two great nuclear powers. Peace rested on prudence, not on the absence of any reason to go to war. Arms control did not cause the prudence that preserved the peace, but it did signal that both sides would practice that prudence.

Then, with the changes set in motion by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, the political differences at the core of the East West rivalry disappeared. They disappeared because the Soviet Union gave up the goals to which the West had been opposed. This was the meaning of 1989 and 1991. Under these new political circumstances, the role of arms control changed. It was no longer marginal to actual military deployments; it became central. It was no longer a symbolic but, rather, a substantive matter. Instead of making small adjustments to large arsenals for political effects, arms control came to involve the wholesale restructuring of armaments on both sides with sweeping military effects.

These revolutionary changes in arms control, however, were little noticed because of the absence of political conflict between East and West, which, as I've suggested, was precisely what made them possible in the first place. People turned out to be uninterested in what happens to weapons they do not expect or fear will be used against them. That, I believe, is the reason for the lack of appreciation for what is a remarkable historic achievement.

Yet, both American political parties have reason not only for interest but for pride in what has been achieved. Democrats, after all, were the champions of arms control in the 1970s and 1980s. They considered it central to East West relations. But now that they are in power, they seem to have all but forgotten about arms agreements that exceed in scope what were once their fondest wishes.

Republicans tended to be skeptical about arms control in the latter stages of the Cold War. Indeed, President Ronald Reagan entered office opposed to it, claiming that it was "bad medicine." He said that, had he been in charge in the 1970s, where negotiations with Moscow were concerned he would have done things differently. And in office he proceeded to do things differently. The current accords—the ones to which first the Soviet Union and then Russia agreed—were designed in and by his administration, based on its criticisms of what had gone wrong previously. The post 1987 arms treaties are, in effect, Republican agreements and are among the most important diplomatic achievements in the history of the United States.

If the common security regime now in place endures, the arms treaties will be the pillars of the post Cold War order, even as the Marshall Plan and NATO were the pillars of the West's Cold War policy. This is no small achievement. Yet, these agreements get less respect than they deserve. But this raises the third question I mentioned at the outset: Does this lack of interest really matter? After all, these treaties have been negotiated and signed. Those that have been implemented are doing their work. It is a historical commonplace that what once seemed miraculous quickly becomes routine. The world does not celebrate Jonas Salk's birthday, despite the importance of the Salk vaccine for polio. Every day, millions of people unthinkingly cross bridges, the construction of which was once regarded as an engineering miracle. That's progress. Isn't this true of arms control as well?

Unfortunately, it is not quite true. The significance of these achievements does matter because the achievements are not secure. They are not irreversible. Indeed, I believe they are threatened by the prospect of NATO expansion to Central Europe. They are threatened in two ways.

First, the arms treaties are threatened. For example, START II, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons aimed at the United States and is therefore of some interest to Americans, has been held hostage in the Russian Parliament, the Duma, to the prospect of NATO expansion. In Helsinki in March, President Yeltsin promised to try to get the Duma to ratify this treaty. He's promised this before.

There is an even larger problem with NATO expansion. It puts the entire post Cold War settlement, in which the post 1987 arms agreements are embedded, in jeopardy. That settlement is extraordinarily favorable to the United States. It was tailored to our specifications. The liberation of Eastern Europe in 1989 was something we had demanded since 1945. Indeed, the liberation of Eastern Europe removed the basic cause of the Cold War. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was an event so favorable to the West that we never imagined that it was possible. And it is crucial that all of these changes were voluntary; first the Soviet Union and then Russia agreed to them. Thus, the post Cold War settlement has a certain legitimacy in Russian eyes. Because this settlement is so extraordinarily favorable to us, that legitimacy is a priceless asset for the West. But with NATO expansion we are in danger of squandering it.

The post Cold War settlement rests on three principles, all of which NATO expansion would violate. The first is the principle of consensus, according to which changes will be made with the acquiescence of everyone. NATO expansion, however, is the first major change in the security architecture of Europe to be made over the objections of Russia.

The second principle underlying the post Cold War settlement is inclusion, meaning that Russia will be welcomed into the international community in general, and into specific international organizations to the extent that it is willing and able to join them. But NATO expansion is an act of exclusion. It draws a new line of division in Europe where none existed before, and places Russia—and not only Russia—on the far side of that line.

The third principle is embedded both in the common security order as a whole and in the arms treaties that are so important to it: transparency. NATO expansion is the opposite of transparent. The American government has asserted that expansion will be open ended and that there will be further expansions after the first one, but it has refused to say where, when, or by what criteria this further expansion will take place.

What is the danger in all this? It is not that Russia will be able to stop the expansion. Russia is too weak to do so. Nor, I think, is there an immediate danger that the Russians will break out of the constraints of the arms treaties that they have signed. They're too poor to do that now. Rather, the danger that NATO expansion poses to the post Cold War settlement arises over the long term. The risk is that in the eyes of the Russian political class—and therefore ultimately in the eyes of ordinary Russians—NATO expansion will delegitimate the entire settlement, and make it a central goal of Russian foreign policy in the 21st century to overturn what has been put in place.

This is not, to say the least, a desirable outcome. If it should come to pass—if we should return to a Europe of military blocs, balances of power and political hostility—no doubt the United States and its allies could hold their own. We could once again deter Russia if we had to. But this would not necessarily be easy, it would not necessarily be cheap, and it would certainly not be free of risk. One thing, however, it certainly would be: If, 25 years from now, we look back at this period as a turning point, the moment when the common security order dissolved and Europe returned to the kind of balance of power arrangements so familiar in history, one point will be beyond dispute: this need not have happened.

 

Questions and Answers

Q: In one of the joint statements from the Helsinki summit, President Clinton cites the unprecedented progress in arms control during the past four years. Is it really unprecedented? Are we making more progress now than we made four years before?

Mandelbaum: From a historical perspective, the years from 1987 to 1993 constitute the great period of arms control. The task of this administration was and is to build on and consolidate what was achieved then. It has certainly made an effort to do so, but NATO expansion will hinder, not consolidate, it.

Q: If at one end of the spectrum you have world government, I assume that on the opposite end there is anarchy, and in between balance of power. In your remarks, you didn't mention collective security. Is there a difference between common security and collective security?

Mandelbaum: As Humpty Dumpty said, a word means what I choose it to mean; no more, no less. In The Dawn of Peace in Europe, I define collective security in such a way that it doesn't belong on that spectrum. By my definition it refers to two things: alliances, which are perfectly compatible with a balance of power and were at the core of the balance during the Cold War; and a regional or world police force, in which countries band together to deal with trouble spots. I devote a chapter to this subject in The Dawn of Peace in Europe.

Such a police force, I argue in that chapter, is undoubtedly desirable, but it is not feasible. The political will to pay a significant price to calm trouble spots around the globe is lacking in the United States and in other countries that might contribute to such a force.

Q: Administration officials are saying that NATO enlargement is a done deal, and I know you don't agree. They also say that attempts to block enlargement will destroy U.S. leadership in the world and particularly in Europe. Can you respond to both these points?

Mandelbaum: It is certainly not too late to stop NATO expansion unless the Constitution of the United States has been repealed. The Constitution provides that the Senate must ratify treaties by a two thirds majority.

As for the argument that terrible consequences would follow if expansion were stopped—an argument that will drown out all others if NATO does formally opt to invite new members this summer—this is an artifact of the Cold War. It has a certain resonance because it had a certain plausibility during the Cold War, which created a set of conditions that no longer exists.

Then, the United States was confronting a militant, militarized, hostile adversary around the world. It was reasonable to fear that pulling back in one area would invite aggression elsewhere. This was, after all, the reason the U.S. fought in Korea. The Korean Peninsula was of no strategic significance to the United States in 1950, but President Truman and his advisers believed that a failure to respond in Korea would produce trouble in Europe. This was also the reason for standing firm in West Berlin—an enclave that was militarily indefensible except by nuclear weapons. It was the reason for fighting—possibly even after 1968—in Vietnam.

Whatever one may think of the way this argument was applied during the Cold War, at least it had some plausibility. There was, after all, a Cold War. There was a Soviet Union. Now there is neither. So the question arises: What would be the consequences of stopping expansion now? What would be the consequences of postponing the decision, of taking another course? Is it really imaginable that the Soviet army would be in West Berlin the next day? There is no Soviet army; there is no divided Berlin. The world is now safe for the United States to admit and correct its mistakes in foreign policy. This is a mistake. We ought to admit it and then correct it.

Q: The thrust of your argument is that Russia is going to, with NATO expansion, set as its goal for the next century the overthrow of the post Cold War settlement. Assuming NATO enlargement stops short of drawing in the republics of the former Soviet Union, even in Russian eyes, won't the forces of economic growth and expansion be much more powerful forces in shaping Russia's long term views of its security and foreign policy goals?

Mandelbaum: I would hope that this would happen. But your premise is that NATO will not expand to the former Soviet republics. However, this administration has already effectively promised that expansion to some former Soviet republics—notably the Baltic states—will take place. Those former Soviet republics believe that they have been promised eventual NATO membership, in which case the danger of a nationalist backlash in Russia would be greater.

There are many powerful forces at work in Russia and on Russia, pushing Russia toward the kind of internal organization and international conduct that is desirable. NATO expansion to Central Europe would not necessarily and automatically override these forces. But expansion lends support to countervailing forces.

Q: If NATO expansion is such a bad idea, what is the right idea for including the Eastern and Western European security objectives, and what is the right future for NATO?

Mandelbaum: A number of second and third order issues in European security ought to be addressed. Further reductions in nuclear and non nuclear arms are desirable. Kaliningrad ought to be demilitarized. The independence of Belarus ought to be put on a formal basis. But the basic structure of the optimal European security order is, I believe, in place. What will improve it is something that by definition cannot be rushed: time. Over time the security order will become more normal, more deeply rooted and more legitimate.

As for the future of NATO, I believe it ought to be maintained. It is important to have an American commitment to Europe for modified versions of the original reasons: "To keep the Americans in, to keep the Russians out and to keep the Germans down." We need NATO to relieve the Germans of the need to conduct an independent security policy, something that the Germans themselves do not wish to do. In addition, NATO ought to be sustained because if things go wrong in Russia, as they might, the Atlantic alliance would form the basis of an opposing coalition, just as it did during the Cold War. But if things do go wrong in Russia, they won't go wrong in a hurry. The Russians won't be in a position to threaten anybody for years; there will be plenty of advance warning.

How many troops are now needed in Europe? That depends on the magnitude of the threat. Now it is not great. If all goes well, it will diminish further over time. In that case it would be possible to bring troop levels down further. At some point, under the best case scenario, no American troops would remain in Europe. In that case NATO would have reverted to what it was intended to be in the first place: a guarantee pact. What began simply as a treaty, only became an integrated military force on the European continent in response to the outbreak of the Korean War.

Moreover, I believe that there is enough political support in the United States to sustain the NATO we need. But I do not believe that there will be domestic political support to sustain an expanded NATO which is not needed.

Indeed, if there is a backlash in the United States against the costs of an expanded NATO—and those costs, in political and economic terms, are likely to be considerably higher than the administration is claiming—it will call into question not just simply NATO expansion but the American commitment to Europe itself.

Q: If Russia views NATO as an alliance that opposes it, would European security be vastly increased by allowing Russia also to join NATO? Why are we precluding Russia from joining NATO?

Mandelbaum: I'm lukewarm, at best, to the idea of including Russia in NATO, but the prospect now seems to me less implausible than it once did, for four reasons. First, it is a better idea than the one this administration is proposing to carry out. Second, it preserves one of the fundamental principles on which the Cold War was ended: inclusion. Third, it might give the United States some leverage on the issue that matters most to us: Russian nuclear weapons. If Russia were part of NATO, it would be easier to reduce and control weapons that can strike North America. Fourth, if NATO does expand to Central Europe, it will then face three choices: to stay where it is, thus establishing in perpetuity a "grey zone" between NATO and Russia, the countries of which—Ukraine and the three Baltic states—would thereby become vulnerable in a number of ways; to expand to include this grey zone, which the Russians have suggested they would regard as akin to an act of war; or to expand to include Russia itself. Under those circumstances, the last option might be the least worst one.

Q: If the administration were to turn around and all of the sudden say: "Fine, no more NATO expansion," or if the Madrid summit were to be canceled, what do we tell those countries that have now had false expectations of protection under the NATO umbrella?

Mandelbaum: The countries that are expecting admission aren't threatened. None has a border with Russia. So none would be in a worse position where its security is concerned.

I also think it's a myth that there is powerful sentiment in favor of joining NATO in the prospective new member states. This is true of Poland; none of the surveys of opinion that I have seen show very much public enthusiasm in the Czech Republic or in Hungary. If membership in a Western international organization is necessary for the well being of these countries, the proper organization for them to join is the European Union, not NATO.

Q: What combination of inside politics and appeal to American public opinion do you see as most likely to bring about a change in the administration's policy on NATO expansion, and in what time frame?

Mandelbaum: There are deep reservations about NATO expansion in the foreign policy community and among those few members of Congress who follow the issue closely. I also believe that, to the extent that this issue is publicly discussed, support drops away. This is one of those issues about which people, when they first hear about it, think, "Oh, that's a good idea. Let's take them in." Then, when the details and the contingencies and the dangers are probed, support plummets.

The further the debate goes, the more unease there's going to be, which is why I believe that the administration will increasingly fall back on the argument: "It's too late. Maybe we made a mistake, but you—the Congress and the public—have to back us up because if you don't the whole world will collapse." But this argument, too, is specious.