OPENING NATO'S DOOR

How the Alliance Remade Itself for a New Era

By Ronald D. Asmus

Columbia University Press. 372 pp. $35 This is a book that invites us to contemplate the pace of history. It describes events from the recent past, mostly 1993 to 1997, yet its actors and its episodes already evoke nostalgia. It is about developments that seemed vitally important when they were happening, and today look like artifacts from another era.

Not so long ago, the argument over whether to enlarge NATO by inviting former communist countries to join the alliance provoked heated debate. The heat source was Russia. Many, probably most, of America's foreign policy experts thought expanding NATO would alienate the Russians without really enhancing anyone's security. George F. Kennan, the distinguished diplomat and scholar of Russian history, articulated this view in an article written in 1997. Inviting Eastern European countries into NATO would be "the greatest mistake of Western policy in the entire post-cold-war era," Kennan wrote. He predicted that enlarging the alliance would undermine pro-Western reformers in Moscow and strengthen nationalists who would push Russia away from the United States and Western Europe.

Ronald Asmus disagreed. He was an expert, too, a geostrategist working for the Rand Corp. think tank, and an early proponent of enlarging NATO. In 1993, together with two Rand colleagues, Asmus wrote an article for Foreign Affairs, the organ of the Council on Foreign Relations, arguing for a larger NATO that would include Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, to make it relevant to the post-Cold War world while stabilizing Central and Eastern Europe. Addressing the criticism that would come from Kennan and many others, Asmus and his colleagues argued that a reconstituted, broadened NATO that supported democracy and stability in Eastern Europe was in Russia's interests, and not a threat to Moscow.

Asmus and his colleagues showed some concern for how Russia would react to a larger NATO. Other proponents of expanding the alliance showed none. House Republicans led by Newt Gingrich made NATO expansion one plank in the platform they called the "Contract With America," on which many Republicans ran in 1994. Gingrich and his colleagues described enlarging NATO as a way to discourage Russian imperial ambitions, feeding the anxieties in Moscow that Kennan and many others sought to assuage.

President Clinton set himself the tasks of enlarging NATO and simultaneously persuading the Russians that NATO expansion was not directed against them and would not damage their interests. Asmus's account, like Strobe Talbott's recent memoir, "The Russia Hand," makes the case that Clinton was not simply calculating the benefits in terms of Polish American votes, but sincerely accepted the arguments of East European leaders and his own advisers who perceived a critical opportunity to stabilize Europe by enlarging the alliance. The fact remains that Clinton decided he would pursue NATO enlargement in the early summer of 1994, when Republicans in Congress were actively exploiting the issue.

After Clinton decided to support a larger NATO, Asmus was invited to join the State Department as deputy assistant secretary for European affairs, a job that gave him a ringside seat for the NATO-enlargement diplomacy. This revealing book draws on his personal experience, and on the access he was granted to the entire State Department archive. Like Talbott's readable volume, published earlier this year, Asmus's book is perhaps most useful for the large quantity of diplomatic cables and "memcons," or memoranda of conversations, it puts on the record. In effect, Asmus shares his ringside seat with his readers, which can be most informative, and great fun.

Asmus does his darnedest to inject drama and peril into his readable and detailed narrative, but he fails. He devotes a chapter to "The Political Battle" in the Senate for ratification of NATO enlargement, as though the outcome were in doubt. But this was a battle that never happened. The Senate has remained overwhelmingly in favor of enlargement from at least 1994 onward. Its final vote to ratify Czech, Hungarian and Polish membership was 80 to 19.

The larger reason why the story ultimately lacks drama is Sept. 11, 2001. Asmus appears to have begun work before the terrorist attacks on the United States, presumably thinking that his book would tell a story of great contemporary relevance when it appeared. But Sept. 11 created a new world, and Asmus's story now feels historical, not contemporary. By casting Russia's lot with the West after Sept. 11, Vladimir Putin has so altered the diplomatic environment that it is already difficult to take seriously the idea that Russian neo-fascists or former communists might have reacted to NATO enlargement by trying to revive a Russian empire in Eastern Europe.

In a way, this is unfair. What might have been really might have been -- Putin was not inevitable, and the generally calm transition of Russia and the Soviet satellites from communism to quasi-democracy and not-quite-capitalism was not inevitable, either. But they happened, so the tense arguments over NATO have lost their salience. In mid-November the alliance invited another seven former communist members to join, and in most of the world's news media, it was a one-day story.