An Escape From an Uncertain Future Into the Past


Warsaw in winter is raw, dingy, and unattractive. Like an aging movie star caught unawares -- without makeup, the expert lighting, the airbrush -- winter shows the city not as it would wish to be, but as it is.

Slush and traffic clog the streets. A hard gray rime coats automobiles and streetcars. Peddlers hawking everything from dowdy-looking brassieres to pirated cassette tapes line the sidewalks. In city parks, the trees are gnarled skeletons, the snow dirty and stained with urine. Frowzy-looking buildings of recent vintage, parodies of the architectural schlock of the '60s and '70s, besmirch the city center. Dignified older structures quietly crumble -- tourist attractions and downtown Warsaw's impeccably maintained churches excepted.

History reinforces the overall sense of gloom. Throughout Warsaw, the scars of a tawdry and barbarous century are much in evidence. Innumerable small plaques commemorate incidents or heroes of the valiant uprising of 1944, crushed by the Nazis. Although few obvious signs of communism remain, the massive, bullying examples of Stalinist architecture that deface the city's commercial precincts are inescapable reminders of that era.

Today, Warsaw, like all of Poland -- indeed, like all of Central Europe -- is embarked upon a monumental effort to escape its past. Glitzy symbols of that effort assault the eye. Billboards everywhere tout Western goods: Parisian perfumes, German cars and movies direct from Hollywood. Fast-food franchises such as McDonald's, Burger King and Pizza Hut have established thriving lodgments. Despite such evidence of commercial interest, one senses that the operative dynamic is less one of shrewd capitalists penetrating a promising new market than of Poles grasping frantically at the emblems of consumer culture.

Yet the delights of an occasional Big Mac notwithstanding, Western-style affluence in Poland at this stage reflects aspirations rather than everyday reality. Although a local General Motors dealer offers new Buicks and Pontiacs for sale, the cars in evidence on Warsaw's crowded streets are battered Volkswagens, Opels and Peugeots, along with the puny Fiat knock-off manufactured in Poland itself. Apartment blocks are drab and seedy. Likewise, the goods available in the average store and affordable to the average Pole -- clothing, food, housewares -- are uniformly poor in quality.

Prospects for economic development seem linked inextricably to questions of security, something that modern Poland has known only sporadically.

Indeed, the tragedy of modern Poland lies in the frequency with which it has found itself enmeshed in the rivalry of nations vastly more powerful than itself. Poland's allocated role has been that of pawn: never acquiring the stature to be valued for its own sake, but moderately useful if traded or sacrificed.

Perhaps understandably, Poles today are preoccupied with the fear that the past may repeat itself yet again: that a Poland left dangling between East and West risks once again being devoured or overrun.

At a recent gathering of Central European security experts convened on the outskirts of Warsaw, this sense of vulnerability was acute. As evidenced by the concerns of these experts -- drawn from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine as well as Poland -- the threat posed by Russia remains ominous, palpable and immediate.

The bloodletting in Chechnya, in this view, serves as the latest reminder of Moscow's insatiable imperial ambitions and penchant for brutality. The battering administered to Grozny is proof positive that the very idea of a benign, democratic Russia is a preposterous illusion.

Thus, to Poles and other Central Europeans, the willingness of some in the West -- and especially of the United States -- to consign Chechnya to the status of "internal" problem is not only baffling but worrisome in the extreme. How, they wonder, can we be so blind?

If a Russia once again on the march is the problem, then the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the solution.

Indeed, for Poland and its neighbors, joining NATO has become an obsession. NATO is the means by which nations such as Poland will anchor themselves in the West, ending once and for all the dilemma of being at the mercy of more powerful antagonists. Above all, NATO signifies permanent alignment with the United States. Thus, gaining admission to the alliance would provide at long last the assurance of security, thereby permitting post-Communist Poland's pursuit of material well-being and its embrace of Western culture to proceed without interruption.

There is in all of this an element of touching naivete. At a time when -- as evidenced principally by Bosnia -- NATO stands in unprecedented disarray, Poland and the other nations of Central Europe are clamoring to join a partnership that in their eyes continues to epitomize strength, solidarity, and clarity of purpose.

As NATO's leading European members -- most notably the Germans -- gut their armed forces, Central Europeans are eager to entrust their well-being to an organization that they view as the pre-eminent symbol of military superiority. At a time when increasing numbers of Americans, if not exactly in the throes of neo-isolationism, evince skepticism about shouldering new obligations, Poland and its neighbors want nothing so much as a promise that U.S. soldiers will fight and die on their behalf. Most of all, at a time when the Chechen debacle has exposed both the true extent of Russia's political weakness and the rot infecting the Russian military, Poland wants the West to man the bastions against a resurgent threat from the East.

Those whose business it is to worry about the security of Poland feign indifference to such contradictions. More remarkably, many those who concern themselves with the security of the United States readily play along. Is it a reflection of our own Cold War hangover or some vague sense of uneasiness at Poland's

shabby treatment in the past that leads us to do so?

At any rate, leading members of the American foreign policy establishment insist upon the necessity of enlarging NATO to include Central Europe, warning of dire consequences should the United States fail to act.

These advocates of NATO expansion frame their argument in the imposing language of geopolitics and grand strategy: The failure to bring Central Europe into NATO, intoned Henry Kissinger in a recent op-ed article, will condemn the alliance to "progressive irrelevance"; the United States will dwindle to little more than an "island off the shores of Eurasia"; European unity will "founder on the fear of German domination"; faced with the divided Europe, Russia will "find the temptation to fill the vacuum irresistible." Thus, we are told, reluctance to press for the eastward expansion of NATO (and hence the reach of American power) not only endangers nations such as Poland but also threatens to transform Western Europe, the most affluent and reliably democratic region in the world, into a vortex of instability and potential conflict, with profoundly dangerous consequences for the United States itself.

Our own reading of history fuels such nightmares, investing them with what credibility they possess. Just as Poles, still suffering from the debilitating aftereffects of communism, have convinced themselves that entrance into a moribund military alliance will at long last extricate their nation from a disastrous century, so too many Americans have embraced the conceit that Europe today remains incapable -- indeed is permanently incapable -- of managing its affairs without detailed U.S. supervision. Yet this very certainty that we have grasped the essential lessons of the past should serve as a warning.

History, as T. S. Eliot reminds us, "has many cunning passages, contrived corridors," it "deceives with whispering ambitions, guides us by vanities." Whether impelled by vanity or by fear, the headlong clamor to expand NATO might well point down one such deceptive passageway. The interpretation of history offered by the likes of Mr. Kissinger is not necessarily false. But the end of the Cold War should at least permit Americans to ask whether it is still relevant.

A. J. Bacevich is executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

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