His voice is a bit frail now, but the mind, even at age 94, is as sharp as ever. So when I reached George Kennan by phone to get his reaction to the Senate's ratification of NATO expansion, it was no surprise to find that the man who was the architect of America's successful containment of the Soviet Union and one of the great American statesmen of the 20th century was ready with an answer.
"I think it is the beginning of a new Cold War," said Kennan from his Princeton home. "I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else.
"This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. (NATO expansion) was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.
"What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was," added Kennan, who was present at the creation of NATO and whose anonymous 1947 article in the journal Foreign Affairs, signed "X," defined America's Cold War containment policy for 40 years.
"I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don't people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.
"And Russia's democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we've just signed up to defend from Russia," said Kennan, who joined the State Department in 1926 and was U.S. ambassador to Moscow in 1952.
"It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then (the NATO expanders) will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are _ but this is just wrong."
One only wonders what future historians will say. If we are lucky they will say that NATO expansion to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic simply didn't matter, because the vacuum it was supposed to fill had already been filled, only the Clinton team couldn't see it. They will say that the forces of globalization integrating Europe, coupled with the new arms control agreements, proved to be so powerful that Russia, despite NATO expansion, moved ahead with democratization and Westernization, and was gradually drawn into a loosely unified Europe.
If we are unlucky, they will say, as Kennan predicts, that NATO expansion set up a situation in which NATO now has to either expand all the way to Russia's border, triggering a new Cold War, or stop expanding after these three new countries and create a new dividing line through Europe.
But there is one thing future historians will surely remark upon, and that is the utter poverty of imagination that characterized U.S. foreign policy in the late 1990s. They will note that one of the seminal events of this century took place between 1989 and 1992 _ the collapse of the Soviet Empire, which had the capability, imperial intentions and ideology to truly threaten the entire free world. Thanks to Western resolve and the courage of Russian democrats, that Soviet Empire collapsed without a shot, spawning a democratic Russia, setting free the former Soviet republics and leading to unprecedented arms control agreements with the United States.
And what was America's response? It was to expand the NATO Cold War alliance against Russia and bring it closer to Russia's borders.
Yes, tell your children, and your children's children, that you lived in the age of Bill Clinton and William Cohen, the age of Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger, the age of Trent Lott and Joe Lieberman, and you too were present at the creation of the post-Cold War order, when these foreign policy Titans put their heads together and produced . . . a mouse.
We are in the age of midgets. The only good news is that we got here in one piece because there was another age _ one of great statesmen who had both imagination and courage.
As he said goodbye to me on the phone, Kennan added just one more thing: "This has been my life, and it pains me to see it so screwed up in the end."
New York Times News Service