Absent at the creation

January 11, 1994|By William Safire

NOTHING is more contemptible," Joseph Alsop told me when I took up this line of work, "than a columnist without a Weltanschauung."

A coherent worldview is tough to come by these days because the main threat to freedom has shifted from militant communism to what John Leo has named "ethnomania," more tribalism than nationalism. It is exploding around Bosnia, the test NATO is failing, and is advancing in what used to be the communist bloc.

Does Bill Clinton have a worldview? He may be taking one from the former Time magazine columnist Strobe Talbott, translator of Khrushchev's memoirs, a longtime Friend of Bill gaining pre-eminence in foreign affairs.

Judging from the president's interviews (with little help from a muddy speech in Milwaukee read for him last week by Vice President Gore) the Clinton-Talbott Weltanschauung includes a view of a new Russia whose foreign policy can be shaped benignly by evidence of Western trust.

If we reassure Moscow, goes this view, that it has nothing to fear from the nearness of NATO, then Russia -- as it regains its strength -- will be less likely to feel the need to reassert control of its former empire. Contrariwise, if we were to seize this moment of Russian weakness to incorporate the newly freed Eastern European nations into the NATO defense, we would only encourage the old paranoia and play into the hands of resentful Russian revanchists.

This is the diplomental set that produced the "Partnership for Peace" scheme. To Warsaw, Prague and Budapest, eager to join the West's mutual protection alliance, it says: maybe, someday. Your security "affects" America's security, but it is not as vital an interest as Germany's or Turkey's. To Russian military leaders, Mr. Clinton's NATO waffle says: don't get nervous, we only said maybe to the buffer states, and made no promise about when someday would come.

I think this seeming compromise is self-deception. That's because I see Russia -- resource-rich, with an educated populace, no longer hamstrung by collectivist ideology -- returning to superpowerhood and, even if democratic, dominating its neighbors.

That's why I asked the president, in a recent Sanhedrin of savants, whether anybody in his administration was presenting the opposing view. Was anyone saying that if you do not bring Eastern Europe into NATO now, when Russia is weak, that you will never be able to bring it in when Russia is strong, and refuses to let it come in? Did anyone near him present the case that he might be making a great historic blunder?

"No one in the administration has," he admitted, which is dismaying; even Lyndon Johnson had a high-level dissenter. But Mr. Clinton said he has tried to understand the contrary position, "and I think my response would be, Bill, that that development would not occur overnight . . . we will have a couple of years to make the judgment you just outlined. And it won't be where we'll wake up one morning and it will be too late. I think there will be several mornings when we'll have the chance to take a different course."

That easy out was challenged by the columnist Richard Cohen: "But isn't it likely that, at that time, the same arguments will be raised that you will only encourage Russian paranoia, that you will push them over the edge, and you will be in the same box?"

"Whenever you make a new start," Mr. Clinton responded, ". . . you always have these judgment calls, and in the end only history can render a verdict. . . . Is it a risk? Of course it is, in the sense that any change you make like this is a risk. I believe the risk is smaller with the course we are taking than it would be if we tried to push to immediate membership . . ."

That's a false choice; a less-risky alternative would be earned membership with published criteria and a reasonable timetable.

The president, who sees himself as "a force for optimism," later sketched his vision of tomorrow's Russia: "I believe if they continue as a democratic, market-oriented, reformist, noninterventionist nation, they will become in a more traditional sense, then, a very great nation, not an empire . . . Their whole history and character and texture of Russia argues for that."

I think Russia's whole history and character and texture argue for the opposite.

That's what makes Weltanschauungs.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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