Geoffrey Wheatcroft: Spheres of influence are a fact of life

Nato expansion was a classic example of an answer without a question
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The Independent Online

Readers sometimes complain that newspapers don't publish more cheerful stories. Eager to oblige, I would point out that, in a week of mostly grim tidings, from economic meltdown to terrorist carnage, there's one bright spot. Ahead of the Nato summit, the US government has said that it will no longer demand "fast-track" membership for Georgia and Ukraine. "I am satisfied common sense prevailed," Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian President, said on Thursday, even if the effect of his words was spoiled slightly by the fact he was in Cuba. The irony passed him by that, if Moscow understandably sees the former Soviet republics as its "near abroad", then that is also how Washington sees Central America and the Caribbean.

During the crisis in August, David Cameron won the prize for the least commonsensical words uttered by any politician when he visited Tbilisi and said Georgian membership of Nato should be accelerated even faster. But Senator John McCain, with his "We are all Georgians", dead-heated for runner-up alongside President George Bush, who told us the age of spheres of influence and satellites was over. There spoke another man with an irony deficit: most of Bush's presidency has been devoted to a doomed and disastrous attempt to create a US sphere of influence in the Middle East centred on an Iraqi client state. But in any case, spheres of influence and satellites have always been facts of international life, as they will remain, and a good thing too. Without going back 500 years to the days when England was generally regarded as satellite of the Holy Roman Empire (and Scotland of France), the peace of Europe has usually been maintained when smaller states showed restraint in the face of larger neighbours, even if that meant accepting some degree of subservience.

Whenever Bush mentions any historical matter he reveals his ignorance. By way of sneering at the United Nations, he sneers at the memory of the League of Nations, evidently unaware that its ineffectuality was largely explained by America's decision not to join the League, although it was the brainchild of Bush's predecessor Woodrow Wilson. And he now says the 1945 Yalta agreement was "one of the greatest wrongs of history".

The consequences of that agreement, in effect partitioning Europe and recognising that Poland in particular, on whose behalf we originally went to war, would become a Russian satellite, were very unpleasant for the Poles and others. But Yalta was itself a consequence, of the way the Western allies had left Russia to do most of the fighting against the Third Reich. Well over four-fifths of German deaths in action were on the eastern front and, by the time the Anglo-American armies landed in Normandy, much of eastern Europe was already in the hands of the Red Army, which was not going to retire to within Russia's pre-war borders. And although Winston Churchill is the tutelary hero of the Bush administration and the neoconservatives, it was he who, months before Yalta, cut a cynical deal with Stalin giving Russia "90 per cent predominance in Romania" and the British the same in Greece (a bargain Stalin kept).

Bitter as it was for the Poles, Romanians and Hungarians, that post-war partition was followed by the longest period of peace Europe had known for centuries. Then the Cold War ended, in victory for the West, or at least in the implosion of the Soviet Union and its bloc. Now that Nato had achieved complete success in its original objective, nobody stopped to ask what its further purpose was. Nor did anyone ask why Nato had to be expanded. In truth, this was yet another illustration of the baleful effect of American domestic lobbies, when Bill Clinton promised a Polish-American audience in Chicago that Poland could join. And yet as HDS Greenway of The Boston Globe, one of the longest-serving and wisest of US commentators, has said, Nato expansion was a classic example of an answer without a question.

An initial expansion led to more, as not only the old Warsaw Pact countries but former components of the Soviet Union were offered Nato membership. One doesn't need to feel any great warmth towards Medvedev, still less Vladimir Putin, to see why they viewed this with resentment and apprehension. As even some Americans have wondered out loud, how would Washington like it if Russia proposed a military alliance to Mexico, or Cuba? Just that happened 46 years ago, when Kennedy was entitled to tell Khrushchev to remove his missiles from Cuba, but at any rate Medvedev hasn't been in Havana offering them more rockets.

In August, the thoroughly dubious Mikhail Saakashvili acted not just dishonestly but most rashly. As the BBC and The New York Times have now shown, the Georgian president provoked Moscow by attacking civilians, evidently supposing that after the inevitable Russian response the Bush administration would give him military as well as verbal support. Mercifully, Georgia was not a Nato member, and so American, British and French troops did not have to fight for South Ossetia as the Nato treaty would have required. It would be far better if the Georgians and others on Russia's borders were told to follow the Finnish example. "Finlandisation" used to be a Cold War warriors' fighting word, intending pusillanimous truckling to Moscow. But as William Pfaff, that other sage veteran, has pointed out, this was the opposite of the actual experience over many decades.

In remarkably unpropitious circumstances, having fought Russia twice between 1939 and 1944 (once bravely, once foolishly), Finland managed through patient conciliation to remain free and independent.

When Francois Fillon, the French prime minister, said sensibly that Georgian and Ukrainian membership of Nato was "not the right response to the balance of power in Europe and between Europe and Russia", the lamentable Saakashvili damned him for talking "clearly about spheres of influence ... what we are talking about is appeasement". If it was Georgia today, then tomorrow it might be Finland, which "was also in Moscow's sphere of influence".

Indeed it was, as the Finns recognised. On one occasion when Russia was making bullying demands on Helsinki, Stalin ended with the almost apologetic words, "I am not responsible for geography." The old monster had a gift of phrase; and that one conveyed a truth which could usefully be acknowledged by the Georgians, by the next president of the US, and even by our own Leader of the Opposition.