Democracy advocates on both sides of the Atlantic are mourning the loss of Ron Asmus (above, left, with Richard Holbrooke), head of the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Office, who died on April 30, 2011, after a long battle with cancer.
As deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs in Bill Clinton’s administration from 1997-2000, he played a pivotal role in consolidating democracy n the former Soviet bloc by extending NATO’s security umbrella to Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. More recently, he was a forceful advocate for transatlantic cooperation in promoting democracy, especially in the Arab world.
“Ron will be missed for many things – the passion he brought to the world of diplomacy, his commitment to the ideals of freedom and democracy, and for his wise counsel to decision-makers in Europe and in America,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today.
“Ron worked tirelessly to ensure that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were able to decide their own futures,” she said. “In Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, Ron is remembered as the man who made possible the historic NATO Summit of 1999, when those three nations joined the Alliance. They were the first – but not the last – to benefit from Ron’s vision of what NATO and the transatlantic community could be.”
The transatlantic alliance of democracies was one of the most significant features of the second half of the 20th century, he argued, but it would need to take a different shape in the 21st century. The U.S.’s unilateral moment is over, and it will likely be a “more cautious and cooperative power”, while the “dream of a global Kantian peace led by the European Union has faded as sober Europeans witness the specters of nationalism and armed geopolitics rising along their borders.”
He was one of those relatively rare creatures who traversed the terrains of government and civil society, policy-making and advocacy, to make the politically cogent and intellectually compelling case for integrating security and democracy in a de facto rebuttal of the purported realist vs. idealist trade-off between interests and values.
“He was a discreet, wise and sympathetic presence in the region, in Washington DC, and in West European capitals for two decades,” The Economist notes, explaining to jittery ex-communist politicians that volume and frequency of public utterances does not correlate with effectiveness, to American officials and politicians that the goal of “Europe whole and free” still required patient and detailed work, and to West European leaders that a security grey zone in the east would be as bad for them as it would be for those consigned to it.
He joined with Larry Diamond, Michael McFaul and Mark Leonard in calling for a transatlantic strategy to promote democracy in the Broader Middle East some five years before it became not only a feasible option but the strategic imperative it is today.
At the GMF, Ron collaborated with Freedom House’s Penn Kemble and the National Endowment for Democracy to organize a major Transatlantic Democracy Network Conference in Brussels on 25-26 May 2005, that convened leading democracy activists, including dissidents from the Arab world and the former Soviet bloc, together with senior EU and US policy-makers, and which launched Democracy Digest.
“A hedgehog in a world of foxes,” writes Mark Leonard. “Ron doggedly stuck to a few core beliefs rather than following the latest fashions. In an era where Europe looms ever smaller in the American strategic imagination, Ron kept faith in the West and fought to keep the Atlantic community relevant.”
Ron recently cautioned that the democratic West’s “moral and strategic vision of the 1990s had exhausted itself and come to a grinding halt after the shock of the Russo-Georgian war and the Ukrainian election:
It is time for the West to openly debate what its strategy is – and what it is not. Two decades ago, the West rejected “spheres of influence”, because Europe’s bloody history taught us that compelling nations to align themselves with others against their will was wrong and a recipe for future conflict. ….If we still believe that today, we need an updated moral and strategic vision for such countries, and to back it up with a real strategy.
He was fervently committed to the vision of a “Europe whole and free,” writes Robert Kagan:
Ron became a great defender of the people of Georgia, brutally and deliberately invaded by the Soviet Union’s successor. While both Americans and Europeans, embarrassed by their inaction in the face of that aggression, turned to blaming the victim, Ron, already ill, devoted himself to keeping the record straight. His book, “A Little War That Shook the World,” stands as a model of scholarship informed by passion and empathy for a small country that became the casualty of the ambition of one great power and the callous timidity of the democracies.
“In the aftermath of the 2008 Russian-Georgia War, when so many commentators were blaming the victim,” RFE/RL’s James Kirchik writes, ‘Ron consistently framed the conflict in terms of the bigger picture: that it was Georgian independence, and its Westward orientation, which angered Moscow and set the groundwork for war.
But he was by no means uncritical admirer of Mikhail Saakashvili and called on the Georgian leader to curb his erratic behavior and reverse the country’s democratic regression.
“The advice of people like me is: To whatever degree possible, forget about the Russians,” he wrote. “Accelerate reform and regain the moral high ground you had, and lost.”
Ron regretted the mistaken conflation of democracy promotion with George W Bush’s Freedom Agenda and the Iraq war by so many of his fellow liberals which led to the downgrading of democracy as a foreign policy priority.
“Democrats today have a problem with democracy,” he wrote. “We have lost our voice on the issue of promoting democracy abroad — which means that what was once a core Democratic foreign policy idea is being ceded to the GOP.”
“Democracy promotion is often messy and hard,” he argued. “You need to work with authoritarian governments even as you try to encourage change in their societies; aid sent to democrats abroad can be wasted; elections don’t always produce the results we’d like. Still, the long-term benefits — as we see in Europe today — are worth it.
Leading officials in the Obama administration would no doubt insist that his recommendation for Democrats to “develop a more realistic and credible democracy-promotion strategy, not abandon the goal,” has been taken on board.