Remembering Ron Asmus

By Robbin Laird

05/07/2011 – Late last month, my friend Ron Asmus lost his long battle with cancer.  I first met Ron when he was a young analyst of European affairs working on his rise in the world.  I had by then more than 10 years of work under my belt in the national security business, and he sought me out as a European and Russian analyst.  By then I had published many books on the Soviet Union and had generated some new work in the European field.  And with the Euromissile crisis upon us in the early 1980s, the two fields merged to some extent.

I had just set up a working group on German unification in 1985.  Not a popular idea at the time, and a group held in great skepticism by the then head of SOVA, one Robert Gates.  Ron felt the time was ripe for such work and such an effort.  And wished to contribute in any way he could.  Our friendship began where it ended – a mutual passion to shape outcomes that made sense for the U.S. and its allies in a world of change and lack of certainty that change would lead to progress.

Over the years our intellectual exchanges and friendship deepened.  Being a decade older than Ron, I was a sort of mentor to Ron at the beginning and an older confident throughout much of our relationship.  Ron would often share his frustrations with the lack of vision inside the beltway about what the Atlantic community could become.  Notably, we shared a life long passion for Europe to mature as a partner with the United States in re-shaping the global system.

His passion for such change translated itself into a broad commitment to the expansion of the NATO alliance and to Germany becoming a normal power.  Although I shared the later goal, I did not share his vision that good would come simply by multiplying the membership of NATO. The result would be the creation of too large a collection of players who really could never share an ability to act in common.

A common passion; a divergent path.  But that did not divide Ron from me; we engaged in an ongoing dialogue about what could happen next, and how in some way divergent states in the West could work together when possible towards the common end of human progress.  He was a Liberal Democratic; I was just a liberal.

Ron and I shared another history; we both had cancer.  My cancer came when my wife was pregnant with our second child and will always remember the “joy” of calling her in Paris and telling her that I was doing surgery and treatments rather than seeing our baby born.

Ron was sympathetic to my struggle for my life.  Unfortunately, he too would face a struggle for his life from the dreaded disease.  He made significant progress in battling his disease, but it came back and won the war, if the not the battle.  Ron and his family showed extraordinary courage in engaging in a valiant effort to live in the face of the forces of this world that seek your death.

I remember him with respect and pride.  Even though he was ten years younger than I. his death is a reminder that our generation of dedicated Atlanticists is diminished.

Although he lived in Brussels and I was often in Paris, we talked more than we met in Europe.  My last real exchange with Ron was upon the occasion of a big snowstorm in Washington, which presented challenges to get to his book launch in the City.  I took him in our 4-wheel drive vehicle to the book launch, and interviewed him for the Second Line of Defense web site (http://www.sldinfo.com/?p=5308).

I will start to close with my last question in this interview with Ron.

Robbin Laird: My final question is what is the longer-term significance of this kind of snapshot that you’ve taken of a moment in European security history? What do you think the longer-term consequences might be of the inability to really deal with this issue in a way that fully reinforces western values?

Ronald Asmus:  2010 is the 20th anniversary of the signing of Charter of Paris, and Charter of Paris was signed of course shortly after the Iron Curtain had come down, when there was a sense of a new unified democratic Europe, cooperative security. The Charter of Paris is supposed to establish a new set of rules of the game for how European security was going to function. 20 years later, there’s no longer any agreement on them.

Russia believes that we used those rules to facilitate a geopolitical moves against it. It no longer, I would argue, accepts the fundamental premises of the Charter of Paris, even though it’s signed up to them a dozen if not dozens of times over the last 20 years, and the key question now is: Do we fight for those values?

Because the Charter of Paris said “No spheres of influence, the right of countries to choose their own alliances, equal security for all countries big and small,” and we wrote them because we had concluded that the 20th Century had taught us that spheres of influence were a bag thing. They led to conflict and not to security. We wanted to move beyond them.

But it’s now all coming back. So do we acquiesce to Russian demands to legitimate a sphere of influence? Finlandization has come back as a phrase and a conflict that you hear whispered in quarters across Europe, or do we fight for or do we hold firm in somewhat up come up with a policy that tries to get the Russians to go back to those principles?

And I think that is the key question because today there is no more agreement on the rules of the game in European security. We talk the talk of cooperative security, but we’re sliding back into geopolitical competition. Institutions like NATO and EU are weak. The consensus that drove EU and NATO enlargement in the outreach to Russia is fragmenting. The OSCE is paralyzed because of the lack of agreement on what it’s all about.

So we’ve all moved on, and we’re all focused on the problems beyond Europe – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, the Middle East. But I think you’re starting to see the first cracks and fissures in the foundation of European security and stability, and part of my book is a plea to focus on those and to come up with the policies to repair them before they get worse and before Europe really faces a much more serious risk of instability.

Ron is gone; but the challenges to which he dedicated his life are not.  These challenges remain; but his passion for conceptually thinking through what others saw as Tweeter policy moments will surely be missed.  I know I will.  Ron, when will we have that conversation about the impact of the Libyan crisis?

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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