Ronald D. Asmus (1958-2011) -- A Tribute (5/3)     Print Email

Ron Asmus had already made his place in history – as a worthy successor to the great generation of “Atlanticists” who built and nurtured the transatlantic partnership – when he died last week at the tragically early age of 53. For more than two decades, he had been tirelessly energetic and remarkably effective in pushing his commitment to the emergence of a Europe whole and free. His influence was powerful in policy communities on both sides of the Atlantic: in Europe, he was an adviser and reassuring ally to leaders with aspirations to freedom; in the U.S., he constantly reminded Americans how much they needed that kind of Europe.

The prime focus of Asmus’ energy was NATO and his firm conviction that the foundation for a more secure and therefore better world lay in the enlargement and robustness of the alliance. As an influential Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, he was a main driver in the first post-cold war expansion of NATO, which brought in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999. (Writing the script for that Washington summit which marked the newcomers' arrival, he was summing up a process that he had started years before at the RAND Corporation with his prescient and then-controversial advocacy of NATO enlargement.) Still an influential activist in transatlantic politics after leaving government, he was a leader of the U.S. Committee on NATO, a bi-partisan, star-studded group that provided the momentum in Washington for the accession of seven more Central and East European countries to the alliance in 2004.

Later, as the Executive Director of German Marshall Fund’s office in Brussels, he put together major foreign policy conferences aimed at raising consciousness about the challenges on NATO’s expanding periphery and about what leaders in the EU and the U.S. need to do for each other in consolidating democracy and freedom. (His last published book sought to set the record straight about who was the aggressor and who was the victim in the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, “A Little War That Shook the World” was reviewed in European Affairs.)

The record of his achievements by itself cannot convey the personal qualities that made him such a crucial figure. As an Economist blogger writes, “he epitomized the generous-spirited and ambitious sentiments that won the cold war and rebuilt Europe on the rubble” of failed dictatorships.

The quality repeatedly cited by his friends on both sides of the Atlantic is his wisdom. It took many forms. His gifts included geo-strategic intelligence and single-minded pursuit of enduring values such as freedom for counties and their ability to collectively defend it. Alongside that asset, he brought to his life’s work a capacity for enduring friendships and a true believer’s ability to find the common ground among differing and even conflicting positions – in order to advance both sides towards his over-riding goal. That included the ability to bridge political party lines in Washington: at the U.S. Committee on NATO, he was a trusted and effective partner of the Republican and neo-con members in shaping a new role for NATO in underpinning Western security. That goal eluded many people in the 1990s but has since come to seem common sense. In that perspective, Asmus’ life harks back to the era of transatlantic vision and cooperation that produced and nurtured both NATO and the EU. His disappearance diminishes the sum of wisdom and humanity serving the common Atlantic cause. Especially in today’s murky geopolitical climate, his quality will be sorely missed.

--European Affairs