This past Monday, I attended a conference commemorating the 20th anniversary of the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. There was some interesting moments – particularly for historians – as major figures from that time remembered the days leading up to the dissolution, and also on the related departure of tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers from then Czechoslovakia. But I was particularly struck by the somewhat unusual decision to set aside part of the opening session – which included remote greetings from Mikhail Gorbachev and Václav Havel – for a tribute. The subject of the tribute was Ronald Asmus, a former U.S. diplomat, who passed away in April after a battle with leukemia. Ron, whom I met a few years ago when he had moved over to the German Marshall Fund, is credited with being a tireless activist in the Clinton administration of the 1990s for NATO’s expansion to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, including the Baltic states.
That expansion may today appear to have been a done deal, but it wasn’t. As Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy director of defense in the Bush administration (and famed neo-con), recounted at the conference, Ron was instrumental in building bi-partisan support for NATO expansion, no easy task in those days. According to Wolfowitz, Ron and Eric Edelman, a defense department official in the early 90s, also helped convince top Clinton officials, such as Strobe Talbott, who had originally opposed expansion, to shift 180 degrees and push for it. Indeed in Ron’s book on those years, Opening NATO’s Door, he remembered that few took him seriously at first: “On more than one occasion, I was taken aside to suggest that I tone down my views lest I damage my career prospects.” Luckily, he didn’t, and millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe benefitted from that passion to extend one of the West’s clubs east, a major step on the way toward accession into the EU.
It was clear from the tribute that Ron’s counterparts also held him in high esteem because of his character, which Wolfowitz called “wonderful”. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and Czech Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra, also spoke warmly of Ron, with Vondra telling a story about having Ron up at his cottage.
I met Ron at a conference on NATO expansion in Prague back in 2002, soon after he had published his book. After we sat down for an interview, I remember being struck on how incredibly articulate he was, pushing his points in convincing, digestible ways, fit for non-experts and perfect for the media. I occasionally contacted him over the years for comments, and he always tried to help out. I was hoping to do a podcast with him on his latest book, on the Georgia-Russia war, but unfortunately we ran out of time.
Today (29 June), at 4pm EDT, the German Marshall Fund of the United States will hold a Washington, DC, service in remembrance and celebration of Ron. The video feed of the service will be available on http://www.gmfus.org.