Powell’s Legacy: Defender of European Alliances Who Missed Russia Opportunities, Analysts Say

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who died Monday at age 84, used his decades-long governmental and military career to defend traditional U.S. alliances with European nations, some analysts say.  

Family members say Powell died of COVID-19 complications. Doctors say he also suffered from multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that suppresses the body’s immune response, as well as Parkinson’s, a disease that, among other things, weakens the muscles. 

He first exerted influence over U.S. policy toward Europe as deputy national security advisor and then national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan from 1987 to 1989, and later as the top U.S. military officer under President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1993.  

“He was a key player in helping to shape U.S. policies in the 1980s and the early ’90s, during which we were able to put an end to the Cold War and erase some of the dividing lines across Europe,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and Russia, in an interview with VOA’s Russian Service. Vershbow, who later served as NATO deputy secretary general, is an analyst at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. 

Some of the policy-making in which Powell was involved in the 1980s and early ’90s included U.S. planning for the defense of U.S. allies in western Europe from a potential land assault by the Soviet Union.  

Charles Ries is a former U.S. ambassador to Greece and an analyst with RAND Corporation, a California-based policy research organization. Ries told VOA in a separate interview that he recalled Powell reflecting upon the U.S. plans for a possible Soviet tank invasion of the Fulda Gap a lowland corridor between then-Soviet-occupied East Germany and U.S.-allied and occupied West Germany. 

“What the planning gave Powell was quite a deep appreciation for what the alliance with the Europeans and NATO was all about,” said Ries, who also served under Powell as principal deputy assistant secretary of State for European Affairs from 2000 to 2004. Powell was appointed Secretary of State by President George W. Bush in 2001 and served in the post until 2005.

As the top U.S. diplomat, Powell saw U.S. relations with some European allies fray in 2003 when Bush planned and authorized a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq against the advice of leaders in Paris and Berlin. Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld further angered France and Germany in January 2003 by labeling them “old Europe” in contrast to what at the time were new eastern European NATO members from the former Soviet bloc, whom he said were on the side of the U.S.  

“Powell didn’t directly take on that quote in public, but he showed in the way that he engaged with, listened to, operated with [then-]French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin that he wasn’t going to let U.S.-European relations get ruined by this very important disagreement about what to do about [Iraq],” Ries said. 

Bush sought to heal the Iraq war dispute with some of his European allies at a U.S.-EU summit in Ireland in June 2004. “It was clear from the summit that the U.S. still had the respect and engagement of the Europeans, despite a very troubled first year of the war,” Ries said. “I think that is very much a tribute to Powell’s engagement and personal diplomacy,” he added.  

Vershbow, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2001-2005, said Powell faced another challenge as Secretary of State in trying to maintain the momentum of Russian overtures toward NATO in the years after the Soviet Union’s 1991 demise.  

Vladimir Putin, who began his first term as Russian president in May 2000, appeared to extend the overtures in June 2002 when he attended a Rome summit with Bush and other NATO leaders and agreed to the creation of a NATO-Russia Council as a forum for cooperation.  

But Vershbow said the positive signals from Putin’s first term were short-lived, as the Russian leader evolved into one of the U.S.’s chief international adversaries.  

“Secretary Powell, like I did as ambassador to Russia, shared the frustration that the trends in that period were heading in the wrong direction,” Vershbow said. Current U.S.-Russia tensions “reflect some of the missed opportunities which we were trying to seize back at the time when Secretary Powell was the U.S. chief diplomat,” he added.

Vershbow said Powell and the Bush administration “missed opportunities” to cooperate with Putin on missile defense, adapting the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, and preventing terrorism.  

This article originated in VOA’s Russian Service.  


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