When Washington Assured Russia NATO Would Not Expand
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Andrew J. Bacevich

American historian specializing in international relations, security studies, American foreign policy, and American diplomatic and military history.

Statecraft is a complicated business, but the criteria by which we judge statesmen turn out to be less so. The central question reduces to whether those charged with formulating policy succeed in enhancing the power and security of the nation they lead.

Yet near-term advantage does not necessarily translate into long-term benefit. With the passage of time, a seemingly clever gambit can yield poisonous fruit. So it is with the way the George Herbert Walker Bush administration managed the end of the Cold War.

From a geopolitical perspective, the Cold War from the very outset had centered on the German question. Concluding that conflict necessarily required resolving Germany’s anomalous division into two halves, with West Germany a key member of NATO and East Germany occupying a similar status in the opposing Warsaw Pact. Of course, no such resolution could be possible unless the victors of World War II, primarily the United States and the Soviet Union, but also Great Britain and France, all concurred.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev provided the necessary catalyst to make agreement possible. Gorbachev’s bold effort to reform and thereby save the USSR, launched in the mid-1980s, converted the belt of Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe from a source of strategic depth to a collection of liabilities. When Gorbachev signaled that unlike his predecessors he had no intention of using force to maintain the Soviet Empire, it almost immediately disintegrated. With that, momentum for German reunification became all but irresistible.

By the end of 1989, the issue facing policymakers on both sides of the rapidly vanishing Iron Curtain was not whether reunification should occur, but where a reunited Germany would fit in a radically transformed political landscape. Already possessing the biggest economy in all of Europe, Germany seemed certain to become even more of a powerhouse once it had absorbed its formerly communist eastern precincts. No one—including German Chancellor Helmut Kohl—thought it a good idea to allow this new Germany to become a free-floater, situated in the center of Europe but untethered from the sort of restraints that the Cold War had imposed.

For Washington, London, and Paris, the solution was obvious: keep the Germans in a warm but firm embrace. Ensuring that a united Germany remained part of NATO would reduce the likelihood of it choosing at some future date to strike an independent course.

The challenge facing the Western allies was to persuade Gorbachev to see the wisdom of this proposition. After all, twice within memory, Germany had invaded Russia, inflicting almost unimaginable damage and suffering. That the Soviets might view with trepidation the prospect of a resurgent Germany remaining part of an explicitly anti-Soviet military alliance was not paranoia. It was prudence.

To make that prospect palatable, the Bush administration assured the Soviets that they had nothing to fear from a Western alliance that included a united Germany. NATO no longer viewed the USSR as an adversary. Apart from incorporating the territory of the former East Germany, the alliance was going to stay put. Washington was sensitive to and would respect Russia’s own security interests. So at least U.S. officials claimed.

Thanks to newly declassified documents published by the National Security Archive, we now have a clearer appreciation of just how explicit those assurances were. Among the documents is the transcript of an especially revealing conversation between Gorbachev and Secretary of State James Baker in Moscow on February 9, 1990.

The discussion touched on several topics, but centered on the German question. As Baker framed the issue, history was now handing the victorious allies an opportunity to correct the mistakes they had made in the wake of World War II. “We fought alongside with you; together we brought peace to Europe,” Baker told Gorbachev. “Regrettably, we then managed this peace poorly, which led to the Cold War,” he continued.

“We could not cooperate then,” he said. “Now, as rapid and fundamental changes are taking place in Europe, we have a propitious opportunity to cooperate in the interests of preserving the peace. I very much want you to know: neither the president nor I intend to extract any unilateral advantages from the processes that are taking place.”

Washington’s intentions were friendly. Gorbachev could absolutely count on the Bush administration to support his perestroika and glasnost initiatives. “In a word, we want your efforts to be successful,” Baker insisted. Indeed, he continued, “if somewhere in the course of events you feel that the United States is doing something undesirable to you, without hesitation call us and tell us about it.”

By extension, there was no need for Gorbachev to trouble himself about NATO. The alliance provided “the mechanism for securing the U.S. presence in Europe,” which, Baker implied, was good for everyone. Keeping G.I.s in Europe would prevent Germany from once more becoming a troublemaker, benefiting all parties to include the USSR.

“We understand,” Baker continued, “that not only for the Soviet Union but for other European countries as well it is important to have guarantees that if the United States keeps its presence in Germany within the framework of NATO, not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction [emphasis added].” Indeed, the proposed U.S. approach to negotiating terms for ending Germany’s division would “guarantee that Germany’s unification will not lead to NATO’s military organization spreading to the east.”

The secretary of state then posed a hypothetical. “Supposing unification takes place,” he asked Gorbachev, “what would you prefer: a united Germany outside of NATO, absolutely independent and without American troops; or a united Germany keeping its connections with NATO, but with the guarantee that NATO’s jurisprudence [jurisdiction?] or troops will not spread east of the present boundary?”

The issue was one he wished to discuss with his colleagues, Gorbachev replied, remarking only that “it goes without saying that a broadening of the NATO zone is not acceptable.”

To which Baker responded: “We agree with that.”

Later that very year German reunification became an accomplished fact. By the end of the following year, Gorbachev was out of a job and the Soviet Union had become defunct. Before another 12 months had passed, Baker’s boss lost his bid for a second term as Americans elected their first post-Cold War president. By this time, countries of the former Warsaw Pact were already clamoring to join NATO. The administration of Bill Clinton proved more than receptive to such appeals. As a consequence, the assurances given to Gorbachev were rendered inoperative.

NATO’s eastward march commenced, with the alliance eventually incorporating not only former Soviet satellites but even former Soviet republics. In effect, U.S. policymakers responded favorably to the aspirations of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians while disregarding Russian security interests, apparently assuming that Kremlin leaders had no recourse but to concede.

As long as Russia remained weak, that may well have been the case. As if to press home the point, Clinton’s successors even toyed with the idea of inviting Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO—more or less the equivalent of incorporating Cuba and Mexico into the Warsaw Pact back in the bad old days.

At that point, a Kremlin leader less trusting of the West than Gorbachev had been decided that enough was enough. Vladimir Putin, a very nasty piece of work but also arguably a Russian patriot, made it clear that NATO’s eastward expansion had ended. Putin’s 2008 armed intervention in Georgia, annexation of the Crimea in 2014, and multiple incursions into Ukraine beginning that same year elicited howls of protest from the Washington commentariat. Putin, they charged, was trampling on the “norms” of international conduct that were supposed to govern behavior in the post-Cold War world.

But Putin was not wrong to observe that the United States routinely exempted itself from any such norms when it perceived its own vital interests to be at stake. For roughly a quarter century, the United States had paid no price for picking Gorbachev’s pocket back in 1990. Indeed, nations once unhappily lodged within the Soviet sphere had thereby benefited greatly. NATO became a club open to everyone but Russia. In Washington’s favored formulation, Europe thereby became “whole and free.” Now, however, the bills incurred by this feckless policy are coming due and Europeans are looking to the United States to pay them.

Today’s NATO consists of 29 nations, nearly double what its membership was when Secretary Baker promised Gorbachev that the alliance would not advance a single inch eastward. When it comes to paying for the collective defense, few of those nations contribute their required share. In effect, America’s allies expect it to do the heavy lifting. The United States has thereby incurred burdensome obligations without accruing any obvious benefit. Once more, over 70 years after World War II, the United States is sending its troops to defend Europeans fully capable of defending themselves. Donald Trump has charged, not without cause, that our allies are playing us for suckers.

In today’s Washington, where Russophobia runs rampant, it has become fashionable to speak of a New Cold War, provoked by Putin’s aggressive actions. Yet if we are indeed embarking upon a new age of brinksmanship, we can trace its origins to 1990 when Putin was merely a disgruntled KGB colonel and we were playing the Soviets for suckers.

In his meeting with Gorbachev, Baker expressed regret about the victorious allies mismanaging the opportunity for peace created by the end of World War II. A similar judgment applies to the opportunity for peace created by the end of the Cold War. Upon reflection, the United States might have been better served had it honored its 1990 commitment to Gorbachev.

The American Conservative