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What Caused the Post–Cold War Stalemate over NATO

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As the invasion of Ukraine continues to unfold, those seeking to understand how such a tragedy could come to pass would do well to pick up M.E. Sarotte’s new book Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post–Cold War Stalemate. Sarotte, the Kravis Professor of Historical Studies at Johns Hopkins, builds her book on over two decades of research, with over two hundred pages of endnotes detailing declassified notes and internal documents from the pertinent American, German, and Russian participants. Concerned chiefly with the decade 1989–99, Sarotte spends much of her time studiously recreating hundreds of conversations and events that took place between top officials in the US, Moscow, Brussels, Berlin, Warsaw, and elsewhere. This and the rapidly changing cast of characters makes briefly summarizing the book difficult.

However, as the arc of the narrative is concerned with detailing how the potential thaw in relations between Moscow and Washington in the early 1990s quickly froze over, a few general things can be said about the deterioration of the relationship as documented by Sarotte.

First, from the very beginning, the US always rejected on principle any de facto limitation on North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion by any external actor (73). Second, Mikhail Gorbachev and then Boris Yeltsin were both, for their own reasons, more amenable to NATO expansion than their security and bureaucratic establishments (i.e., the deep state of which Vladimir Putin was a part). Third, Washington fought the creation of a new and inclusive pan-European security architecture, determined to keep NATO at the center of European security arrangements (209). Fourth, the considerations propelling NATO expansion were multiple: the near-immediate demands of Warsaw and Budapest for membership, domestic political pressure from first-generation Poles and Hungarians to rapidly accede to these requests, the profits to be made by US arms manufacturers in new central and eastern European markets, and a belief that Russia would fail to consolidate as a democracy—which, per the then dominant “democratic peace theory,” should had to be taken as an inherent signal of hostility (199, 284).

That being said, NATO expansion wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Apart from Soviet and then Russian opposition to the project, Sarotte points out that several prominent US policy makers and intellectuals had opposed expansion. George H.W. Bush’s national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, and Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, William Perry, for example, were highly skeptical of expansion. And George Kennan, architect of the Cold War US policy of containment, and Zbigniew Brezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, published pieces in prominent outlets advising against expansion as well (275).

This tension was immediate. Surprised by the rapidity of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and understandably preoccupied with “loose nukes,” there was disagreement at the highest level regarding the desirability or feasibility of NATO enlargement. Much of the push for enlargement under Bush emanated from the Pentagon, then under the leadership of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (108). But Cheney was largely cut out of the negotiations over German unification and the ending of the Cold War, which were placed largely in the hands of Scowcroft and James Baker, Bush’s secretary of state (65). While they all firmly believed that potential NATO expansion eastward was a question only for Washington, their primary concern was securing the peaceful reunification of Germany and the end of the Cold War—not NATO expansion.

There is no reason, however, to conclude that had Bush fended off Clinton in 1992, NATO would not have eventually expanded. Securing the right of a unified Germany to join NATO had been a central focus of US negotiations with Gorbachev (75). And as early as 1991, Bush could privately wonder at the prospect of Ukraine’s eventual NATO membership (127).

Of course, Bush failed to fend off the upstart Arkansas governor. The change in administrations could hardly have come at a worse time. Tensions were already on the rise over wars in Bosnia and Chechnya. Now Clinton, with no foreign policy experience himself, and his much younger and inexperienced staff, would be responsible for shaping the emerging new world order. They would quickly be met by a new Russian counterpart in the foreign ministry—Yevgeny Primakov. And whereas Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Primakov’s predecessor, Andrei Kozyrev, had all shown themselves to be more or less pliable to Washington’s demands, Primakov’s resistance was the first real sign that all would not go so smoothly as the increasingly ardent NATO expansionists had hoped. For he brought with him a rebuttal to increasing talk of NATO expansion: then secretary of state James Baker’s “promise” that NATO would not expand “one inch to the east” (250).

Clinton and his team had never been made aware of such a concession and were initially caught off guard. A committee was quickly put together by Clinton’s secretary of state, Warren Christopher, to investigate the Russian claims. After reviewing all the available notes and interviewing the requisite participants, the conclusion was clear and admitted by all, Primakov included: while the spirit of cooperation over the reunification of Germany and the ending of the Cold War was clear, no document guaranteed that NATO would not take advantage of Soviet/Russian weakness to expand the military alliance eastward (253). Baker had initially pitched the idea to Gorbachev as a hypothetical—would he, Gorbachev, allow Germany to reunite if NATO didn’t shift one inch eastward (55)? And the West German foreign minister at the time, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, had given several prominent public addresses in which he reiterated the claim, but behind closed doors, Bush had immediately instructed Baker not to repeat the phrase again, and he pointedly did not (66).

With no legal impediment in his way, Clinton was ready to move, convinced by his inner circle that the Russians could be “bought off” (219). Though this would turn out to be true (a healthy financial package and open doors to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] and G7 were dangled) note should have been taken that Primakov stated bluntly that whatever else happened, the “real red line” was “if the infrastructure of NATO moves toward Russia.” That would be “unacceptable” (260). Despite Primakov’s hard-line rhetoric, and Yeltsin’s own efforts to reassert Russian influence over Ukraine, the realities of the unipolar moment were stark: Washington could do what it wanted.

In short, Sarotte writes, had “Russia had been in a position to obstruct the enlargement of NATO in 1996, it would have done so” (241).

But nothing could stand in the way of expansion—not the warnings of French president Jacques Chirac, who in 1996 cautioned Clinton’s national security advisor, Tony Lake, “We have humiliated them too much … the situation in Russia is very dangerous … one day there will be dangerous nationalist backlash” (260) nor Russian democracy, as Clinton proceeded to help Yeltsin steal the 1996 election in order to safeguard NATO expansion (256). Here Sarotte deserves particular credit, for she does not flinch in describing US interference at the highest levels, including the economic and strategic coordination between current and former Clinton advisors Dick Morris and Richard Dresner. 

Though Gorbachev, then Yeltsin, and then Putin approached, respectively, the Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations about Russia joining NATO, the response, or rather tactic, was the same: maintain the illusion that Russia might one day be let in, or at least never overtly say it wasn’t a possibility, while at the same time admitting countries such as Poland, whose membership all but guaranteed Russia’s permanent exclusion, since decisions on alliance admittance must be unanimous (259). In the meantime, the façade of the Partnership for Peace would be maintained and a NATO-Russia joint council created—both talking shops intended to “give Moscow a voice but not a veto in European security discussions.”

Though Washington recognized that immediately moving to add the Baltics or Ukraine wasn’t possible, it was agreed by 1996 that the groundwork should be laid, especially in the former (258). Because in the end, “Washington refused to rule out any country” for NATO membership (261).

Except, of course, Russia.

While in Sarotte’s final analysis it was not that NATO expanded but how it expanded that turned the peace cold, it is hard to see how this basic strategic environment—the continued existence and enlargement of NATO up to but not including Russia—was going to produce a stable post–Cold War security environment in central and eastern Europe.

As the situation in Ukraine unfolds, we are ultimately left wondering what might have been.

Author:

Joseph Solis-Mullen

A graduate of Spring Arbor University and the University of Illinois, Joseph Solis-Mullen is a political scientist and graduate student in the economics department at the University of Missouri. An independent researcher and journalist, his work can be found at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, Eurasian Review, Libertarian Institute, Journal of the American Revolution, Antiwar.com, and the Journal of Libertarian Studies. You can contact him through his website http://www.jsmwritings.com or find him on Twitter @solis_mullen.

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