Just over a decade after the first round of NATO expansion there is still no consensus on whether expanding the Alliance was a wise decision. With U.S. relations with Russia becoming increasingly troubled, The American Interest asked former Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs John Kornblum and one of the most outspoken opponents of the decision at the time, Michael Mandelbaum, to exchange views about the record of the last decade, and to look ahead into the next. Their correspondence follows.
I first took an active interest in NATO’s post-Cold War future during the spring and summer of 1990. I was at that time the Deputy U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO, charged with working out the communiqués for a series of high-level Alliance gatherings that would culminate with the offer, made at the London Summit of July 5–6, 1990, “to build new partnerships with all the nations of Europe.” Over the next few years, I was the U.S. Representative in Vienna to what was then called the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), a period that coincided with the Helsinki Summit and the admission of all former Soviet Republics to the CSCE. When I arrived in Washington in the spring of 1994 to become Senior Deputy Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s European Bureau, NATO heads of government had just stated at their January meeting that, “We expect and would welcome NATO expansion that would reach to democratic states to our East, as part of an evolutionary process, taking into account political and security developments in the whole of Europe.”
Sentences like this are what give diplomats a bad name. This was about as tortured a piece of bureaucratese as one could imagine. What it meant to say was that, in response to ministrations from former Warsaw Pact countries, NATO was willing to enlarge, but had little idea as to how and under what conditions it might do so. Official Washington and the U.S. foreign policy community were equally torn: Some saw enlargement as an historic necessity, while others feared it would lead to renewed confrontation with the Russians and undermine NATO’s residual but not trivial role as a viable defensive military alliance. One of my first jobs in this new role was to become the State Department’s lead manager of this debate.
Did I have a point of view? Definitely. At the CSCE I had struggled with the many conflicts that had arisen following the collapse of the Soviet Union, most specifically the wars of Yugoslav succession. Watching these new nations battle for sovereignty, I became convinced that the best way to pursue the “evolutionary process” in Europe was to extend the reach of NATO, and later the European Union, to those countries ready and willing to accept democratic standards of behavior. I was then a fan-in-waiting of the views that you, Michael, later so eloquently argued in The Ideas that Conquered the World (2002). I was convinced that the best way to help shape Russia’s future in a positive direction would be to build a community of democracies in the former Soviet space. I believed Russia would find it difficult to adjust to its post-Soviet status, and that Moscow’s temptation to pressure smaller countries on its periphery, especially Poland and the Baltic states, would be great. Contradictory as it might sound, it seemed to me that Russia itself would be much better off if the West could help it resist old temptations to meddle in its neighbors’ affairs. Of course the Russians would probably not share our logic at the beginning, but careful diplomacy should be able to balance the many competing interests involved.
Ten years later, the phrase “careful diplomacy” is much on my mind. The Clinton Administration generally succeeded at laying the foundations for a positive, if still difficult, relationship between Russia and an enlarged NATO. Even so, long-term cooperation between the West and Russia was always going to be difficult, whether NATO expanded or not, and it must always occupy the center stage of American concerns. Unfortunately, the George W. Bush Administration took the opposite tack. It weakened the NATO alliance framework while hoping to pursue a bilateral entente with Russia. It seemed not to understand that our relationship with Russia could never be divorced from our interests in Europe. Current U.S.-Russia tensions certainly reflect the overall tone of world affairs in the wake of the Bush Administration’s reaction to 9/11, but these tensions also reflect the dangerous lack of intense dialogue with Russia and the Europeans that must take place if Russia is to see the West as a partner rather than a competitor.
If we need proof of the overall success of NATO enlargement today, ten years after it began, we need only look at the crisis that flared up in the winter of 2002 over the war in Iraq. France, Germany and Russia split from the United States. If the Central European countries had not at that time been members of NATO, they would have been battered mercilessly by conflicting demands on their loyalty from Russia, Germany, Washington and elsewhere, and near chaos would have erupted. As it was, the European Union almost cracked under the controversy, with old resentments across the Continent still smoldering just under the surface. It was the protection provided these countries by the enlarged Transatlantic NATO framework that helped head off an even more debilitating confrontation within Europe.
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When the idea of NATO expansion was first raised in 1994, I was favorably disposed to it, on the assumption that it was acceptable to the Russians. When this turned out not to be the case, and upon more closely considering the costs and benefits of expanding the Alliance eastward, I changed my mind. I concluded that it would be a mistake, and I remain convinced today, more than a decade later, that I and others who opposed NATO expansion were correct. I continue to believe that expansion has offered no substantial benefits and has carried with it one very large disadvantage: the alienation of newly non-communist, non-imperial Russia. The poor and sometimes hostile relationship between Russia and the West dates from the decision, against Russia’s objections, to move NATO eastward while making it clear that Russia itself had no chance of joining.
Of course, not everything that has gone wrong in Russia and between Russia and the NATO countries is due to NATO expansion. But on the basis of my observations and conversations, and of the arguments in Professor J.L. Black’s careful study Russia Faces NATO Expansion (1999), I am convinced that expansion has had a powerful and, from the American point of view, decidedly negative effect on Russian attitudes toward NATO countries in general and the United States in particular. It has done a great deal to make the views of those who follow and influence foreign policy in Russia reflexively anti-American. Those views, and that reflex, have imposed real costs on American foreign policy—for example, in the (at best) diffident Russian cooperation in dealing with Iran.
John, you impute the deterioration of relations with Russia to the policies of the current Bush Administration. While its diplomacy has not always been deft (which administration’s has been?), and while I have no doubt that American foreign policy would be more skillfully conducted were you still in the State Department, I believe that the seeds of the present difficulties with Russia were planted in the 1990s. The causes, NATO expansion prominent among them, are large and deeply rooted enough to lie beyond the power of skillful diplomacy alone to remove.
As I said, during the 1990s I, as well as many others, feared what did in fact come to pass: that NATO expansion would markedly worsen relations with a country with which the best possible relationship was and remains crucial for promoting American global interests.
At the same time, I foresaw no gains from expansion. Its champions have often claimed that the offers of NATO membership to the formerly communist countries of central and eastern Europe, and ultimately to some former republics of the Soviet Union itself, would reward them for embarking on the path of democracy. This seemed an odd rationale for a military alliance that had during the course of its history included countries that were not democratically governed. At other times, proponents of expansion have asserted that NATO membership would help secure democracy in the new member countries. But stable democracy was not in doubt in the countries included in the first round of new membership, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. By this criterion, NATO should have expeditiously welcomed the most important former communist country where democracy was and still is very much in doubt, namely Russia.
As evidence for the success of NATO expansion you cite the support of new central European members for America’s Iraq policy. Welcome as their political support and very modest military contributions have been, I am not persuaded that either would have been withheld in the absence of formal NATO membership, or that events in Iraq would have unfolded any differently if they had been. In any case, whatever benefit the Iraq effort may have drawn from such support, it is in my judgment decisively outweighed by the damage NATO expansion has inflicted on U.S. relations with Russia and therefore on American foreign policy as a whole.
The upheavals of the past ten years have demonstrated how difficult it has been for the West to understand how best to adapt to the radical changes of the post-Cold War world. But even taking account of the many differences between the last two U.S. Administrations and the differences across the Atlantic and within Europe itself, certain familiar themes have often arisen in the debate.
First, of course, is the question of security, which 9/11 brought back to center stage. The rise of China added more interest. New concerns about security range over the entire horizon, but in no case has post-9/11 insecurity raised doubts about stability in central Europe. Russia has been relevant not as an outright opponent, but as an often difficult partner. There have been heated political debates on things such as gas pipelines and Kosovo. But even after the unfortunate American decision to station radars in central Europe, not once has there been a threat of really dangerous political confrontation or military conflict between the United States, Europe and Russia.
Second is the issue of “Europe.” Whether or not NATO and the EU had expanded, the future political and economic shape of the Continent would have been the subject of intense debate. This should not surprise us. The 1,500 miles between Berlin and Moscow have been an arena of conflict for centuries, and during this extended period Europe has swung back and forth on the Russia question. At times, Russia has been held at arm’s length; at other times, the West has sought integration with it. Yet one truth holds constant: Whenever the West compromises its own standards in an effort to compensate for Russian peculiarities, it loses. The heated debate in the 1980s over stationing Pershing missiles in response to the Russian SS-20s is a good example. An effort to “understand” Russian security needs even spread deeply in the Democratic Party. I am convinced that if we had given in, the Berlin Wall would still be standing today.
The best strategy has always been to present the Russians with positive options based on the solidarity of Western values. This ultimately was the strategy that helped end the Cold War, and NATO and EU membership have now given east and central European countries the advantages of democracy and security, which makes it easier for the West to build more positive ties to Russia.
This was exactly the result that supporters of both an enlarged NATO and an enlarged EU had hoped and worked for. The basic argument was that, by removing chronic instability in central Europe, the West could solidify the community of Western values and thus remove the temptation from both Russia and Germany to strike deals at the expense of their neighbors in between. This stability would ultimately serve both the West and Russia.
To succeed, however, this exercise had to be a joint NATO/EU effort. NATO could not provide the social and economic framework essential for the establishment of democracy in former communist states, but EU states had neither the structures nor the political strength to provide the security guarantees necessary for the EU’s slow strategy of democratization to have time to work. Also, the EU lacks the decisive factor for the maintenance of democracy throughout Europe, the trust and credibility provided by the presence of the United States. Understanding that political and economic cooperation were as important as military security, the Clinton Administration proposed a three-pillar strategy—NATO plus the EU plus a strengthened OSCE with an expanded role in the field of economic cooperation, to make sure that social and economic issues were also treated at a high level. Recent debates over supplies of natural gas are a good example of the need for a joint NATO/EU/OSCE framework.
Ten years on, Russia is again adopting a confrontational stance. Given the upheavals of the past twenty years, it’s not surprising that Russia tends to fall back on past behavior when facing an uncertain future. But one has to adopt an unrealistically sanguine view of Russian political culture to believe that things would have gone better had the West not enlarged. When conflicts with Russia arise now, they are debated within a strong framework in which the central and east European countries are shielded from not only Russian but also German mischief. As questions over Gerhard Schröder’s role in the Baltic pipeline demonstrate, Germans are still not free from the temptation to look over the heads of their central European neighbors in favor of Moscow.
An enlarged NATO has also not made cooperation with Russia on issues outside of central Europe more difficult, either. Moscow has even given tacit support to the West’s stabilizing role in Afghanistan and in the Middle East. Despite the chest-beating and garish displays of bravado, the overall record has not been all that bad. There are hot spots in Russia’s near abroad and Kosovo remains problematic. But given the many difficulties Russia and the West face together, Moscow has at least been a predictable partner. At times, such as in Korea, it has even supported U.S. efforts. The same holds true for Iran, at least to some degree.
The Kosovo situation has become a test case of our ability to work with Russia, but that issue has little to do with NATO expansion. I was Richard Holbrooke’s successor as presidential Special Envoy to the Balkans, and even back then I believed that we could never convince Russia to support Kosovo’s independence outright, just as we could not convince it to agree to the 1999 air campaign against Serbia. No one can predict whether Serbia could ever reach an understanding with the Kosovars. But Western and especially American disengagement from the western Balkans after 2003 made impossible the kind of intensive diplomacy, especially with Russia, that should have preceded the Ahtisaari mission. And stationing the anti-missile radars in central Europe reduced Russian incentives for cooperation even further.
Russia’s troublemaking in its near abroad has posed the most problems. Here, we need perspective and patience. But the issue is not whether Russia would react negatively to pro-Western stirrings in Ukraine, always known in Moscow as “Little Russia.” The issue is not whether Russia will be an antagonist in these regions. The question is whether NATO and EU enlargement have made it more antagonistic and aggressive than it would otherwise have been. I doubt it. Putin has taken a traditional, politically popular tack by returning to traditional Russian behavior and using Russian nationalism to paper over internal weaknesses and the disarray of the 1990s. That’s not an unknown tactic in the West, either.
The Bush Administration has made mistakes of both omission and commission. It has neglected Russia severely, leading Putin to believe that the United States didn’t really care how he behaved. It has also failed to consult closely with its Western allies on how best to deal with Russia. Again, the decision to station anti-missile radars in Poland and the Czech Republic could not have been more provocative to both Russia and the other allies. In that regard, it is surprising and a little strange that this proposal seems not to have received the full airing in the U.S. government before it was announced. But despite the crackling rhetoric there is no real crisis, and little evidence that Russia really wants to return to the old days of confrontation.
The problem with arguments of the sort you have put forward, Michael, is that they overlook the dramatically changed economic, technological and cultural dynamic that has emerged in the ten years since NATO was first enlarged. The environment could not be more different. Russia is now resource rich. Good for Russia, but it must sell its products somewhere, and it must attract Western capital to help with the gargantuan task of further developing its resources. Even the few threats Putin has thrown westward have already sent the Europeans looking for new sources of energy. Consider the new natural gas terminal being built in Hamburg, for example.
The Soviet Union tried to live in a bubble and failed. Today, in the world of YouTube and the blogosphere, Russia cannot prosper if it does not integrate into the global community. Traditional government-to-government structures are giving way to a more decentralized world order. This fact in itself affects Russian interests more fundamentally than whether NATO expanded or not.
As for Professor Black’s book, it presents a comprehensive picture of developments in Russia that have not been fully reported before. But are they so relevant? Which Russia are we talking about? Which world are we talking about? Were these developments created by NATO expansion? Highly doubtful. Most Russians seem to like Putin’s nationalism. But does this mean that they would give up travel to the West and Western luxuries—or even the hope of them—because they are mad about NATO expansion?
In reality, though it ages me to admit it, the controversies over the enlargement of both NATO and the EU are yesterday’s issues. They were important in defining the map of the very early 21st century. This map unifies the European members of NATO and the EU with the United States in a democratic space stretching from the Finnish border in the east to the Aleutian Islands in the west. This space is politically relevant because, with a few exceptions, it encompasses the countries traditionally believed to have been part of the Enlightenment. For all of their differences, they share a certain vision of mankind, constitutional government and the rule of law—a vision that, as Richard Pipes so brilliantly pointed out long ago, has never really been established in Russia. There are still some countries left outside the NATO/EU democratic space that I believe should be admitted. Turkey and Ukraine are the two most important examples. Reaching agreement on Turkish membership in the EU and both NATO and EU membership for Ukraine is likely to take some time. But the principle has now been established, and its further application poses no threat to Russia.
The expansion of NATO and of the EU did not create today’s map; it only ratified a tectonic shift that occurred the moment the Berlin Wall began to fall. The artificial division of the West ended and John F. Kennedy’s two-pillared Atlantic world disappeared by dint of Western success. Tidying up this new geography has required not only enlarging the two basic institutions of the West; it has also required a complex integrative political and economic process that is likely to continue for two or more decades. This change is irreversible, and sooner or later Russia will understand that its own interests are best served by integrating with the modern structures of the West, not by seeking to create a competing order.
This issue was always at the heart of the debate over NATO enlargement, at least as I saw it. Was a bigger NATO (and EU) essential for security reasons, or because it consolidated a Western vision of mankind? How can we best convince Russia of the validity of this vision: By bowing to its paranoia and playing balance-of-power games with it? Or by firmly demonstrating our commitment to our principles by inviting into our institutions those peoples who suffered under both the Nazis and the Russians, and who until 1990 were the losers of the 20th century?
I believe in Western society. I believe that balance-of-power thinking has been long overtaken by the kind of thinking suited to a newly globalizing world order. Including our compatriots to the east has helped anchor them in this new and open global world order, and it has spared them from being once again thought of as pawns in old-fashioned power politics. To do so was good policy for strategic reasons, and it was also the right thing to do.
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You say that “one has to adopt an unrealistically sanguine view of Russian political culture to believe that things would have gone better had the West not enlarged [NATO].” I agree that Western policy toward Russia since 1991 has made relatively little difference in that country’s internal political evolution. Centuries of absolutist czarist rule and seven decades of communism left Russia without the social, economic and cultural basis for genuine democracy. As I argue in my recent book, Democracy’s Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World’s Most Popular Form of Government, democracy involves both popular sovereignty (free elections) and liberty (religious and economic as well as political). Liberty, in turn, requires institutions, skills, habits and values, and these take time to develop, time that Russia has not yet had. In Democracy’s Good Name I’m optimistic about the prospects for Russian democracy—in two or three decades. (The great obstacle to democratic government there, in my judgment, is not Russia’s undemocratic history but rather its large reserves of energy. But that’s another story.)
If, however, you are saying that Russian foreign policy would have proceeded more or less as it has even if NATO had not expanded as it did, I disagree. The West violated what the Russians had been led to believe about NATO’s future, and contradicted the pattern we had wisely established at the end of the Cold War of making the arrangements for European security in a cooperative fashion. In doing so we alienated both the Russian political elite and the Russian public. We made it plain that Russia would have no say in the Alliance’s future, and we told the Russians that they could not join what we intended to be Europe’s principal security organization. The reflexive anti-Americanism that characterizes much of Russia’s foreign policy today stems at least in part from NATO expansion—just as those of us who opposed expansion ten years ago feared and said it would.
You note that relations between Russia and the West have not been as bad as they might have been, and represent a substantial improvement over Cold War relations between the Soviet Union and the West. That is happily true: The collapse of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union have made a huge difference for the better. But while our dealings with the Russians on Iran, on the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, on safeguarding nuclear materials under the Nunn-Lugar program, and on Russian policy toward the former Soviet republics might not have been easy even if NATO had never expanded, they would have been considerably less difficult than has in fact been the case.
You also say that “sooner or later Russia will understand that its own interests are best served by integrating with the modern structures of the West.” This is, of course, where Russia’s genuine interests lie. Many Russians understand this, and I hope that many more will come to do so. But we are the ones who told them that they wouldn’t be able to integrate with the principal Western security structure. We are the ones who drew a new line of division in Europe and consigned Russia to the other side of it, thereby reintroducing after the end of the Cold War the very balance-of-power games to which you refer. Nor was this necessary to consolidate democracy and stability in the countries that lie between Russia and Germany. The proper vehicle for that goal, as the opponents of NATO expansion maintained a decade ago, was and remains the European Union.
Finally, you say that “the enlargement of both NATO and the EU are yesterday’s issues.” Putting aside the question of Turkish entry into the EU, I hope you’re right about NATO. But let me remind you that the issue of Ukrainian and Georgian membership in the Alliance remains high on NATO’s agenda. With both countries the West faces the potential for an unhappy choice between excluding them—thereby leaving them on what virtually all Georgians and a great many Ukrainians consider the wrong side of the European divide—or including them at the risk of triggering a political explosion (and perhaps worse) with Russia.
Moreover, even if NATO’s geographic reach ceases to be a matter of immediate concern (as distinct from a source of ongoing resentment in Russia, as I expect it will be for some time), it is still worth revisiting the original decision to expand, if only for the purpose of making better decisions of this kind in the future. To draw a parallel, the decision to intervene militarily in Iraq in 2003 cannot be undone, but few people would deem that decision undeserving of serious retrospective scrutiny.
Of course, Iraq looms far larger in our national debate today than NATO expansion—and rightly so, since it has cost the United States far more in blood and treasure. Still, there are two points of comparison worth noting.
First, however disastrously inept the implementation of the Iraq policy may have been, there are serious arguments in favor of that policy. I see no comparably serious arguments for expanding NATO. Ten years on I can still find no benefit to the decision. You do not share this view, I know, and you also argue that the costs have been manageably, perhaps even vanishingly, small. Certainly they have not been unbearable—so far. But this brings me to a second point of comparison.
During the Vietnam War John Kenneth Galbraith referred, caustically but also hopefully, to the day when Vietnam would return to “the obscurity it so richly deserves.” Just how much attention that country deserves is a matter of opinion, but it is certainly far less important to us today than it was four decades ago. Someday this will also be true of Iraq, which eventually will loom no larger in our foreign policy than Vietnam does now. But Russia, for all the obvious reasons, is destined to remain important to the United States and Europe as far into the future as the eye can see. I very much hope I am wrong, but I fear that the mistaken decision to expand NATO will weigh down our relationship with Europe’s largest country far into the future; that is, that NATO expansion will prove to be, in a perverse way, a gift that keeps on giving.