Did the West bungle its relations with Russia after the Cold War? Was there a better way? This debate, now a quarter of a century old, will doubtless be with us for decades. The sides don’t seem to change much, nor do their arguments. Those who opposed the enlargement of NATO in the 1990s treat the war in Ukraine as proof that they were right all along. It was madness, they say, to challenge a core Russian security interest. Enlargement’s supporters, of course, claim vindication just as vehemently. For them, Putin’s aggression shows the wisdom of bringing new members into the alliance. Including Ukraine, they suggest, might have avoided the current crisis altogether.
While they differ in their policy prescriptions, these two sides converge on one point: their view of Russia. Great powers don’t change much, they tell us. Habits of domination are not easily unlearned. So expect a future full of potential trouble, and think carefully in advance about how to avoid it.
Centuries of conflict confirm such maxims. (That’s why realists call themselves realists.) Yet there is no way to understand the choices made by Western governments in the aftermath of the Cold War without remembering that events had just taught them a very different—and utterly astonishing—lesson. Change does happen—world-historic change, even, and without a lot of warning. In the early 1990s the great eminences who said a decisive end to the East-West standoff was impossible, and kept insisting they were right even as it occurred, looked completely foolish. The challenge for policymakers was no longer how to keep the same policy in place decade after decade. It was how to cope with a fundamental, mind-boggling transformation of global politics. Since 1914 scholars and practitioners alike had focused on the problem of stability. Suddenly their challenge was change.
Washington’s response showed all the usual strengths and weaknesses of American foreign policy. There were the grand aspirations and the insufficient resources, the hesitation alternating with exuberance, the skillful coalition-building and the readiness to ignore those who were not easily convinced. There was the ability to achieve impressive results while other governments floundered, and an equal tendency to overdo things. All these features of American policy—and especially the last of them—deserve careful re-thinking.
For me, this retrospective has a personal dimension. In the early 1990s I (like many others) thought a radically reshaped relationship with Russia was the big prize made possible by the Cold War’s end. Supporting Russia’s democratic evolution seemed the obvious top priority of American policy. Not everyone agreed. When I was nominated to be Madeleine Albright’s adviser on relations with the former Soviet states, a long list of organizations urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to vote no. These groups were right that I considered the ideas about enlarging NATO that had emerged in the late Bush 41 and early Clinton Administrations to have been poorly thought out. By the time I joined the government a better and fuller strategy had been developed that put a strong emphasis on Russian-American cooperation. Today I consider enlargement a major American policy achievement. Even so, it was an achievement marred by mistakes and by costs that were higher than expected.
What we think of how America handled the Cold War’s aftermath is no ordinary case of poking at history’s embers. Our conclustions shape future choices as well. Critics hope that second thoughts about past policy, especially about enlarging NATO, will help us stop making the same mistakes. Supporters of enlargement are equally determined to keep doubt from deflecting a successful strategy. Both camps are right about the relevance of the past. It’s not often that today’s decisions, and tomorrow’s, depend so much on how we view decisions made ten and twenty years ago. We have much to learn by arguing about them.
What the Numbers Say
A serious discussion of the Cold War’s aftermath has to start by discarding the incomplete (not to say fantasized) version of history that many critics and supporters offer us. Critics sometimes describe NATO enlargement as a policy of mindless military encirclement of Russia. Defenders say all they wanted was to create a community of nations knitted together by shared democratic values. Neither of these views captures what has happened in Europe in the past 25 years.
Take the claims made by Moscow and those who echo its case. For them, the original sin of Western policy was to move NATO east. Enlargement was about encroachment, about—in Putin’s words—“a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard.” Since NATO has now extended formal security guarantees to a dozen new members of the former Soviet bloc (including three from the former USSR itself), Putin is entitled to ask what it means. At a minimum Western policy has given him a real rhetorical opportunity. How, he and Russian spokesmen always ask, would America feel if Russia started building bases in Mexico?
What this picture leaves out, of course, is fundamental: the historic and ongoing demilitarization of the European continent since the Cold War. Political scientists, remember, classify the region as a “zone of peace.”1 Putin may speak of an “arms race” in Europe, but after 1990 the United States and its allies steadily—and massively—reduced their ability to conduct military operations there. For decades, there were hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers in more than 800 garrisons across Western Europe. Today, there are 28,000 (mostly in just seven permanent garrisons, not one of them on the territory of new NATO members). EUCOM, the U.S. military’s European Command, has 75 percent fewer aircraft than in 1990; many of them do little more than move cargo to support U.S. military operations in the Middle East, or refuel other cargo planes. As for tanks, the last U.S. heavy armor units pulled out of Europe in 2013.
The changing deployments of the U.S. Navy have been especially telling. Putin has repeatedly claimed that in seizing Crimea he kept the United States from taking over Russia’s historic naval base there. Washington, he warned, might have moved its own forces forward so as to change the balance of power in the Black Sea. To this, one has to ask: Which forces, forward from where, and to advance what American goal? Today the United States no longer even bothers to keep a carrier group in the Mediterranean, as it did for half a century. What would make a Russian military planner think it had any interest in the Black Sea?
The same pattern of radical downsizing holds for strategic nuclear forces. Under the cumulative impact of three post-Cold War arms-reduction treaties—signed in 1993, 2002, and 2009—the American nuclear arsenal (both operational weapons and those in storage) has been cut by three-fourths. Britain and France have sharply reduced their nuclear forces too. As for Germany, which has no nuclear weapons, the “Two Plus Four” agreement of 1990 capped its army at 370,00 troops; Germany’s own decisions since then have cut the force to less than half that. Last year German units took part in a NATO exercise using broomsticks in place of heavy machine guns.
In the world of national security, it is facts like these—bombs, budgets, bases, broomsticks—that tell us what is really happening. They leave little doubt that, for better and worse, and now for decades, America’s military machine has seen very little work to be done in either Europe or Russia.
What Were We Thinking?
If Putin and his spokesmen conjure a more militarized Europe than the rest of us have seen over the past 25 years, the most enthusiastic boosters of U.S. policy do the exact opposite. For them, the West’s great post-Cold War project was simply to create the largest possible bloc of European states committed to principles like democracy and the rule of law—a visionary peace-building enterprise that threatened no one. If Russian leaders did feel threatened, their reasons surely said more about their own aims, anxieties, and motivations than about NATO’s.
The deepest aim of NATO enlargement may well have been to consolidate the victory of Western ideas. Still, that’s only half the story. For the United States, the victory of its ideas has always been hard to separate from the spread of its influence and power. If post-Cold War Europe was some sort of laboratory experiment in how to secure peace by nurturing democratic values, American policymakers came to believe that the results of the experiment depended primarily on them. They did not take the emergence or the longevity of a liberal order for granted. Not even the best ideas take hold automatically.
Today, it’s easy to mock the 1990s as a “holiday” from geopolitics. That wasn’t how it felt at the time. To the contrary, many threats to European stability seemed very real. Germany’s possible return to an assertive international role was one danger. The spread of violent ethnic conflict in the Balkans and elsewhere in Eastern Europe was another. Then there was the fear that some hyper-nationalist “man on horseback” would take over in Moscow if the Russian economy collapsed. The list went on.
To each of these problems, Washington’s solution was essentially the same—active involvement in everything. Only American power—and when necessary, American military power—was expected to stabilize a region otherwise at risk of disorder. Again and again, as the Cold War unwound and for years thereafter, this conviction undergirded U.S. choices. George H.W. Bush insisted on keeping a reunified Germany inside NATO because doing so would give the United States more ways to limit German ambition. Bill Clinton launched bombing campaigns against Serbian forces in Bosnia and later against Serbia itself to check mass killing, but he and his advisers were pained by the killing for a long time before they did anything about it. What finally spurred them to act was a determination to prove NATO’s relevance as a force for order in post-Communist Europe. Jacques Chirac’s famous taunt—that “the position of leader of the Free World is vacant”—was just as important as Srebrenica.
Even what came to be called “cooperative threat reduction” rested on an assumption that American activism was the key to international problem solving. Immediately after the Soviet collapse, Senators Sam Nunn and Dick Lugar proposed to allocate billions of dollars to improve security inside Russia’s military-industrial complex. American policymakers thought that Russians—impoverished, disorganized, and disoriented—would not be able to solve the danger of “loose nukes” unless the United States provided the resources and direction.
All of these initiatives had a generous and idealistic dimension. American policymakers sought a hopeful world order. But they also sought to preserve and strengthen America’s place in the post-Cold War balance of power. The two goals seemed inseparable. Washington saw no other way to make its hopeful world order a reality. NATO enlargement was part and parcel of this approach. It was inspired by—and aimed to inspire—“shared values.” It was also designed to advance American influence. In this incarnation of American “higher realism”, doing good and doing well meant the same thing.
Why Not Scrap NATO and Start Over?
What the United States tried to do in Europe after the Cold War was not mindless triumphalism. It was a strategy—not formulated all at once or particularly well articulated, but readily decipherable, especially in retrospect. American policymakers aspired to build a political order that would be resistant to new shocks and tensions, both between states and within them. At the same time, U.S. policy had to avoid creating such shocks and tensions, or new lines of division that could give rise to them.
This was an ambitious and complicated approach. Success required careful handling and considerable luck. Critics may say that the strategy was contradictory, dangerous, and certain to fail. But before we conclude that Washington made the wrong choice, we should consider the alternatives. Other strategies had risks, costs, and underlying confusions too—and it is not hard to see why they were rejected.
One suggestion, made at the time and off and on ever since, was to embrace a wholly different approach to European security, a new “architecture” free of invidious distinctions between Cold War winners and losers. In such a new framework, both blocs—NATO in the West and the Warsaw Pact in the East—would have disappeared, replaced by a kind of United Nations of Europe. A more robust version of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) might have played this role. (The OSCE, created in the mid-1990s, was itself a more robust version of the old Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which emerged from the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.) Whatever the institutional details, the failure to set up a new working mechanism for handling problems of European security is treated by some as a gross lapse of diplomatic imagination.2
Of all the ideas that have been proposed for a better way to run the post-Cold War world, this one is, to my mind, the least convincing. Western leaders would have had to have an exceptionally light-hearted view of their responsibilities to cast NATO aside, even if they thought Europe faced no major security challenges in the short term. As we have seen, this was not how American policymakers saw the period ahead. They expected it to be full of challenges, and considered NATO the essential tool for dealing with them.
The decision to preserve NATO as the central instrument of American strategy in Europe is hard to fault. If political scientists and real-world practitioners agree on anything, it is that creating institutions to deal with major security problems is incalculably hard. While members of NATO pondered the future of the alliance in the early 1990s, events confirmed this lesson on an almost daily basis. The United Nations—not to mention the newer and more promising European Union—showed itself unable to handle the chaos of Yugoslavia’s breakup. Against the backdrop of war and genocide, any proposal to abandon an alliance of forty years’ standing and to rely instead on a brand new “United Nations of Europe” would have seemed utterly frivolous.
While unwilling to scrap NATO, American policymakers did hope that the OSCE would become a viable—even vital—institution.3 It offered a chance for productive dialogue in a new forum in which both Russia and the United States had equal standing. Measured against this hope, the result of the experiment is painful to recall: The OSCE has been a bigger failure than almost anyone expected. By the end of the 1990s, Russian diplomats were virtually boycotting it. For years thereafter, they seemed intent on closing it down. Many factors contributed to this estrangement. Disagreement over Chechnya was important, as were disputes about election monitoring. But one conclusion seems inescapable: The OSCE was not the forum Moscow wanted. Finding themselves in the minority, especially on issues of democratic practice, Russian policymakers were inclined to abandon the enterprise altogether. They did not ask themselves, how can we make this thing work?
Why Russia Did Not Join NATO
If creating a wholly new framework had its drawbacks, there was an obvious alternative: offer Russia the chance to join NATO. The idea had well-placed boosters in both Russia and the United States. Bush 41’s Secretary of State James Baker kept reviving this proposal long after he left office. Days before the final Soviet collapse, Boris Yeltsin told Baker that “it would be an important part of Russia’s security to associate with the only military alliance in Europe.” Yegor Gaidar, Yeltsin’s first Prime Minister and an intellectual leader of Russia’s democratic reform camp, repeatedly said that his country deserved a place in NATO. Putin himself publicly mentioned the possibility early in his tenure—and he did not dismiss it.
NATO’s “Open Door” membership policy meant that Russia was, strictly speaking, just as eligible to join the alliance as any other European state.4 So why did the idea go nowhere? There was surely some hesitation on each side about seeming too eager before it was clear that the other side took the whole scheme seriously. Many Western governments also felt Russia was simply too big to be accommodated in NATO. (To cite just one problem: Was the alliance really ready to defend Russia against China?)
These were undeniable obstacles, but probably not the decisive ones. Diplomats know how to manage the delicate, who-goes-first two-step of flirtation without hurting anyone’s feelings. As for Russia’s size, it was both an obstacle to inclusion and a reason to pursue it. A big state left outside the alliance had ways to make trouble. Why not reduce this risk by bringing it in?
The reason that Russian membership in NATO never became a real possibility was more fundamental—and not always easy to talk about. How one felt about Russia being a member depended on how it became one, on how its accession was interpreted by both sides. Was membership a matter of geopolitical entitlement, or was it something to be earned? Was Russia to be asked to join because of its power or because it honestly embraced NATO’s goals? The way Russia had been whisked into other international institutions did not provide a good model. It was invited to take part in G-7 and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summits without any real thought as to how doing so would affect Russia’s strategic orientation. These groupings could afford to be casual about taking Moscow in. They existed only to hold annual meetings. If Russia didn’t contribute much, or even if it was actively subversive, the damage done would be limited.
Treating NATO membership in the same offhand way was impossible. Being part of the organization might take the edge off Russia’s traditional hostility to the alliance. All the same, it was just a guess. Suppose the experiment didn’t work? Not even NATO malcontents—the Greeks, for example—would have favored such a leap in the dark. In the 1990s many in the West had high hopes for Russia. Whatever one’s hopes, however, it made no sense to take an essential, well-functioning institution and turn it into something that might become unworkable.
There was, of course, a perfectly well-established way to test Russia’s international outlook, gain greater confidence in its strategic direction, shore up its democratic institutions, and offer incentives for continuing reform. This was the same path to membership that the alliance set out for all the states of the former Soviet bloc. These procedures gave NATO and the new member a chance to avoid misunderstandings, develop a timetable for meeting all pre-accession criteria, and monitor progress in areas where it might be wanting.
Yet for Russia to embark on this condition-strewn path was just as unthinkable as it was for NATO to offer membership unconditionally. Russian officials would have had to endure insufferable Western bossiness, high-handed and irritating Western lectures, and insulting Western reviews of whether Russia was abiding by its “membership action plan.” NATO didn’t want to start down that road any more than the Russians did.
Dmitri Trenin, perhaps his country’s most incisive foreign-policy analyst (and someone with strong liberal sympathies), long ago summed up the problem with trying to absorb Russia into important Western institutions. Moscow, he wrote,
was only willing to consider joining the West if it was given something like co-chairmanship of the Western club—or at the very least membership in its Politburo. Russian leaders were not willing to follow the guidance coming from Washington and Brussels or to accept the same rules that its former Soviet satellites were following.5
The crucial problem in Russia’s post-Cold War relations with the West was not NATO enlargement, much less a supposed U.S. promise not to enlarge the alliance. (Today, references to such a “promise” are common. In the 1990s I never heard a Russian official refer to it.) The real difficulty was that neither side found it possible to be sure that the other was a friend.
That’s why, when Russian liberal friends of mine raised the idea of joining NATO—and in the 1990s they did so all the time—it was always in a spirit of resignation and disbelief. They were perhaps able to imagine Russia as a member of the Western “Politburo.” What they couldn’t imagine any more than I could was the process that would actually make this happen. Some even suggested that all talk of “process” showed how little we Americans understood the problem. Russia, they said, simply needed to know that its longtime adversaries didn’t rule out eventual reconciliation. Then it could—maybe only after decades had passed—have a national conversation about whether to take the next step.
It was an appealing idea: Moscow would have our phone number and could decide when, if ever, it wanted to call. Still unclear—to my friends and to me—was what either side would say if the Russians ever picked up the phone.
American policymakers hoped that all European states—including Russia—would see real and increasing advantages in the post-Cold War order that was being built. In the meantime, they knew that Russia faced a hugely difficult adjustment and that their own strategy put Russian leaders in a difficult position. Domestic political considerations would often oblige them to denounce the United States. Feelings of isolation and embattlement might easily get out of hand and undermine Russian democracy. Washington understood the risks. People in high positions fretted about them constantly. The real challenge was to find some way—other than an impractical new institutional framework—to keep the risks under control.
To do so, every American administration after the Cold War set itself the same goal—to create a Russian-American relationship so positive that periodic irritants would not derail it. Today U.S. policy is often remembered as having accorded Russia too little “respect.” We treated it, some say, like a “defeated power.”At the time, of course, the more common complaint was that Washington was obsessively attentive to Moscow’s wounded self-regard.
The Cold War did not end in a tie. Russia was, in many respects, a defeated power. Even so, one American President after another believed that careful diplomacy might lift the psychological burden of defeat. Each made a personal investment in good relations with his Russian counterpart—Bush 41 with Gorbachev, Clinton with Yeltsin, Bush 43 with Putin, Obama with Medvedev. Each felt that the effort paid off, and that it had given him a major tool for working on a difficult policy problem.
More important than personal good will was the gradual upgrading of Russia’s role in Western and international institutions. Even before the Soviet collapse there was the invitation to attend the G-7; later came the formal creation of the G-8 and inclusion in APEC. Economic bribery played a role, too. In the 1990s Washington backed multilateral lending to Russia that totaled more than $30 billion. There was the Bush 43 Administration’s decision in 2002 to recognize Russia as a market economy—a step with implications for resolving trade disputes—and after that the Obama Administration’s successful push to get Russia (at long last) into the World Trade Organization.
Yet all these efforts were, in a sense, secondary. Washington put security at the center of its effort to create a cooperative Russian-American relationship. Since the end of the Cold War, every U.S. President except Bill Clinton has signed a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Moscow. (George W. Bush, with a low opinion of such documents, would have preferred not to sign one, but Putin said he needed a formal treaty for domestic political reasons, and so Bush relented.) Before launching peacekeeping operations in Bosnia in 1995, American diplomats sought—and secured—a Russian contingent. The pattern repeated itself in Kosovo in 1999, with Russia also playing a major role in negotiations to end the conflict.
Washington looked for other ways to show that Moscow had a voice on major security issues. In 1997 NATO created a special forum for regular discussion with Russia of European security, and upgraded it in 2002 to enhance Russia’s role. It was not supposed to be a ceremonial body: The first subject on its agenda was an agreement that circumscribed NATO’s military presence on the territory of former Soviet bloc states. Higher-level exchanges were also regular—and intense. In the last year of the Clinton Administration, senior Russian and American officials sought to develop an agreed framework on the tough issue of ballistic missile defense. The Bush 43 Administration took up the same issue in regular joint meetings between the Secretaries of State and Defense and their Russian counterparts.
Did Russian leaders value all this talk, or see it as mere window-dressing in an unequal relationship? It was never easy (and remains difficult) to say for sure. Moscow clearly found American policies challenging, confusing, irritating—and also beneficial. Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who felt the largest stake in good relations with Washington, complained publicly and loudly when they thought Russian interests were being ignored. Putin himself—the Russian leader most sensitive to perceived Western slights—generally presented a more positive face to the world. While frequently treating foreigners to diatribes about the Bush Administration, he used summit encounters to affirm the value of continuing partnership. His last meeting with George W. Bush, in the spring of 2008, was typical. The two Presidents disagreed about NATO enlargement and missile defense. Yet they also issued a long “declaration” extolling the achievements of Russian-American cooperation. Putin expressed particular satisfaction with what he had heard about the limits the United States would observe in developing its missile-defense capabilities.
All Russian leaders, then—Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin, and Medvedev alike—have struck a very similar balance between cooperation and pushback in responding to U.S. policy. And they have done so for similar reasons. They valued the specific benefits of a working relationship and saw little point in forcing a showdown over initiatives that, however distasteful, posed no concrete or immediate threat to Russian security. Experience taught them to ride out many of their disagreements. Anger over U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2002 did not block conclusion of the New START treaty in 2009. The Bush Administration’s commitment to eventual NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia in 2008 did not keep the Obama Administration from shelving the idea after 2009. Angry rhetoric about the costs of WTO accession did not stop Moscow from striking a deal.
Until recently no Russian leaders—not even Putin himself—seemed ready to make a final decision about rejecting the post-Cold War order as such. By turns defiant and compliant, more often grudging than gracious, Russia actually sought a larger role in that order. American policymakers had once imagined a better outcome. But even in this third-best result there was a kind of vindication. So how and why did things go off the rails?
What Went Wrong
The United States sustained a largely positive relationship with Russia for more than twenty years after the Cold War. Now that relationship is in ruins. By itself neither of these facts can tell us whether American strategy was sound or fundamentally misguided. Presidents and policymakers always knew the that what they were trying to do was risky—but it was not, they felt, reckless. They believed stable and productive ties were possible. They hoped that vigilant, ongoing effort—what in the Clinton Administration we used to call “playing both sides of the board”—would avoid the most severe storms and frictions and keep Russian grievances to a minimum.6
In trying to explain the unraveling of this twenty-year effort, there’s no reason to treat American policymakers as completely blameless. In ways large and small they may have become less sensitive to the tensions inherent in the entire enterprise. Washington was so often able to take the sharp edges off disagreement with Moscow that the task probably came to seem easier than it really was. In responding to Yeltsin’s signature bluster, the Clinton Administration assumed that a loud and obstreperous “No!” actually meant “Yes” (or at least, “Let’s talk about it”). In later years, Putin’s regular displays of hostility may have been underestimated in much the same way.
Nor would it be a surprise to find that a measure of exasperation with Russian policymakers crept into American views. Between governments, as between individuals, a relationship in which one side always takes responsibility for deflecting the other’s bad moods begins to feel unbalanced and dysfunctional. In the 1990s many U.S. officials, who had advocated one Russian aid package after another, usually without corresponding meaningful reform, eventually decided they had had enough. Larry Summers put it best: “We can’t want this more than they do.” More recently, U.S. diplomats grew visibly tired of being charged with this or that conspiracy to harm Russian interests.
There can hardly be any doubt, finally, that in the past decade the United States assigned Russia a lower priority than it had in the first years after the Cold War. American policymakers did not exactly lose interest, but they found the rewards of Russia policy fewer, the nuisances greater, and their sense of purpose flagging. Bigger problems—from the Middle East to East Asia—gripped Washington’s attention.
Over time, in all these ways, American handling of Russia may have become less supple and effective, and a little less focused on solving problems in the relationship. Yet if we want to see where the broad strategy to create mutual confidence and convergent Russian-American interests finally broke down, it is not primarily in the dynamics of bilateral relations. It’s in the internal dynamics of Russian politics—and in the personal outlook of Vladimir Putin. American policymakers always worried that domestic politics might keep their strategy from working. They never imagined that it would happen like this.
During the past year, at key moments in the Ukraine crisis, Putin’s moves aimed to protect his standing at home. The fall of Yanukovych represented a gigantic policy setback for him—and a personal humiliation. Blaming the West for his own blunders was a way to soften the blow. Seizing Crimea gave him a chance to turn near-disaster into at least temporary victory.
There are some, of course, who will never believe that this is what motivated Putin in Ukraine.7 For them, the story is one in which the West’s policy, not Russia’s, finally collapsed of its own contradictions. From this failure, we are supposed to learn how foolish it is to ignore the security concerns of other great powers.
If Putin’s record makes one thing clear, however, it is that he does not need actual encroachment on Russian interests to accuse the West of encroaching on them. All he needs is to find himself in a jam at home. This is his modus operandi. He sticks to it even when other governments, far from giving him trouble, are trying to defer to him.
We can see this best if we take an example far removed from today’s geopolitical controversies. In the aftermath of 9/11, one of the most significant ways in which the Bush Administration propitiated Moscow was to endorse Putin’s view of the threat he faced in Chechnya. Washington accepted his claim that he confronted the same terrorist enemy that had attacked the United States. Even so, when Chechen insurgents seized a school in the North Caucasus town of Beslan in 2004—and after hundreds of children died in the government’s botched rescue attempt—Putin still blamed the United States. There were those in the world, he explained in a nationwide address, who felt threatened by the fact that Russia remained a great nuclear power. “And so they reason that this threat should be removed.”
The Beslan tragedy has no connection to any of the Russian-American frictions that produced the current breakdown in relations. Yet it provides an early template for Putin’s response to political problems on the home front. When he claimed Hillary Clinton had orchestrated large demonstrations against him in downtown Moscow in late 2011, he was accusing an American Administration that had for almost three years touted the “reset” as a major foreign policy success. Putin refused to treat his opponents as a normal part of domestic politics—they were, instead, instruments in a global, U.S.-led conspiracy to bring him down. Saying so was no offhand, rhetorical jibe. More than three years later, the idea that the United States aims at a “color revolution” in Moscow is the single most frequently repeated theme of official Russian rhetoric.
Gorbachev and Yeltsin, with far shakier political support, did not blame the West for all their misfortunes. Putin does. From Beslan to Maidan and beyond, his accusations against the West were triggered not by what others did but by disasters of his own making. This is how America’s twenty-year effort to shape the post-Cold War world came undone.
Did We Choose Right?
Relations between Russia and the United States will be bad for the foreseeable future. Europe will have to reverse its long demilitarization, at least in part. In Eastern Europe, some NATO boots will be needed on the ground, and Ukraine will need arms.
All this is a disappointment, but it hardly means that American policy has failed. Bad relations between great powers are not necessarily a calamity—and may not, in any case, be avoidable. As realist scholars like to remind us, a world of independent states tends to produce rivalry. Often the competition is bitter and hard to manage. Even the best imaginable policy will not save us from every future challenge.
The policymaker’s predicament, Henry Kissinger observed long ago, is that decisions have to be made before we know enough to fully justify them. This is the problem American Presidents and their advisers faced after the Cold War. To build the European order they envisioned, they had to risk alienating the largest state in Europe. But if they made placating Russia their top priority, they might fail to build that order at all. The United States saw the dilemma clearly. It decided to build what it could, while it could, and to cope with the consequences as they arose.
Was this wise? On balance, yes. We have now seen the weakness of Russia’s democratic institutions, the ease with which a Russian leader can stoke nationalist hysteria, the enormous difficulty of helping Ukraine to defend itself in the absence of pre-existing security ties. Western policy may have made these problems somewhat worse; it hardly created them.
Meanwhile, the rest of Europe is much easier to defend. The entire continent has fewer flashpoints, fewer unstable “gray areas.” It is more cohesive and more confident in 2015 because twenty years earlier Western institutions were opened up to new members. Doing so had its risks, but deciding to keep these institutions closed would have been riskier still. Kissinger framed the dilemma well. America had to choose. It made the right choice.
1Robert Jervis, “Theories of War in an Era of Leading-Power Peace”, American Political Science Review (March 2002).
2See Mary Elise Sarotte, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton University Press, 2009; updated edtion, 2014); Richard Betts, “The Three Faces of NATO”, The National Interest (March/April 2009).
3See John Kornblum and Michael Mandelbaum, “NATO Expansion, a Decade On”, The American Interest (May/June 2008).
4See Ronald D. Asmus, Opening NATO’s Door (Columbia University Press, 2004).
5Trenin, “Russia Leaves the West”, Foreign Affairs (July/August 2006).
6Strobe Talbott, The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy (Random House, 2002).
7See Michael McFaul, Stephen Sestanovich, and John J. Mearsheimer, “Faulty Powers: Who Started the Ukraine Crisis?”, Foreign Affairs (November/December 2014).