On December 12, 2017, The National Security Archive published a study entitled “NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard,” drawing from declassified Western and Soviet documents to argue that, in the waning days of the Cold War, senior Western leaders gave their Soviet counterparts explicit assurances—on which the West later reneged—that NATO would not expand. According to the report, “The documents show that multiple national leaders were considering and rejecting Central and East European membership in NATO as of early 1990 and through 1991, that discussions of NATO in the context of German unification negotiations in 1990 were not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory, and that subsequent Soviet and Russian complaints about being misled about NATO expansion were founded in written contemporaneous memcons1 and telcons at the highest levels.” The study prompted a flurry of “gotcha!” commentaries about Western bad faith, the legitimacy of Russian grievances, and the role of NATO enlargement in spawning the current tensions between Russia and the West.
What all these commentaries have lacked is context. There are not one, but three elephants in the NATO-enlargement room that many learned analysts appear determined to overlook.
The first important context is at least acknowledged, if minimized, by the National Security Archive study. The vast majority of the documents cited in the study date from 1990 and relate to discussions about post-Cold War European security architecture and negotiations on German reunification. Reading through the documents, one is hard-pressed to identify anything particularly new, let alone sensational or inculpatory. Of course, the National Security Archive study cited multiple documents with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s famous formulation about no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction or forces “one inch to the east.”
However, this pledge occurred precisely during the negotiations on German reunification and can only be understood in that context.2 The participants themselves explicitly indicated that the question of NATO expansion, in 1990, had to do with East Germany. For example, Document 19 quotes French President Mitterand as telling Gorbachev in May 1990, “ . . . I always told my NATO partners: make a commitment not to move NATO’s military formations from their current territory in the FRG to East Germany.” In Document 23, Helmut Kohl spoke to Gorbachev in July 1990 of “establishing cooperation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact,” and Gorbachev noted the importance of “the non-proliferation of NATO’s military structures to the territory of the GDR.” I could find nothing in these memcons to support the study’s contention that “discussions of NATO in the context of German unification negotiations in 1990 were not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory.” Participants in the negotiations leading up to German reunification seem to have understood, even if some later commentators do not, that “not one inch to the east” was a pledge with regard to East Germany, and nothing more.
Quite apart from the documents in the National Security Archive study, Gorbachev explicitly refuted the notion of a “no NATO enlargement” pledge in a 2014 interview:
The topic of “NATO expansion” was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn’t bring it up, either. Another issue . . . was discussed: making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces from the alliance would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR after German reunification. Baker’s statement . . . was made in that context.3
To assert that Gorbachev “heard” something, when the man himself is on record that he heard nothing of the sort, betokens either a disappointing level of scholarly sloppiness or exceptional chutzpah.
Nevertheless, in the same interview, Gorbachev did complain that the West had violated the spirit of the agreements regarding the reunification of Germany. But what exactly constituted the “spirit” of those undertakings? Here we come to the second important context in which the enlargement of NATO occurred.
There is an image, still popular in some circles, of cynical Western leaders ruthlessly exploiting Soviet weakness and compliancy in 1990-91, securing Gorbachev’s cooperation in the dismemberment of the Soviet bloc with sweet promises that the West never had the slightest intention of keeping. However, you will find nothing to support this caricature of reality in the 30 documents examined in the National Security Archives study. On the contrary, the conversations recorded are imbued with a sense of history in the making, of a Europe transfigured and of achieving a level of peaceful cooperation hitherto undreamed of. Alliances were to be transformed, and the Conference on (later Organization for) Security and Cooperation in Europe was to provide an overarching structure that would essentially subsume the existing blocs. Western leaders recognized “the importance of doing nothing to prejudice Soviet interests and dignity” in order to a) cushion the blow to Moscow from the inevitable Soviet withdrawal from East Germany; and b) protect Gorbachev and his reforms from attack by Soviet hardliners.
To the extent that anyone already had an inkling in 1990 that the unraveling of the Warsaw Pact might jump the Oder-Neisse line, no one allowed that disturbing prospect to interfere with the 4+2 negotiations on the reunification of Germany. The formal reunification of Germany on October 3, 1990, appeared to be the successful climax of an extended period of intense diplomacy, after which the two increasingly friendly blocs could bask in the glow of their joint accomplishment and cheerfully take up the task of creating their common European home.
As things turned out, German reunification did not mark the “end of history” after all. What had seemed like the final act was, in fact, only the prelude. On February 25, 1991, the Warsaw Pact was declared defunct and was formally abolished in July. The Soviet Union might well have survived in some reformed, slightly truncated configuration had it not been for the failed August putsch, which led ineluctably to the Belavezha Accords and the formal dissolution of the USSR in December.
The events of 1991 invalidated the assumption on both sides that the reunification of Germany would be a one-off adjustment, rather than the beginning of a wholesale realignment, of Europe’s security architecture. By the end of 1991 Western leaders were confronted with a situation where there was no more Gorbachev to support, no more Warsaw Pact with which to cooperate, and no Soviet Union left to transform. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact did not release NATO from its solemn obligations under the German reunification treaty—and they were in fact met. However, the events of 1991—even more dramatic and transformative than those of 1990—did utterly negate the relevance of those obligations for European security more broadly.
Even then, there was nothing automatic—either conceptually or in terms of the West’s reaction to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union—about NATO enlargement. Among the very few documents from 1991 in the National Security Archive study are records of British Prime Minister John Major and NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner dismissing the likelihood of NATO enlargement and underscoring the lack of support for such a move on the part of the existing NATO members. Of course, these statements were expressions of opinion and were not “promises” by any stretch of the imagination, but they were true enough at the time they were made. In fact, it wasn’t until late 1993 that the idea of NATO enlargement into Central Europe began to build a head of steam. So what changed in the intervening two years?
This brings us to the third crucial context that NATO-enlargement critics neglect to take into account—the overwhelming desire of Central Europeans to join the alliance and the absolute top priority they placed on securing NATO membership. NATO enlargement was driven by demand, not supply. The Central Europeans were not so much invited in; rather, they battered the door down. They were no more content to fend for themselves outside of NATO than they were willing to continue in some reformed, “democratic,” even post-Soviet incarnation of the Warsaw Pact. The reason behind this attitude is a phenomenon that is at best dimly understood by Americans—and seemingly not at all by American detractors of NATO enlargement.
Several prominent American critics of enlargement were redoubtable Cold Warriors back in the day. Their antipathy toward the Soviet Union was largely ideological in nature, and they view post-Soviet Russia in an entirely different light.
Such a distinction is easy to make from across the Atlantic Ocean. It is not terribly compelling when viewed from across the Bug River. The tidy dichotomy between “Soviet” and “Russian,” in the twin contexts of geographic proximity and historical experience, is a distinction largely without a difference. In Central and Eastern Europe, the euphoria of 1991 was not simply about scrapping a bankrupt socialism and corrupt nomenklatura, or even about securing fundamental freedoms and banishing the secret police. It was about national independence – including for those Central European states that had been allotted nominal sovereignty within the Soviet bloc, but whose real freedom of action had been tightly circumscribed.
The Soviet Union was not merely an audacious ideological gambit to create a socialist worker’s paradise, but also the 20th-century incarnation of the Russian Empire—and it was perceived as such by many of the non-Russian subject peoples. It therefore carried more historical baggage for these people than it did for Westerners. The subject peoples’ experience with Russia had by no means been exclusively negative, but for some of them it had been predominantly so. Many of them understood the collapse of the USSR not simply as history’s judgment on the Soviet Union, but also—belatedly—on the Russian Empire. They were determined not to be consigned by some Yalta 2 agreement to a post-Soviet Russian “sphere of privileged interests.”
To discuss NATO enlargement, as its critics invariably do, solely as a question of the West’s relations with Russia is to miss this entire third dimension to the matter—the interests and preferences of NATO’s new members. And precisely because it is only two-dimensional, the anti-enlargement analysis is flat—and it falls flat.
In this connection, I would like to consider one of the less-serious contentions about the evils of NATO enlargement, since the line continues to be propagated by some ostensibly serious people. How would Americans feel, it is argued, if Moscow were working to bring Canada and Mexico into some Russian-led alliance? Would Washington passively acquiesce, or would it fight back?
The silliness of the argument is that, in the real world, the Kremlin could cajole Canada and Mexico from now until eternity, offering every inducement it could contrive, and would nevertheless find them strangely indifferent to its blandishments. Conversely, if it were, for instance, the Canadians who were clamoring to join Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), it would speak volumes more about the United States than about Russia. Recalling that NATO enlargement was demand-driven, one might reasonably ask what it would take to propel Canada into the CSTO. Suppose—just for the sake of argument—that the U.S. President had a propensity to claim that Americans and Anglophone Canadians are “really” one people, and that Canada is an artificial state stitched together from territory taken from other countries—principally, as it happens, from the United States. Imagine that American elites consistently ridiculed the very idea of a separate Canadian national state or identity. Under such circumstances, would anyone be surprised if Canadians conceived the idea of allying themselves with Russia? And by what logic would Russia be blameworthy for taking them? Can we seriously imagine the Kremlin reluctantly but firmly turning away prospective allies, saying, “We’d love to have you in the CSTO, but we don’t want to upset the Americans unduly.”
This analogy underscores the fact that NATO enlargement is neither the proximate nor the underlying cause of the current crisis in European security. The underlying causes are complex and certainly open to debate; personally I would point to a certain Russian disinclination to accept the consequences of the Soviet Union’s collapse, a tendency that puts Moscow chronically at odds not only—or even principally—with the United States and NATO, but above all with Russia’s own post-Soviet neighbors. As for the proximate cause, it does, in fact, involve precisely the sort of perfidy and double-dealing invoked by NATO’s critics—a tale to stir the moral outrage of all decent human beings. Like the spurious no-NATO-enlargement narrative, it revolves around a series of broken promises—commitments to respect Ukrainian territorial integrity embodied in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the 1997 Black Sea Fleet Agreement, the 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, and a host of other agreements great and small. Never mind what Gorbachev supposedly heard; consider instead Moscow’s multiple treaty obligations with respect to Ukraine.
The West did not cause the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the collapse of Gorbachev’s authority, or the implosion of the Soviet Union. However, the West did draw the appropriate conclusions from these events, albeit at several years’ remove and only after intense lobbying by the Central Europeans. In enlarging NATO, Western leaders displayed far more realism than their current-day “realist” critics.
And after all, what is the purpose of harping about the wickedness of NATO enlargement? Do analysts of the realist school believe that NATO enlargement somehow justifies the centuries-old Russian reluctance to accept the existence of a Ukrainian state or even a Ukrainian national identity? Does anyone imagine that critiques of NATO enlargement will suddenly prompt a “What on earth were we thinking?” epiphany in Brussels, Washington and various Central European capitals, leading to a reversal of enlargement and—in the best-case scenario—the disbanding of the alliance altogether? Are people holding out the hope of some parallel universe where the Warsaw Pact and reformed, Gorbachevian socialism, like Schrödinger’s cat, still cling precariously to life, to be conjured back into existence by rewinding the tape, so to speak, on NATO? Or do they suppose that the mighty edifice of Soviet power could come crashing down in ruins while leaving the underlying Russian imperial project miraculously untouched? If so, Heaven help them. I won’t reproach them with being on the wrong side of history. But I do take them to task for being on the wrong side of reality.
1. Memoranda of conversation.
2. Probably the most thorough treatment of this topic remains Mark Kramer’s 2009 article in The Washington Quarterly, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia.”
3. I am grateful to Alexander Vershbow and Johnson’s Russia List for bringing this interview to my attention.