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How the Fight for NATO Expansion Established the Future of Global Politics

M. E. Sarotte Recounts an Unruly History

 

From this year’s Cundill History Prize shortlisted title Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate by M. E. Sarotte.

 

 

“It is the hallmark of any deep truth that its negation is also a deep truth.”
–Max Delbrück

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Not one inch. The fight over Europe’s future beyond the Cold War entered its decisive phase with these words, spoken in February 1990 by the American secretary of state, James Baker, to the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. The Berlin Wall’s collapse on November 9, 1989 had by then gravely weakened Moscow’s grip on Central Europe. But thanks to the Soviet victory over the Nazis in World War II, decades later Moscow still had hundreds of thousands of troops in East Germany and the legal right to keep them there. To convince Gorbachev to relinquish this military and legal might, Baker uttered the words as a hypothetical bargain: what if you let your part of Germany go, and we agree that NATO will “not shift one inch eastward from its present position?”

Telling the unruly history of the nineties as a narrative is hard but necessary.

A controversy erupted over this exchange almost immediately, at first behind closed doors and then publicly; but more important was the decade to follow, when these three words took on far-reaching new meanings. Gorbachev did let his part of Germany go, but along the way Washington rethought its options, not least after the Soviet Union’s collapse in December 1991. The United States realized it could not only win big, but win bigger. Not one inch of territory need be off-limits to NATO. Washington could lead the alliance in opening a path for large numbers of eager new members to join. In the 1990s it did just that, resulting by March 12, 1999 in enlargement across Central and Eastern Europe and to the Polish-Russian border. But on December 31 of that year, Vladimir Putin rose to the top in Moscow. As NATO kept expanding, he ultimately decided to use violence in an effort to ensure that not one inch more of territory would join.

The game of moving by inches resulted in a stalemate. Between the fall of the Wall and the rise of Putin, animosity between Moscow and Washington over NATO’s future became central to the making of a post–Cold War political order that looked much like its Cold War predecessor—and to the unmaking of hopes for cooperation from Vancouver to Vladivostok. To show how and why, this book examines the conflict between Russia and America against the backdrop of the sprawling, unpredictable landscape of the 1990s. That decade witnessed the astonishing overnight collapse of an empire, yielding a host of new Eurasian states; produced visionary leaders, some rising from prisons to presidencies, earning Nobel Prizes and global admiration; and redefined the realm of the possible for democratization, disarmament, market economies, and the tenets of liberal international order—but it also opened the door to new expressions of authoritarianism, de-democratization, and ethnic cleansing.

Telling the unruly history of the nineties as a narrative is hard but necessary. Without a story to follow, the odds of getting from the beginning to the end of the list of actors, concepts, and locales approaches zero. This book uses the fight over NATO expansion as its through line. It tells the story not of the alliance itself but of the strategic choices that American and Russian leaders made during their decade-long conflict over the start of its enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe, and of the cumulative weight of those choices on today’s world. The book begins with a focus on the 1989 contest over the future of divided Germany—which, for Washington, swiftly turned into a struggle to preserve the Atlantic Alliance.

Then, widening its field of view, the book examines how American success produced opportunities for the courageous leaders of new European democracies, but also challenges for the West’s relationship with former Soviet republics—most notably for Western efforts to cure, as one American defense secretary memorably put it, their nuclear hangover. Widening still more, the book shows how the way expansion was implemented brought a loss of options for twenty-first-century transatlantic relations.

Throughout, the book asks how and why US presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton—together with their European contemporaries Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Václav Havel, Helmut Kohl, John Major, François Mitterrand, Gerhard Schröder, Margaret Thatcher, and Lech Wałęsa, plus Baltic leaders and NATO secretaries general Manfred Wörner and Javier Solana—launched the enlargement that eventually took the alliance to thirty nations.

This accomplishment represented a major success for American strategists. It saved many (though not all) of the new post–Cold War democracies from life in a security gray zone between East and West. With Washington’s help, over 100 million Central and Eastern Europeans enjoyed well-deserved success in their efforts to become NATO allies. And, as it enlarged, the alliance helped to quell bloody conflicts in the Balkans.

Today, NATO stretches from North America, Iceland, and Greenland to the United Kingdom, Europe, and the Baltics, covering nearly a billion people. Its members all possess the so-called Article 5 guarantee, a promise rooted in the alliance’s founding treaty: “an armed attack against one or more of them . . . shall be considered an attack against them all.” Since gaining that guarantee, the new members of the alliance have indeed remained free from large-scale armed attacks, even as fighting began across some former Soviet borders. American military might and its deterrent power remain the cornerstone of the alliance’s strength.

Yet success came at a price. It is no small thing to guarantee the security of a billion people. In the 1990s, two American presidents were so focused on achieving the eastward extension of Article 5 that they did not sufficiently consider the consequences of how they achieved that goal. As President Bush said in response to the idea that Washington might compromise with Moscow over NATO’s future, “to hell with that.” President Clinton was certain that Russia could be “bought off.” Along the way, a promising alternative mode of enlargement, in the form of a partnership that would have avoided drawing a new line across Europe, fell to hardline opposition. This tougher attitude achieved results, but it obscured options that might have sustained cooperation, decreased chances of US-Russian conflict reocurring, and served Washington’s interests better in the longer term.

Put differently, the expansion of NATO was a justifiable response to the challenges of the 1990s and to the entreaties of new Central and Eastern European democracies. The problem was how it happened. The fall of the Wall in 1989 had briefly created the potential for a newly cooperative post–Cold War order. But a decade later, the border between NATO and non-NATO Europe remained a clearly demarcated front line, Ukraine and other post-Soviet states languished in a gray zone, nuclear competition was renewing, and early hopes for cooperation had waned—and the manner of enlargement had contributed to that outcome.

Perhaps it was not surprising that the outcome would be contentious, given that, throughout the 1990s, American leaders had to struggle with the tension between two priorities. Either they could enable the region of Central and Eastern Europe writ large—including post-Soviet states such as the Baltics and Ukraine—to choose its own destiny at long last, regardless of the impact on Moscow; or they could promote cooperation with Russia’s fragile new democracy, particularly in the interest of nuclear disarmament. The question for Washington was figuring out which of these goals should take precedence. The correct answer was both.

As the Nobel Prize–winning scientist Max Delbrück writes, the negation of any simple, correct statement is a false statement. But “it is the hallmark of any deep truth that its negation is also a deep truth”: light is a particle; light is a wave. Translated into geopolitical terms, this insight illuminates the tension between the two compelling truths, or strategic imperatives, facing the United States after the end of the Cold War: Washington’s highest priority should be the peoples formerly dominated by Moscow; Washington’s highest priority should be Moscow.

When the choice is between two such profoundly significant imperatives, the smart move is to avoid rushing a decision—and the best way to do that is to avoid calling the question too soon. It is the job of those engaged in top-level statecraft to figure out the smart move and the best timing. In Washington in the early 1990s, some did.

Cold wars are not short-lived affairs, so thaws are precious. Neither country made the best possible use of the thaw in the nineties.

Strategists inside the Bush administration’s State Department and, more significantly, inside the Clinton administration’s Pentagon produced policies that gave both strategic imperatives their due and allowed Washington leeway on the timing of irrevocable decisions. They implemented a strategy of incremental security partnership, open to European and post-Soviet states alike, ultimately embodied in the Partnership for Peace (PfP). Through this Partnership, potential NATO members could gain experience in working with the West and acquire the full weight of the Article 5 guarantee over time. Such a widely applicable, incremental approach did not require Washington either to draw a new line through post–Cold War Europe or to leave Ukraine and most other post-Soviet republics to their own devices. It might also have helped to entrench a new democratic order in Central and Eastern Europe, since subsequent events demonstrated that the prospect of incrementally gaining membership in desirable institutions—not membership itself—most effectively solidifies reforms.

But having figured out the smart move, Washington called the question too soon anyway—and the American decision to do so ultimately combined with Russia’s own tragic choices in fateful ways. Once President Boris Yeltsin made decisions in late 1993 and 1994 to shed the blood of his opponents in Moscow and Chechnya, and Russian voters decided to give antireform extremists a victory in the December 1993 parliamentary elections, the survival of a vision of partnership that included both Moscow and the peoples it once dominated became much more challenging. Rampant inflation in Russia as part of the transition to a market economy only intensified the sense of disintegrating hopes.

Bloodshed in the Balkans added urgency to all questions of European security and created new frictions between Washington and Moscow over how to handle the violence. Domestic developments in the United States—most notably the stunning victory of the Republican Party in the 1994 midterm congressional elections—similarly influenced foreign policy, tilting Clinton toward a different, more confrontational strategy of alliance enlargement. Savvy members of the US National Security Council and State Department seized upon these events, and on Central and Eastern Europeans’ urgent appeals for full Article 5 guarantees, to best the Pentagon in constructing the post–Cold War geopolitical order. Military planners had played a surprisingly small role in policy formulation in the years immediately after the fall of the Wall—the Pentagon under Bush complained that, while consulted, it had no real “input”—and were eventually relegated to the backseat again under Clinton.

American advocates of more assertive expansion, emphasizing that Central and Eastern Europe had suffered too many historical wrongs and waited too long to join the West, switched the mode of NATO enlargement. Instead of incremental accession by a large number of states, they had the alliance extend the full weight of the Article 5 guarantee to a small number of states. While their motives had merit, their mode of expansion accelerated the timing and drew a new line between the former Soviet Bloc states that had managed to secure Article 5 and those that had not. One consequence was that American options for managing post–Cold War contingency—namely, through the creation of a variety of relationships with such states, most notably with Georgia and Ukraine—became dramatically more limited just as Putin was rising within the ranks in Russia.

Some commentators recognized, at the time, the cost of calling the question too soon. George Kennan, the former US ambassador to Moscow who in the 1940s had conceived of the American strategy of containment, argued that post–Cold War NATO expansion tipped the balance too far away from protecting newfound cooperation with Moscow. Even Baker later recognized in his memoirs that “every achievement contains within its success the seeds of a future problem.” Those seeds took root in the relationship between what remain the globe’s two nuclear superpowers, the United States and Russia.

Despite the passing of the Cold War, these two nations still possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads and the ability to kill nearly every living creature on earth. That threat makes understanding the decay in their relationship in the 1990s an essential story of our time, because it eroded the best chance for establishing lasting cooperation between them. Cold wars are not short-lived affairs, so thaws are precious. Neither country made the best possible use of the thaw in the nineties. After unexpectedly being delivered from the threat of a nuclear confrontation with each other, they let deliverance slip.

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not one inch cover

Excerpted from Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate by M. E. Sarotte, published by Yale University Press.

M. E. Sarotte
M. E. Sarotte
M. E. Sarotte is the Kravis Professor of Historical Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall.





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