Our Treaty Is Our Bond
In “The Roots of Russian Aggression” (June 11), James Kirchick argues that the recent downturn in U.S.–Russian relations does not stem from “NATO enlargement, nor American foreign policy.” Kirchick particularly attacks the idea that Western violations of a 1990 NATO non-expansion pledge contributed to U.S.–Russian tensions, claiming there is “no evidence of a promise not to enlarge NATO, because such a promise was never made.”
I have spent ten years researching U.S. foreign policy in the late Cold War, and Kirchick’s claims are incorrect.
Kirchick rightly notes that Secretary of State James Baker told Soviet leaders in 1990 that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward” if they agreed to German reunification. He is is wrong, however, to claim that Baker’s promise applied “solely in the context of East Germany.” We know this because Baker (and other U.S. leaders) embraced a West German plan promising “NATO would not extend . . . to the area of [East Germany] nor anywhere else in Eastern Europe” before and during the talks with the Soviets. Moreover, the U.S. used subsequent negotiations to reinforce the impression that NATO expansion to Eastern Europe writ large was off the table. This included offering the former East Germany a “special military status” that suggested a division between NATO and the rest of Eastern Europe, and pledging to transform NATO into a “political” institution.
These points were not lost on Soviet officials. Kirchick cites a 2014 interview in which former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said, “The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all.” He ignores, however, Gorbachev’s elaboration in the same interview that expansion violated “the spirit of the statements and assurances made to us in 1990.”
Ultimately, Western “statements and assurances” entailed a NATO non-expansion pledge, violations of which contributed to East–West tensions.
Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson
James Kirchick responds: Mr. Shifrinson says that I am “incorrect” in writing that the West never promised not to enlarge NATO after the end of the Cold War. While he quotes a handful of passages from U.S. diplomatic cables that seem to support his contention, he is unable to cite a single treaty, accord, or other published document in which this alleged “promise” was made. That’s because it never was.
World leaders say many things to each other behind closed doors. But unless such assertions are codified in writing, they lack the force of law. “Impressions” count for little.
One prominent exception, of course, is Russia, which, like its Soviet predecessor, routinely violates the solemn agreements it has signed. That, and not the West’s breaking of a nonexistent promise (or even “impression”) never to enlarge NATO, is the primary reason for the deterioration in relations with Moscow.
I’ll leave the last word to a prominent Russian leader, who, when asked about the Baltic states’ joining NATO, replied: “Every country has the right to choose the way it ensures its security. This holds for the Baltic states as well. Secondly, and more specifically, NATO is primarily a defensive bloc. I can only repeat what I have said several times. The enlargement of the bloc is supposed to improve international security and the security of its member countries.”
That was Vladimir Putin, in 2002, long before he retroactively decided that NATO enlargement was a con job thrust upon defenseless Mother Russia by a duplicitous West.