Rethinking NATO’s post-Cold War enlargement – part III

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The decision to extend the membership of NATO to the territories of the former Warsaw Pact, was one of the most important foreign policy decision made by Clinton’s administration, as well as one of the most significant political-military initiative the US made after the end of the Cold War. However, this course of action, could have proved troublesome as it was likely, in the long-term, to sour relationship with Russia. Despite all the reassurances Clinton had personally made to Yeltsin, the eastward expansion of the membership of the Alliance, had the undesired and paradoxical consequence of enhancing “the original anti-Russia stance of the organization”[1], right in the moment in which its former adversary was undergoing one of the most difficult period of its entire history. In light of Russia’s weakness, this decision proved lacking political farsightedness, as the former Soviet Union was unlikely to pose a threat to central and Eastern Europe in the immediate future. Last time the Soviets seized the control of these countries, it was because the Red Army moved into the “virtual political vacuum” left by the defeat of Nazi Germany, which gave it the opportunity to consolidate the victory “through the use of communist internationalism”[2]. After the Cold War these conditions ceased to exist and they were unlikely to reappear anytime soon. Yet, if the West really wanted to be positively sure that Russia would have been deprived, once for good, of the possibility to assert again its imperialist prerogatives and to threaten its former satellites, the 1990s enlargement should have been carried out more cunningly and, as notable figures as Kissinger and Brezinski pointed out, by outlining the conditions for “a qualified” NATO membership of the Eastern and Central European countries, along with the terms of a “formal treaty of alliance” with Yeltsin, laying down the conditions for Russia to develop “as a stable, democratic presence in Europe”[3]. But, NATO’s western heads of states failed to recognize that Russia also had “legitimate security concerns” that owed to be considered by engaging in early wider consultations with the Russians themselves[4]. The consequences this initiative could have unleashed were widely underestimated, or, systematically ignored. The Allies were aware of how fragile, in Russia, the democratic balances were at that moment, and they knew that it was crucial not to put further in jeopardy, through bold foreign policy moves, the already insecure position of a President, as Yeltsin, willing to dialogue with his Western counterparts. So far, Moscow proved able to avoid major conflicts with the former soviet republics and it also “begun to establish a new network of relations” with the European Union, GATT countries and, of course, NATO[5]. Nevertheless, closer ties with the West were not conceived particularly useful by the Russian public opinion and they were mostly perceived in contradiction with the Russian national interests, as the poor effects the Western aid packages had on Russians’ living standards so far, engendered a feeling of “disillusionment and loss of faith in foreign assistance”[6]. This was an hard setback for Yeltsin’s foreign policy line, based on the assumption that the West would have effectively assisted the integration of his country into the world economy and immediately welcomed the newly democratic Russia as an ally. This misleading conjecture met the equally wrong judgment of the leaders of the western countries members of the Atlantic Alliance, that, headed by the US, acted upon the assumption that their good intentions were clear to all, as to conceive the PFP earlier, and NATO’s enlargement later, as a strategic threat to Russia, was simply “an antiquated concerns of outmoded realpolitik”[7]. But, in such a context, NATO’s eastward expansion could have only engendered further “frustration, suspicion and even anger in Moscow”[8]: the truth was that the Partnership for Peace as a measure to address the Russian public opinion’s “isolationist and anti-Western feelings”, lost any significance once it envisaged that the Alliance could have welcomed into NATO Eastern Europe anytime, in the face of “a resurgence of a real, not mythical, Russian threat”[9]. Which, on the other hand, was now more plausible to arise as the “post-Cold War triumphalism”, nurtured by the ease the victory over communism had been achieved, prevented the West from realizing that, the “revolutionary overturning of the balance of power” occurred in Europe, could have prompted Russia’s hostility instead[10]. The unscrupulous attitude showed by the West, with reference to the way the whole NATO issue had been handled, seemed, therefore, to confirm the point of the hardliners in the Russian administration, that blamed the West for exploiting “Russia’s weaknesses” to impose its political and military influence in the former Warsaw Pact’s countries, as well as “to bring NATO as close as possible to Russia’s borders”[11]. To issue invitations to be part of the Alliance to countries hostile to Moscow, reinforced the impression that “friendly rhetoric notwithstanding”, NATO remained, perhaps, even more than in the past, “an implicitly anti-Russia” military alliance[12].

Therefore, the possible return of an imperialistic Russia would have been rather inherent to the humiliation the country suffered in the aftermath of the Cold War, as beaten great powers usually become ambitious again as soon as they have the chance. NATO’s enlargement, therefore, can be told both as the story of the betrayal of the tacit promise made at the time Germany re-united, and, especially, as the story of how the “geopolitical greed” inevitably compromised cooperation with former powerful adversary, that still possessed an enormous nuclear arsenal and therefore was essential to address a wide range “of critical international problems”[13].


[1] R. K. Betts, “The three faces of NATO”, The National Interest, March-April 2009, p. 17.

[2] A. Garfinkle, “NATO enlargement: what’s the rush?”, The National Interest, Vol. 46, Winter 1996-1997.

[3] J. M. Goldgeier, “NATO Expansion: The Anatomy of a Decision”, Washington Quarterly, Vol. 21 Issue 1, 1998, p. 92.

[4] P. W. Rodman, “NATO enlargement: what’s the rush?”, The National Interest, Vol. 46, Winter 1996-1997.

[5]A. Pushkov, “Russia and the West: an engendered relationship?”, NATO Review, Vol. 42, No. 1, February 1994;

[6] Ivi.

[7] R. K. Betts, op. cit., p. 17.

[8] A. Pushkov, op. cit.

[9] Ivi.

[10] R. K. Betts, op. cit., p. 17.

[11] A. Pushkov, op. cit.

[12] R. K. Betts, op. cit., p. 18.

[13] A. Garfinkle, op. cit.

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