Michael KreponNATO Expansion and the Great Unraveling of Arms Control

Quotes of the week:

“An alliance is like a chain. It is not made stronger by adding weak links to it.” — Walter Lippmann, Today and Tomorrow column, August 5, 1952

“An alliance is effective only to the extent that it reflects a common purpose and that it represents an accretion of strength to its members.” — Henry Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy

“Alliances are worthwhile when they put into words a real community of interests; otherwise they lead only to confusion and disaster.” — A.J.P. Taylor, Origins of the Second World War

The apogee of nuclear arms control occurred in a ten-year period between 1986 and 1996. In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to on-site inspections for conventional military exercises in Europe and the Reykjavik summit happened. Both broke the dam holding back nuclear treaties. Ten years later in 1996, Bill Clinton prodded reluctant nuclear-armed members of the Nonproliferation Treaty to complete negotiations on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In between, there were conventional and nuclear arms reduction treaties, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the indefinite extension of the NPT, and much more.

After this golden decade, we’ve been heading downhill. Conventional and nuclear arms control compacts have unraveled. When did the conditions for this downhill slide fall into place, and what were the key contributors?

There were many reasons for decline that were unrelated to arms control, like the end of the Cold War. Of more direct consequence, I’ll mention only three: the decision to expand NATO, aerial bombardment to stop Serbian aggression after the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the insistent pursuit by Republicans on Capitol Hill, codified in public law, of a national missile defense.

All three occurred during the first Clinton administration. The seeds that led to the Great Unraveling of conventional and nuclear arms control were planted then — it just wasn’t apparent at the time. 

In my view, it was essential to stop Slobodan Milošević’s war crimes. Doing so damaged U.S. relations with Moscow, but this was a necessary cost of humanitarian intervention. (There were also unnecessary costs to U.S.-China relations after the mistaken bombing of Beijing’s embassy in Belgrade, but that’s another story.) I don’t think that the Balkan Wars ensured the downturn of U.S.-Russian relations. For this we must look to NATO expansion and the death of the ABM Treaty. Let’s set aside, for now, the ABM Treaty’s demise and focus on NATO expansion.

I grant that there were serious moral and ethical rationales to expand NATO’s protective umbrella to states that yearned for freedom after the Soviet Union’s dissolution. There were few apparent costs in pursuing NATO expansion when Russia was in dire straits. Later, when Russia’s fortunes revived, NATO membership could serve as a deterrent to being overrun.

Advocates of NATO expansion didn’t offer this last argument. To the contrary, they offered assurance that an era of confrontation had been replaced by an era of partnership, so no worries. Critics of NATO expansion were the worriers. They argued that expansion invited clashes of interest with a revanchist Russia while overextending U.S. military commitments.

In my view, critics offered the stronger arguments and that expanding NATO was a strategic mistake, one likely to result, at best, in a weaker alliance, both militarily and politically. The Partnership for Peace concept of cooperation short of alliance was a sounder idea, but wasn’t politically sustainable. The foreign policy establishment was largely in bipartisan accord that NATO expansion was both moral and essential.

Political pressures were all in the direction of NATO expansion. One advocate was Henry Kissinger, whose view changed: he was wary of NATO expansion during the Cold War but in favor of it after the Cold War ended. Many Republican strategists and political leaders championed a “freedom agenda,” while their Democratic counterparts embraced the goal of a Europe “whole and free.”

Mistaken assumptions fueled NATO expansion. The Clinton administration assumed that delicate balances could be struck between domestic political imperatives and national security interests. Team Clinton believed it could keep the pace of NATO expansion slow after postponing it to a second term in deference to Boris Yeltsin’s woes. The first tranche was modest – only three central European states distant from Russia’s borders. But the door was now wide open, and the mantra of ending Cold War divisions opened that door to almost everyone.

Then came the George W. Bush administration which assumed that a weakened Moscow could only react with complaint, not strenuous countermeasures. Bush and his advisers dispensed with Clinton’s hesitancy and put pedal to the metal to expand NATO eastward. If Poland was in, so, too, were the Baltic states. Hard-nosed realism morphed into transformationalism, as Team Bush even pushed for the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia. Over time, as Russia rebounded, there was strong pushback, as George Kennan and others predicted.

The sentiments expressed by Lippmann, Kissinger and Taylor in the quotes listed above still make sense to me. It’s not wise to expand military alliances with states that do not add appreciable military power and that are not defensible by conventional means if deterrence breaks down. It’s also not wise to expand a military alliance for the purpose of advancing democratic norms when membership is no bar to reversion to authoritarian tendencies. Turkey, Hungary and Poland are now weakening the political sinews of alliance from within.

Addition compounds weakness. NATO now has 29 members, all of whom enjoy the core Article Five obligation of collective defense. Montenegro, the newest member, maintains an active duty force of 2,400 soldiers. Its leader is trashing democratic norms.

NATO expansion ensured that an era of confrontation followed an abbreviated era of partnership, just the reverse of what advocates propounded. But not right away because Putin was still operating from a position of weakness. Even then, Russian proxies held territories in newly independent Moldavia and Georgia, but the patina of U.S.-Russian cooperation remained, even when Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty. For a time, Putin also swallowed his resentment of the deals Gorbachev and Yeltsin struck over the qualms of the General Staff, which began to find its footing in 2008 fighting against Georgia.

Provisions of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and its companion confidence- and security-building measures that reflected the Soviet Union’s demise were the first to be disregarded. The INF Treaty’s disallowance of missiles deemed necessary for revived Russian chess-playing in Europe and Asia was violated. The umbrella agreement for Cooperative Threat Reduction projects expired, and so on.

Even so, the Ukrainian Revolution moved the goal posts, the proverbial last straw for Putin. The annexation of Crimea and hybrid warfare in eastern Ukraine followed. But what of the straws before it? Was Putin going to be Putin regardless, or might conventional and nuclear arms control have survived had Clinton and Bush 43 made different decisions?

We’ll never know because the likelihood of different decisions was almost nil. There was only one Cabinet member on Clinton’s team – William Perry at the Pentagon – who expressed serious qualms about NATO expansion, and Perry’s position was to buy time until the end of the decade rather than to staunchly oppose. As Perry recounts in his memoir, he was given the courtesy of a National Security Council meeting on December 21, 1994 where his arguments were met with silence, followed by a rebuttal by Vice President Al Gore. The die was cast.

NATO expansion was pre-cooked by late 1993. It would have taken an extraordinarily farsighted President, largely immune from political pressures — George H.W. Bush? — to have opted for political, military and economic engagement without NATO expansion. Even then, we can’t discount the possibility that Putin would have run roughshod over Ukrainian sovereignty after the Orange Revolution.

All of this is idle speculation. Not to have expanded NATO would have required great restraint against a prostrate foe after winning the Cold War. These conditions didn’t exist at the outset of the Clinton administration. And even had Clinton chosen not to expand NATO, George W. Bush and his team of triumphalists and romantics were dead set on doing so. We’re dealing with the consequences now.

Note to readers: An edited version of the essay appeared in The National Interest on January 29, 2020.


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    NATO did not expand either to Georgia or Ukraine, two countries where Russia has intervened with its military. NATO expansion was irrelevant to these Russian military attacks. Eastern European nations have generally seen NATO membership as a bulwark against the possibility of future Russian attacks. The U.S. likely avoided NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine, precisely because the risk of future Russian attack was too high.

    Nuclear weapons are ineffective against color revolutions, so no need for Russia to stop negotiating or implementing nuclear arms control treaties. Conventional forces limits would not have stopped the Russian invasions, so no reason for Russia to violate these either.

    For domestic political reasons, Putin has chosen to portray NATO as a hostile foreign entity that justifies his continued rule.

  2. Thomas G. Mitchell (History)

    It made sense to expand NATO to include the former Warsaw Pact members in Eastern Europe, but not the former Soviet republics in the Baltics, Georgia, or Ukraine. There is a strong moral case for including the old Central European countries that see themselves as part of the West and have established stable democracies with market economies. The same moral case could possibly be made for the Baltic states, but they are indefensible from the West. We should instead have negotiated the Finlandization of the Baltics–internal autonomy in exchange for neutrality. Something similar should have been attempted for Ukraine and Georgia. If Ukraine had kept its nuclear weapons i.e. the former Soviet weapons stationed on its territory, Putin would be much more respectful of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

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