Washington’s Broken Promise on NATO Enlargement?

As it was so eloquently stated in the leader of Friday’s Economist, President Barack Obama is becoming known as a guy who is easy to push around in terms of foreign policy.  The Kremlin has been given quite a few concessions – most importantly the cancellation of the missile shield – but the big kahuna is still out there:  Will an American administration ever recognize that it broke a spoken agreement with the Russians not to expand NATO into former Warsaw Pact countries following the reunification of Germany?  Perhaps more importantly, what would happen if they did talk about breaking their word … would it be the last kiss goodbye to Eastern Europe before slipping into Russia’s reclaimed sphere of influence, or would it just be a lesson that you should always get your deals signed on paper?

The story has become something of an urban legend, and was the basis for a heated debate between Ariel Cohen and Stephen Cohen on the Dan Rather show.  There are those who deny that the negotiations were ever so specific (especially given that Helmut Kohl could not speak on behalf of Washington), while others who complain of this as a key betrayal cannot produce a written piece of evidence.  Writing in the New York Times today, Marie Elise Sarotte of USC takes a look at this underpinning of U.S.-Russia hostility:

In essentially settling for a gentleman’s agreement, Mr. Gorbachevmissed some important pitfalls and then failed to do anything aboutthem. First, Mr. Kohl spoke for West Germany, not for the United Statesor for NATO as a whole. Second, the Soviet leader got nothing about thetrans-Atlantic alliance in writing. Third, Mr. Gorbachev did notcriticize Mr. Kohl publicly when he and Mr. Bush later agreed to offeronly a special military status to the former East Germany instead of apledge that NATO wouldn’t expand. Finally, he did not catch subtlesignals that, by early 1990, speculative discussion in the West aboutNATO’s future involved the inclusion of Eastern Europe as well. Mr.Gorbachev later complained to Mr. Kohl that he felt he had fallen intoa trap.

Did the United States betray Russia at the dawn of thepost-cold war era? The short answer is no. Nothing legally bindingemerged from the negotiations over German unification. In fact, inSeptember 1990, an embattled Mr. Gorbachev signed the accords thatallowed NATO to extend itself over the former East Germany in exchangefor financial assistance from Bonn to Moscow. A longer answer, however,shows that there were mixed messages and diplomatic ambiguities.