From Da to Nyet: How U.S. Diplomacy Helped Transform Russia from Potential Ally into Strategic Adversary

A great diplomatic mistake with repercussions now being felt today. 

The intense diplomatic activity that accompanies the end of a major international war has two broad objectives: first, for the winners, maximizing their gains and, for the losers, minimizing their losses; second, creating a new and more stable international system so that a renewal of the carnage the participants have just endured is less likely. The Thirty Years’ War, the War of the Spanish Succession, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and World Wars I and II all either followed or produced a breakdown of the old system. These breakdowns were characterized by a significant change in the number of players in the system, a dramatic change in the relative power of one or more of the players and/or a change in the ideological or normative basis of the old order.

Our predecessors’ efforts to create a stable international system demonstrate that it is not an easy task. Part of the reason for this is that the diplomatic objectives of self-aggrandizement and system stability are not necessarily compatible. If all of the major powers have an important stake in the new system, ipso facto they also have a stake in maintaining its stability. If a major power sees itself as fundamentally disadvantaged by the new system, that power will not consider it legitimate and will seek to undermine it. The victorious powers initially excluded France from the 1815 Vienna Conference deliberations. French foreign minister Talleyrand told them that only France could give the results of the Conference what was most needed—legitimacy. For reasons that may have had more to do with the interests of the victorious powers and Talleyrand’s diplomatic maneuvering than his normative arguments, France was brought into the Conference’s deliberations and supported its results, which, as we all know, led to the longest period of relative peace in the history of the European state system. Talleyrand was right. Only France, the losing power, could give the new system legitimacy.

An alternate approach, that of the French after World War I, attempts to combine self-aggrandizement with enhancing system stability by permanently destroying, weakening or dismantling the losing state. The history of the European state system seems to show that that approach may work successfully with small states, but is more likely when applied to larger ones to lead to instability.

The end of the Cold War had effects on the international system that were as dramatic as those of any of the major hot wars of the prior 300 plus years. The years 1989-1991 saw the breakdown of one of the two principal military alliances in the system, the discrediting and collapse of one of the two principal ideologies competing for global acceptance, and a significant increase in the number of actors in the system brought about by the dissolution of one of the world’s two superpowers. Negotiating a peaceful end to the Cold War was a great diplomatic achievement. A little over two decades later, however, we can see that post–Cold War diplomacy did not create a stable international system. Why did diplomacy succeed at the one task, yet fail at the other?

U.S. Diplomatic Priorities at the End of the Cold War

U.S. diplomacy during this period was preoccupied with two questions: achieving greater nuclear stability at lower levels and obtaining Soviet agreement to a reunited Germany that would remain a NATO member. The United States achieved these objectives, primarily through negotiations in which most concessions came from the Soviet side. There were at the time, and there remain, different views on why the Soviet Union made those concessions. From my perspective at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, where I was Minister Counselor for Political Affairs from 1988-91, the concessions occurred because Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was attempting to achieve a wholesale reorientation of his country’s foreign policy. His objective was to create conditions that would allow the Soviet Union to resume Russia’s traditional role as an accepted member of the European community. His foreign-policy objectives grew out of his domestic concerns. He knew that the Soviet economic infrastructure was breaking down and that its political system, chiefly marked by cynicism and corruption, rested on no stronger foundation than sullen obedience or dispirited acquiescence. He hoped that a foreign-policy reorientation would put into motion a virtuous cycle of domestic events: major reductions in defense spending, increased investment in economic infrastructure and consumer goods, leading to renewed public support and enthusiasm. This is not what happened, but from the perspective of the mid-1980s, it would not have seemed an inherently flawed approach.