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.

The United States responded by pocketing the concessions on the issues at the top of its diplomatic agenda. For the most part, it left out of the negotiations the question of the Soviet (later Russian) role in the new system that was taking shape. This appears to have been partly inadvertent, and partly by design. Although he did not want to crow about it, President Bush considered the Soviet Union a defeated power. Victorious powers have rarely given defeated ones much consideration as they reorganized the international system, and the end of the Cold War was no exception. Robert Zoellick, a member of the small circle of Bush/Baker advisors who formulated U.S. foreign policy, advocated giving the Soviet Union the appearance, but not the reality of a say in post–Cold War arrangements. With these two major issues occupying the time and intellectual energy of the small policy-making circle in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment (which also had such other questions as Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait to deal with), it is not surprising that little attention was paid at the time to thinking about the structure and organizing principles of the new international system that was emerging. The Bush administration essentially punted these questions to its successors in the Clinton administration.

The Flawed U.S. Diplomacy of the 1990s

The 1990s were almost inevitably going to lead to a period of Russian disillusionment with its turn toward the West. Their expectations were wildly optimistic and bound, at some point, to require reassessment—a reassessment that could lead to a more realistic basis for a constructive long-term relationship, or to a turn toward the more autarkic tendencies that have been a periodic feature of Russian policy. U.S. diplomacy could not determine how that reassessment came out, but it could influence it. Unfortunately, our diplomacy influenced it in the more undesirable direction.

This diplomatic failure occurred on several fronts. First, our primitive understanding of Russian political culture allowed a wildly optimistic view about what was happening in Russia during this period. Where we saw the beginnings of Jeffersonian democracy and free markets, Russians saw social chaos and economic collapse. Under those circumstances, it was quite predictable that Russia’s domestic policies would begin to tilt in a more authoritarian direction. Any diplomacy that is not predicated on a correct assessment of the other country’s reality is built on sand.

Second, we spent most of the decade telling the Russians what was in their interest, rather than listening to them. This occurred on issues large and small, but most significantly on the issue of NATO expansion. This is not the place to debate again the pros and cons of the issue, but its impact on Russia’s view of the new international system should not have come as a surprise. Andrei Kozyrev, probably the most pro-Western foreign minister in Russia’s long history, told us both publicly and privately, shortly before he lost his job, what the impact of NATO expansion would be on Russian reform and reformers. Employing diplomacy cannot reconcile conflicting interests without a willingness to hear the other side define its interests.

Third, we tossed them scraps and expected them to think it was filet. We offered the Russians figurative, but not substantive involvement in selected Western institutions. We appeared to believe they could not understand the difference, managing at the same time to commit the diplomatic errors of both deluding ourselves and insulting them.

Finally, instead of working to establish agreed principles, we appeared to operate on the basis of short-term self-interest. Our principle on NATO membership—anyone may apply—really meant that anyone except Russia might apply. We applied the principles of territorial integrity, noninterference in internal affairs and self-determination selectively and in ways that the Russians saw as harmful to their interests. Kosovo’s right of self-determination took precedence over Serbia’s right of territorial integrity, but Georgia’s right of territorial integrity took precedence over Abkhazia’s right of self-determination. Reaching a common understanding on the meaning of these conflicting principles was an essential, if extremely difficult element in creating a more stable international system. We never really tried. We interfered in the domestic affairs of countries in the name of democracy—Libya, Syria—but supported the violent overthrow of democratically elected regimes whose policies we did not like—Ukraine is the most significant case in point.

Russia’s Reaction

At the end of the Cold War, Russia sought inclusion in the new international system that was taking shape. On the one hand, Russians recognized that their country was greatly weakened and they did not like that. The enduring unpopularity of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, among their countrymen, testifies to what Russians think of leaders who do not take proper care of their domains. On the other hand, they did not consider themselves defeated. They had themselves defeated an oppressive political system, released their Cold War allies, renounced a failed ideology and voluntarily and remarkably peacefully dissolved the largest empire in the world. They believed that they had earned the right to be treated as a partner in major international decisions, rather than as the subordinate in a power relationship. They were disappointed in this hope. From a Russian cultural perspective, the United States behaved after the end of the Cold War in exactly the way the more powerful party in a relationship would be expected to behave. Russians are not accustomed to thinking of authority as divisible. In an authority-based relationship, one side has all of the power and the other has none. This is a relationship they have no incentive to continue, embedded in a system that they have numerous reasons to try to undermine.

The Ukraine Crisis and a Europe Whole and Free

The Ukraine crisis demonstrates how dysfunctional this relationship has become, but also offers an opportunity to begin to change it. A Georgia, or a Ukraine, embedded in Western economic and political institutions would not appear threatening to a Russia also so embedded. The obstacles to achieving that are formidable and would probably take decades of tough diplomatic negotiating to overcome. But so did the movement from the European Coal and Steel Community to the European Union, a principal and thus far successful intention of which was to integrate Germany into the European states system. This is a diplomatic effort that the European states themselves should probably lead. They have had recent positive experience in this area, are the most directly concerned and are generally not burdened by the messianic or moralistic impulses that periodically afflict U.S. diplomacy. The three-way negotiations among the EU, Ukraine and Russia aimed at working out an economic arrangement—albeit one that would certainly also have political connotations that all three parties can live with—are a starting point. If properly utilized, those negotiations could provide a venue for creating a common European home that would exclude neither Russia, nor the United States. Stable and productive relationships in that broad area would provide a good framework for undertaking the potentially even more difficult task of peacefully integrating the rising Asian powers into the international system.

Raymond Smith spent roughly 25 years in the US Foreign Service, including six in Moscow. Significant assignments included Minister Counselor for Political Affairs, Moscow and Director, Office of former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Bureau of Intelligence and Research. He is the author of Negotiating with the Soviets (Indiana University Press, 1989) and The Craft of Political Analysis for Diplomats (Potomac Press, 2011).

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