"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 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, President Bill Clinton oversaw the completion of negotiations on a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. In between, there were conventional and nuclear arms reduction treaties, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the indefinite extension of the Nonproliferation Treaty, and much more.
After this golden decade, we've headed 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?
The Great Unraveling seemed to begin during the first Clinton administration—it just wasn’t apparent at that time. Planted amidst the Clinton administration’s success stories during its first term were the seeds that led to the demise of conventional and nuclear arms control. The most prominent markers on this downhill path were the Clinton administration’s commitment in principle 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, for a national missile defense.
This seemed to be an essential step toward stopping Slobodan Milošević’s war crimes. Unfortunately, it damaged U.S.-Moscow relations but that was just the necessary cost of humanitarian intervention. (There were also unnecessary costs to U.S.-China relations after the mistaken bombing of Beijing’s embassy, but that’s another story.) It is unlikely that the Balkan Wars ensured the downturn of U.S.-Russian relations. That may have begin with NATO expansion and the death of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
There were, of course, moral and ethical reasons to expand NATO's protective umbrella to states that yearned for freedom after the Soviet Union's dissolution. And if those reasons allowed for easy gains when Russia was in dire straits, then they would also be valid when Russia's fortunes revived, as NATO membership could serve as a deterrent to being overrun.
Advocates of NATO expansion didn't make that 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 worried ones. They argued that expansion invited clashes of interest with a stronger Russia while overextending U.S. military commitments.
In some cases, critics offered the stronger arguments. And to some extent, expanding NATO was a strategic mistake, one that may likely result 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 sentiments expressed by Lippmann, Kissinger and Taylor in the quotes listed above appear accurate in this light. It is unwise to expand military alliances with states that do not add appreciable military power and that are not defensible by conventional means. Also, it is unwise to expand a military alliance for the purpose of advancing democratic norms when a political-military alliance cannot defend itself against political backsliding. NATO now has authoritarian leaders within its ranks as Turkey, Hungary and Poland weaken the alliance from within.
Addition compounds weakness. NATO now has twenty-nine members, all of whom enjoy the core Article Five obligation of collective defense. Montenegro, the newest member, maintains an active duty force of twenty-four hundred soldiers.
The Clinton administration was under great pressure to expand NATO. 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."
The Clinton administration 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.
NATO expansion was based on two mistaken assumptions—that delicate balances could be struck between domestic political imperatives and national security interests, and that a weakened Moscow could only react with complaint, not strenuous countermeasures.
Then came the George W. Bush administration which pursued a different agenda. Bush and his advisers dispensed with Clinton’s hesitancy and put the pedal to the metal to expand NATO eastward. If Poland was in then so, too, were the Baltic states. Team Bush pushed for the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia. Hard-nosed realists morphed into transformationalists. Over time, as Russia rebounded, there was strong pushback, as George Kennan and others predicted.
NATO expansion ensured that an era of confrontation would follow 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 Moldova and Georgia, but the patina of U.S.-Russian cooperation remained. So did Putin’s resentment of the deals Gorbachev and Yeltsin made over the qualms of the General Staff of the Defense Forces of Georgia, which began to find its footing in the 2008 war.
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 was a game changer, 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 if Clinton and Bush 43 made different decisions?
Alas, the likelihood of different decisions was 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 rather than to staunchly oppose the expansion. As Perry recounts in his memoir, he was given the courtesy of a National Security Council meeting where he was met with silence and rebutted by Vice President Al Gore. The die was cast.
NATO expansion was pre-cooked in 1993. It would have taken an extraordinarily farsighted president, largely immune from political pressures, to have opted for political, military and economic engagement without NATO expansion. Even then, don'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 foresight and unnatural 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. America is dealing with the consequences now.
Michael Krepon is the co-founder of the Stimson Center. He is writing a book on the rise, demise and revival of nuclear arms control.