The Role of NATO: Enlargement Revisited

Friday, March 11, 2022
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Professor, School of International Service, American University; Visiting Scholar, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University; Visiting Fellow, Center on United States and Europe, Brookings Institution; CFR Member

Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; CFR Member

Professor of Political Science, Barnard College, and Faculty Member, Harriman Institute for Russian and Central European Studies; Columbia University; CFR Member


Cofounder and Principal, Global Alliance Advisors, LLC; Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, U.S. Department of Defense; Former Chair, NATO High Level Group; CFR Member

Panelists discuss NATO and its expansion since the Cold War, whether NATO enlargement was a mistake or strategically necessary, whether NATO's actions helped inflame current tensions with Russia over Ukraine, and how NATO should address Russian aggression now and in the future. 

LONG: Thank you very much, and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, “The Role of NATO: Enlargement Revisited.”

I am Mary Beth Long. I’m co-founder and principal of Global Alliance Advisors. I’m also the former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs and the chair of NATO’s high-level group. I will be presiding over today’s discussion.

The first thing I’d like to do is introduce our experts today. We have some pretty incredible people, so I hope you will enjoy the session.

The first expert we have today is Kimberly Martin. And Kimberly is a professor of political science at Barnard College, which is part of Columbia University. She specializes in international relations, international security and, not surprisingly, Russia.

Our second expert today is Michael Mandelbaum. Michael is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. And that’s in Washington, D.C. He’s also taught at Harvard and Columbia Universities, and at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. He’s a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

And our third expert today, of course, is James—I’m going to say it wrong; I apologize, James—James Goldgeier, who is a visiting fellow at the Center of the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at the School of International Service at American University. He was dean there from 2011 to 2017. And in 2018 and 2019, he held the Library of Congress chair on Russia-U.S. relations. So another expert to bring to the table.

The first thing I’d like to do is ask all three experts: Has NATO enlargement worked? And has it contributed to the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia? Let’s go ahead and start with you, Kim.

MARTIN: Thanks, Mary Beth. And thank you to all of you for joining me. And I’m really looking forward to this discussion.

So I think that that question has two parts. And the first part is, did NATO enlargement work to provide security for its new members and its existing members? For the new members, I can tell you, if I were in Poland right now or if I were in the Baltic States, I’d be very, very glad that I had been admitted into NATO because I think we now have proof that we didn’t really have earlier of just how aggressive Russian intentions under the Putin regime are.

On the question of whether NATO enlargement is responsible for the current crisis, and whether it actually motivated Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, which is one thing that he claimed among all of the other claims that he has made in the past few weeks, I think the answer is probably no. The research that I’ve done indicates that Russia was always very unhappy about NATO enlargement, but the reason that it was unhappy was because of the loss of status and Russia’s being excluded from what it saw as this new security architecture in Europe, not because it truly felt any kind of military threat from NATO enlargement.

LONG: That’s pretty concise. Michael, what is your thinking along those lines?

MANDELBAUM: NATO expansion was and is—or, was, I shouldn’t say is—a mistake in the 1990s for five reasons. First, it brought no benefits. The claim by its promoters that it was going to foster and consolidate democracy in the new members was always hollow and doesn’t look any better twenty-five years later. Second, NATO expansion broke a promise that various American officials had given to various Russian and Soviet officials that NATO would not expand. Now, this is a controversial point. There’s a lot of literature about it. And the defense of NATO expansion seems to boil down to the assertion that we didn’t put it in writing for the Russians.

This seems to me an unfortunate argument because it puts NATO and the United States in the position of a kind of dishonest businessperson whose word can’t be trusted. Anyway, what really matter is not whether or not it was in writing but whether or not it was a good idea. And it was not a good idea at the time, for a third reason. It did have a steep cost. It turned Russian opinion—not just elite opinion but mass opinion—against the West, against the United States. It made anti-Western policy the default of Russian foreign policy. And, not least important, it provided Vladimir Putin with a condition, atmosphere, and argument that he was able to draw on in conducting his aggressive foreign policy.

Fourth, there was no real need for NATO expansion. It’s not true that there was no security order in Europe at the time. There was, in fact, a new and better security order, consisting of various treaties, arms agreements, international organizations, informal customs, domestic changes. I wrote about this new security order in a number of my books and called it the common security order. That phrase will not be familiar to most people taking part in this Zoom meeting, which shows how well it caught on. But it failed to catch on, among other reasons, because we destroyed it in NATO expansion, when what we should have been doing is trying to build on and solidify the most favorable European security order in Europe in history.

Fifth and finally, there was an alternative to NATO expansion. And that was the Partnership for Peace, which the United States devised in 1994. It was open to all European countries. It did not rule out NATO membership. But it was a way of hedging and buying time to see how things would turn out in Russia. Most importantly of all, and referring to Kim’s point about Russian resentment of being excluded, the Partnership for Peace included rather than excluded Russia. So for all those reasons, in the 1990s, it was a mistake. We are, of course, living in very different circumstances now. And so to understand and evaluate NATO we have to do it in a completely different context.

LONG: Thank you. Mr. Goldgeier, you have to let me at least pronounce your name the first time—or, this time correctly. So, Jim, what’s your thinking?

GOLDGEIER: Well, I mean, when I look at this brutal assault on Ukraine, I do think, as Kim seems to, thank goodness for NATO enlargement. I just think what Central and Eastern Europe would look like if that territory was not in NATO, sitting there insecure between Russia and the West. I just can’t even imagine right now how much of that would be insecure. And on Michael’s point about Partnership for Peace being enough, I mean, Partnership for Peace did not include the NATO Article 5 security guarantee. And we’ve seen that Putin seems to take Article 5 seriously. He does seem to distinguish between a country like Ukraine that doesn’t have it and countries like Estonia and Poland, that do.

I think it’s important, when we think back on NATO enlargement, to recognize this wasn’t one policy, one decision. It was a policy that proceeded in stages. And so with the first round of 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic coming in, you know, it was problematic for Russia. It certainly irritated Russia. At the same time they were coming in there was the Kosovo War. The Kosovo War was much more difficult for the U.S.-Russia relationship than Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic coming in. And those three countries came in in conjunction with the NATO-Russia Founding Act, the effort by NATO to try to reassure Russia that this was not directed against Russia, and to try to make some assurances about not moving equipment—permanently stationing troops and infrastructure in these new members to try to alleviate Russian concerns.

2004, the bit—so-called big bang, seven more countries coming in, including the three Baltics—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. A little more problematic, certainly, for the Russians, as these were formerly Republics of the Soviet Union. But I think even there, that could have been managed over time. I think it was managed, because those three former Soviet Republics had a special status during the Cold War. Their illegal incorporation into the Soviet Union was never recognized by the West. And when Putin—even when Putin in recent months has been talking about the former Soviet Union he talks about twelve former Republics, not fifteen.

And then we come to 2008, the Bucharest Declaration, that declared Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. I think this was a foolish thing to do in 2008. It was the worst of all worlds because it prejudged Ukraine and Georgia being able to do what was necessary to become NATO members, without providing them any path for membership. And really what it mainly did was provide Putin an excuse to take the kind of action that he’s taken against Ukraine. It’s been very clear to everyone that Ukraine, in fact, was not going to be joining NATO. And so I think that—I mean, it was a foolish thing to do and it exacerbated tensions.

But I think to lump all of that together with NATO enlargement, and then—and then argue that NATO enlargement altogether was a mistake, I just—I just don’t see it. And I just think that Central and Eastern Europe is much more stable and secure place than it would have been absent NATO enlargement. I also don’t believe the EU really could have enlarged, absent NATO enlargement, the security and stability provided. So, for example, I just don’t see how Estonia would have been able to join the EU if it had not been a member of NATO.

LONG: Michael, in that the other two seem to have a different view than you do, I want to give you a chance to respond before we move on. But one of the things I’m in particular interested in is a lot of arguments that the enlargement was appropriate, at least for many, boiled down to the fact that why shouldn’t these nations be able to choose their own path? And that one of the paths open to them, of course, was membership in NATO. And how do you respond to that and what’s your take of what Kim and James put forth?

MANDELBAUM: Sure. NATO expansion set Russia off on a completely different path in foreign policy from the one it was following until then. The path that it set Russia off on is the one that led eventually to the invasion of Ukraine. The path Russia was following before that was an entirely different path. And if Russia had stayed on that path—and, of course, we don’t know what would have happened—but if it had stayed on that path we wouldn’t have had anything like the kind of Russian foreign policy that we’ve seen, which has culminated so far in in Ukraine.

Let me make one other point. At the time of the original NATO expansion debate, I and others—and there were some very distinguished people, George Kennan, Professor Richard Pipes, the great historian of the Russian revolution, Jack Matlock, the leading Soviet specialist in the foreign service of his generation, Sam Nunn, who opposed NATO expansion. And those of us who opposed it said, among other things, that we fear that what now has happened would happen. That it would make for a revanchist Russia. At that time, the senior officials of the Clinton administration and those who defended NATO expansion assured us, and the country, and the world, and, as I learned, the members of the Senate who had to vote on this matter, that no such thing was conceivable. So at least on that issue, on whether NATO expansion could lead to an invasion of Ukraine, we, the opponents, were right and the proponents were wrong.

LONG: Kim, I see you shaking your head on whether this was a change or precipitated a change in Russian foreign policy. I want to give you the chance to address that. But you also made the point that really7 the excuse of Putin that this is a security issue may not be the driving force. And then finally, sort of integrated in what Michael said, is the idea that whoever would be the current leader would be on a different track in foreign policy now if we did not have the NATO institution and the fact of the enlargement, which comes to actually bring to question is that true of Putin, the former KGB? I mean, would he have been any different, or would he not have been elected then if there weren’t a NATO? How do you frame your response?

MARTIN: Those are really good questions. And I want to slightly disagree with Michael about the history of what happened with Russian policy. We have to remember, first of all, that there was a very strong nationalist opposition that was referred to sometimes as the red-brown coalition between people who were former communists that were very angry to be kicked out of power under the Yeltsin era, democratic attempt in Russia, and people who were more fascist or nationalist in that sense in their beliefs.

And already there were criticisms about Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, his foreign policy minister, and then of Yeltsin of being far too cooperative with the West and with NATO, long before anybody was publicly talking about NATO enlargement. In October 1993, we had the violent standoff over the White House in Moscow between the Russian armed services and between people who were in the legislature at that time who were more sympathetic to what the red-brown coalition wanted. All of that happened before NATO enlargement. And so it simply is not the case that NATO enlargement is what caused Russia to set off on that path.

If we’re then looking at the progress of NATO enlargement and what happened simultaneously, Jim is absolutely right when he talks about the Kosovo War in 1999 as having a much more distinct impact on Russian foreign policy than NATO enlargement did. And I think we have to keep separate the idea of the enlargement of NATO geographically versus the enlargement of NATO missions and of U.S. mission. And so the NATO involvement in Kosovo did not have approval from the U.N. Security Council and Russia felt like its veto in the U.N. Security Council was being ignored, we saw the exact same thing happen 2003 with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. We also had the U.S.-unilateral decision to vacate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Russia had seen as one of the markers of its status in the world. And so I think it’s a mistake to blame NATO enlargement.

In terms of the military consequence of NATO enlargement, the evidence we had is that what actually bothered Putin the most was the inclusion not of the Baltic States in that second tranche of enlargement, but actually the inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria. And if you look at a map, what you see is that there are exactly two countries besides Russia who are not NATO members along the Black Sea. And those are Georgia and Ukraine. And so when we’re thinking about something that could have been done differently, in addition to what Michael Mandelbaum had talked about in terms of moving more slowly with a Partnership for Peace going forward for a number of years before NATO enlargement happened so quickly—which is something that many people were advocating, including William Perry in the Defense Department.

But, you know, one of the things that we could have done was to be more reassuring to Russia bout some programs that the United States after Bulgaria and Romania became NATO members, to reassure Russia that the very small number of U.S. troops and the very small infrastructure improvements that were being made to bases in those countries was not threatening. And so I think that would have been an era where maybe there could have been either some slowing down or some just more attempts to reassure Russia at that time. But, you know, Russia started being a bad actor already by 1999, when it had its troops deployed illegally in Moldova and Georgia and wasn’t doing anything that was in accord with the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty about what it was supposed to do about notifications of that. So I think it’s a real mistake to believe that this is one sided on the part of the United States and NATO, and that NATO’s geographical enlargement is really what’s to blame.

LONG: That actually raises an interesting point. Thanks, Kim.

Jim, are we asking the wrong question? I mean, is this not so much about NATO enlargement but, to bring in some of Michael’s points, is this actually about then Russia’s fear of Black Sea and its security issues regarding the Black Sea, and the countries that share a border with that? Is this at bottom a security issue? Or is this at bottom then really something different about Georgia and Ukraine because of the special relationship of being part of the Russian soul, as Vladimir Putin has said? Are we on the right track even talking about NATO enlargement?

GOLDGEIER: Well, I think it’s—you know, as somebody who’s written a lot about NATO enlargement, I never mind a discussion about NATO enlargement. And I do think one of the things that is important to note, even though I just vehemently disagree with Michael’s argument, is that at least he in the ’90s was putting out an alternative idea. I think a lot of people just say NATO enlargement was bad, and they don’t tell us, well, what would you have done instead? All of the policies that—the policy that was chosen and the policies that could have been chosen all had costs and benefits. And I think it’s really important to weigh those and consider those.

Russia has legitimate security interests. So does Ukraine. So does Estonia. So does Poland. So does the United States. Countries have security interests. And I think, you know, when Putin put out the demands in mid-December about the things that he was asking for, you know, I think the United States and its NATO allies were ready to negotiate with him on a number of different issues that would have tried to create a greater sense of security on all sides. I think the problem in this case really does come back to Vladimir Putin. 1989 in Dresden at the KGB office, surrounded, you know, wanting help from Moscow. And, as he wrote in his memoir, you know, Moscow was silent.

Anger at the Soviet Union, anger at Gorbachev for not backing him up, backing up his colleagues, Gorbachev allowing the Soviet Union to collapse. And, as Putin put it on March 18th of 2014, in announcing the annexation of Crimea and justifying it, that, you know, you had people who lived in one country one day and then woke up the next day in a different country. And he’d been very angry at sort of Russians being left outside of Russia. And sees himself as having this historical mission to regather these territories and bring them back into the fold, and into this greater Russian empire.

That’s a pretty difficult issue for the West, given the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, respect for, you know, not changing borders by force and only having a peaceful change, as there was with Czechoslovakia splitting into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Countries’ ability to choose their own futures. I mean, he is upending the international order for his vision of a Russian empire. And there’s no reason that we have to give that legitimacy.

LONG: Michael, I was really taken by your five points. They were very strongly put. But one of them is that there have been no benefits to NATO enlargement. I think there are some arguments that folks might have with that may be an overstatement. But I would like to sort of poke at that a little bit. I think implicit in that is there has been significant costs. Could you expand a little bit on that, and for those who think that NATO has deployed, for example, in successive theatres—including Afghanistan and the exercises and the training and the enhancement in the professionalization of various armies, particularly of some of the former Soviet Republics. Is that not an adequate benefit? Or is that really no benefit?

MANDELBAUM: Well, first let me thank Jim for his graceful acknowledgment of some of the things that I wrote. It’s good to know that at least one important scholar as read it. No one at the time of the debate was suggesting doing away with NATO. What was characteristic about NATO expansion, and I think this is a central point, is that Russia was explicitly excluded. And it was made clear to the Russians that they would never be included. They were basically being cast out of the European security order. And they knew that. Now, Russia would have been difficult to deal with no matter what happened. Russia is, after all, Russia. But I think it can—it can confidently be said that dealing with Russia, and dealing with the problems that arose, would have been easier without this arbitrary exclusion. And it’s conceivable, although, of course, we can’t rewrite history so we’ll never know, that some of those problems would not have arisen.

Now, I want to make one more point in response to your question. Anyone who was involved in the debate in the 1990s understood that the unstated premise of the Clinton administration’s policy of NATO expansion, and sometimes it wasn’t even fully unstated, was that Russia was weak and couldn’t do anything about it, with the implication that Russia would always be weak and would have to accept whatever we did. A phrase from the time that is stuck in my mind ever since is: The Russians need to learn to eat their spinach. Well, they didn’t learn. And here we are.

LONG: Thank you.

GOLDGEIER: Mary Beth, can I—I can I come on this issue of—

LONG: Oh, please. And I know Kimberly’s chomping at the bit too. Please, Jim.

GOLDGEIER: Well, just because I think it’s important at this Council on Foreign Relations event to say one particular thing. So, first of all, I think between 1991 and 2001 on and off there were discussions about potential Russian membership in NATO. I mean, was this real in any way? You know, that would have been a pretty difficult thing to do. Certainly, Yeltsin raised it at points. Clinton and Vice President Gore and Secretary of Defense Perry and others raised it with the Russians. Putin raised it when he first came into office.

And my Brookings colleague, Angela Stent—the great Angela Stent—writes in her book, The Limits of Partnership that in 2001 then-Director of Policy Planning Richard Haass asked for a memo that would go to Secretary Powell saying that it was time to invite Russia to join NATO—a new NATO and a new Russia. I have filed a Freedom of Information Act request to try to get that document declassified. I’m very eager to read it and see what was in that. But since we are at a CFR event, I thought it was worth mentioning Richard’s role on this issue.

LONG: Well, you beat me to it, because I was aware of it as well. And certainly, the issue was examined, I believe, at some length within the government. But, Kim, you’re nodding your head. Go ahead. Thanks, Jim.

MARTIN: So, yeah. So actually, the Soviets proposed joining NATO as early as 1954. Molotov made a public query about whether the Soviet Union could join NATO. And it came up several more times in Soviet history too. So it’s not new. I think under the Yeltsin era, it was probably serious. I think under the Putin era, it’s probably not been serious, just as it was not serious in the Soviet era. But in addition to the discussion about Richard Haass and the various memos that circulated internally, former Secretary of State James Baker wrote at least two editorial pieces in the New York Times, where he talked about Russia being welcome to join NATO if it meant NATO membership criteria. In other words, being a liberal democracy that had civilian control over its military and over its intelligence forces and making a contribution to NATO.

The one thing, of course, that sets Russia apart from other NATO member states is the fact that it has a border with China. And so that would have very much complicated NATO decision making. And I think that, rather than anything that set apart Russia as a political system if it had continued to go in the direction it was going in the early 1990s, would have maybe been the deciding factor about membership.

LONG: That’s terrific. We’re about four minutes away from our question-and-answer period. But I wanted to give each of you at least one minute or so to talk about, going forward—this is probably one of the strongest if not the most strong issue right now, questioning NATO, probably since its deployment to Afghanistan. And this is exponentially more important. Where does NATO go after this? And what would you recommend NATO do in this crisis between Russia and Ukraine? If you have any kind of insights or recommendations or policy prescriptions or thoughts.

And we’ll start with Michael.

MANDELBAUM: Well, a war is going on. There’s no doubt whose side we’re on. Our interest lies in Ukrainian success and Russian failure. The administration’s policies seem to be directed toward that aim, and I think that’s appropriate. Let me make one other point, thought. When I was asked to do this, I said I was happy to do it, but I wrote to Richard and said I don’t think this is relevant to what’s going on now. And I’m not sure anybody would be interested. Well, the number of people who signed up shows that I was wrong about that. But I thought about that question. And it seems to me it is relevant not so much to current policy but to future policy.

If and when we have again, as we have in the 1990s before NATO expansion, a Russian government that is interested in cooperating with the West—and, obviously, we’re a very long way away from that. And obviously a necessary although not sufficient condition for that is that Mr. Putin be, to use Edward Luttwak’s term, reassigned. And whether or when such a thing will ever happen, we don’t know. But if it does, I think it’s important to be aware of the mistakes of the past, so as not to be making them again.

LONG: Something the U.S. and West, maybe even Americans in particular, we’re not great with reminding ourselves of our history and the paths that got us where we are. Jim, did you want to follow up?

GOLDGEIER: Well, I mean, I think NATO’s done an extraordinary job during this crisis. And I think the Biden administration really has done a great job leading the alliance. I think, you know, the release of intelligence prior to the war was brilliant. Take away all pretext that Putin might have had, all the false flag possibilities, making clear to the world this was unprovoked aggression. And, you know, getting 141 votes for the resolution in the U.N. shows how much countries recognize that this is unprovoked aggression. I think NATO’s really—the countries being engaged, including NATO partners like Sweden and Finland, in supporting Ukraine, in providing defensive assistance. And I think that the president and other NATO leaders are correct in wanting to not have NATO presence in Ukraine in ways that would escalate this to a NATO-Russia war. And so I think that those policies have been correct.

And you know, I do hope there will be a day when we can have stronger NATO-Russia relations again. I agree with Michael that would require a different leader in Russia, and I do have a hard time seeing how this war ends without a different leader in Russia. I don’t see how—and we talk about off ramps and diplomacy and, obviously, there are things that could be discussed.

But I just don’t see—given Vladimir Putin and what he’s tried to accomplish, I don’t see a resolution absent his leaving office.

LONG: Before I turn to you, Kimberly, for the members who are listening, don’t forget to put your questions in the queue so we can get to them after Kim’s done.

Kim, you’re batting cleanup. What would you like—

MARTIN: OK. Just very briefly, I agree with Jim that I don’t see a way that this war is going to end unless Putin is out of office either, and I think Michael has a great idea, that in the future we try not to repeat our past mistakes towards Russian concerns about status and humiliation.

But I would caution that I think it’s very unlikely that Putin’s regime is going to be replaced by a liberal democracy in Russia because the intelligence agencies are too strong and the oligarchs are too strong, who have a fundamentally illiberal view of how to go about earning money.

And so I don’t think that we should be of any high hopes that any kind of a revolution in Russia would lead to Russia being ready for something like NATO membership as a result.

And I would just remind us, in closing, that the NATO Charter from the beginning has said that people who can contribute to NATO’s security and who share NATO’s values are welcome to join in the future, and I think it would be a mistake to come up with some sort of an artificial closing of the door to certain states but not others in terms of what NATO does in the future.

And I’ll just leave it at that. Thank you.

LONG: When we get the questions lined up, I have a quick question and we’ll do a speed date answer. How’s that?

If you had to guess today, given where we are with the conflict, is NATO more relevant or less relevant, given where we are?

I’ll start with you, Kim.

MARTIN: It’s much more relevant. This caused NATO to just come zooming back as a powerful alliance, and one thing we have to keep in mind is that no other country in the world besides the United States and its NATO partners have ever had this kind of a strong alliance that has lasted for so many years with so much integration. It’s remarkable.

LONG: Michael?

MANDELBAUM: Stalin inspired the formation of NATO and Putin has revived it.

LONG: Well said.


GOLDGEIER: This administration came in. They wanted to focus on China. I mean, they really wanted to be in the Indo-Pacific and, you know, Putin has united NATO, brought the United States back to, really, seeing a role for itself in Europe and united. NATO is as strong as ever.

LONG: Great. Well, I’d like to turn, first, to our first questioner, and I’ll please remind the members that this is a(n) on-the-record session today and the operator will remind you when to join the question queue.

So go ahead, Operator.

OPERATOR: Certainly.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We will take our first question from Stephen Flanagan.

Q: Thank you. Thank you all. I’m Stephen Flanagan from RAND and Georgetown Security Studies program.

I wanted to take issue with Michael’s characterization of the failed efforts to explore alternative security order and also the way the phasing of enlargement unfolded, and I’d just say my comments are informed by having been the lead on this issue on the policy planning staff throughout the Bush and the first term of the Clinton administration.

So on the issue of the new security order, Michael, it’s absolutely true that there was some discussion about building this new security order. Even Vaclav Havel sort of embraced this idea of an all-European security organization for a while. Mitterrand flustered this idea of the Stability Pact. The United States participated actively in both those efforts.

But it was soon clear that many of the Central East European countries appreciated what, I believe, that President Bush and the leadership team—Secretary Baker and others at the time—suggested was that we could try to begin to construct this new security order but we might better build on the firmly established institutions of NATO and the European Union, which were going to be adapted and expanded in the process, and including at the same time developing what was then just a periodic meeting of all European states under the CSCE into an organization, and there was a lot of effort put into that in both administrations to build this wider order of concentric circles of security.

But even within the course—as Kimberly mentioned and that Jim mentioned, the articles about opening to Russia, even as NATO enlargement and the study that was finally commissioned in ’95 went forward, the Clinton administration made clear that they were not excluding the possibility that if Russia made the transformation that, perhaps, Germany did between 1945 and 1955 when it joined NATO that it, too, could become a member.

And there is a memo even as early as 1995 that you can find in the National Security Archive that Lynn Davis and I wrote on this very topic of a phased approach to enlargement with Russia joining sometime in the early 2000s as a potential. So there was a real discussion on that and it was serious.

And then when you look at the issue of was enlargement rushed, PFP abandoned, it was a ten-year period between the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the time when the first members—the first three post-Cold War members joined the alliance then, of course, you know, unfortunately, on the eve of the Kosovo conflict, which, I think, helped to conflate, as Kimberly pointed out, the original sin that the Russians see of NATO unchained with these three new members participating in the efforts to impose a solution or to end the genocide that was underway in Kosovo without U.N. authorization. But I’ll stop there.

And then just one other point. It is interesting to note that while I agree with Kim that, I think, that the Russians were more concerned about Romania and Bulgaria joining NATO, but it’s also interesting to observe that there was no enhanced NATO forward presence in either of those countries even after 2014.

So, again, I think I wouldn’t blame too much on NATO being provocative in that context. So I’ll stop there. Thank you.

MANDELBAUM: Can I respond briefly, Mary Beth?

LONG: Absolutely, Michael. Go ahead.

MANDELBAUM: Two points. I think that this talk—and we heard at the time about a community of democracies and being able to meet NATO’s domestic criteria—is a red herring. After all, in the Cold War, Portugal, which was not democratic, was a member.

Turkey, which, for a time, was not democratic was a member. Moreover—and this is the second point—the purpose of a security organization and a security order is security. It’s not spreading the benefits of democracy, delightful as they are.

It was clear after the end of the Cold War that the chief issue in European security, going forward, was going to be Russia and, therefore, the appropriate question was not what do the Central Europeans want or who shares our value or who has a Jeffersonian democracy, but what series of policies would best assure European and American security, and I believe and still believe that we got it wrong.

LONG: OK. Thank you, Michael.

Could we have our second questioner, please?

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Ellen Chesler.

Q: I, actually, didn’t mean to ask a question but I will, since I must have hit the wrong button. (Laughter.)

Thank you for—(off mic)—conversation. Can any of you—I realize you’re all security people, but haven’t economic circumstances in this region changed the calculus over thirty years, not to speak of the growth of democracy and the fact that we now have a new generation of people who’ve lived under nothing but?

LONG: Actually, Kim, if you wouldn’t mind answering that first because I cut you off. I didn’t see your hand until too late. So why don’t we give you the floor?

MARTIN: I’ll make two brief comments then on the economic question. That’s a really good question, and I think the evidence we have is that what Putin objected to most about the direction Ukraine was going in 2014 when this first came to light was less about NATO having a role for Ukraine and more about Ukraine joining the European Union, and one of the concerns was—and we saw this in terms of Russian behavior towards the Baltic states as well—you know, Putin has a lot of activities with his network that are not really open activities, that involve pretty corrupt links with the former Soviet space.

And what we saw with the European Union when it had the Baltic states start the membership process is that it insisted that those links be cleaned up. And so I think that Putin might have been, you know, legitimately concerned that as Ukraine approached having a stronger relationship with the European Union that his cronies were going to be cut out of the economic relationship that was happening there.

But, just briefly, on what I had been going to say before, Russia stopped participating in Partnership For Peace activities or really cut back on their participation in those activities quite early on, and the evidence we have is that it was not because of NATO enlargement.

It was because of the Russian military feeling like it was cut out of decision-making by NATO, and we saw evidence of this as early as when NATO was conducting airstrikes in the Bosnian civil war with the full permission of the U.N. Security Council, which Russia did not veto, but was going ahead and carrying out those airstrikes without informing the Russian military in advance about when and where those strikes were going to be. And they did that because they believed that Russia would have conveyed that information to Slobodan Milosevic and, therefore, made them not have any impact. But, nonetheless, the Russian defense ministry felt like it was being excluded. So I’ll just stop there.

GOLDGEIER: But let’s just (often ?) remind people, Kim, that in the aftermath of the Dayton Accords and the establishment of the implementation force in Bosnia, despite the fact that there were a lot of people in the U.S. government that didn’t want Russia to participate because they thought it would just be—you know, muck things up, Secretary of Defense Perry believed very strongly and won the day that Russia should participate in that implementation force, and they did, and it was a very—it required, basically, the supreme allied commander of Europe to be overseeing the Russian forces in his role as an American commander in Europe, not as the—not in his role at NATO because the Russians didn’t want to serve under NATO. But it was worked out and the Russian military did participate.

MARTIN: For all the conflicts. They also participated in KFOR in Kosovo once that was worked out. There were—it was uncomfortable at many times. But, nonetheless, Russia was a full participant, basically, until the Iraq war started in 2003.

LONG: Real trust deficit there, though.

Michael, did you want to jump in on this conversation or—

MANDELBAUM: Let’s go to the next question.

LONG: OK. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: We will take the next question from James Siebens.

Q: Hi, everyone. Thanks very much for having such a civil conversation about such a touchy subject.

I want to ask the panel to weigh in on the wisdom of the 2008 decision to state that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members—so, specifically on that point—and then also to ask whether NATO enlargement has increased or decreased the chances of the U.S. being drawn into a war with Russia.

LONG: Two great questions, and I think, Jim, you actually spoke to the 2008. But do you want to reiterate and expand on what you said?

GOLDGEIER: Well, thank you. I do believe that it was foolish for NATO to say that in 2008. It was a compromise worked out at NATO. The George W. Bush administration wanted to offer Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans, which would have put them formally on the path.

The French and Germans opposed that. They thought it would be too escalatory and too—it would lead to a confrontation with Russia. So they worked out this compromise language, which was terrible, which was that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO, which was the worst of all worlds because, again, it prejudged.

I mean, the Membership Action Plans, at least, you had to go through all the steps before NATO would even consider whether to offer membership and simply announced that they will become members and, as I said before, gave Putin this excuse.

It was also problematic because since that language was the consensus language at NATO in 2008, it has remained so. So every statement, every document, every meeting, that a NATO secretary general has with the Ukrainians it gets repeated because there is not new consensus language. That was the consensus language and, you know, there are thirty members of NATO, and certainly it’s not going to change right now.

So it’s just been—it’s been very unfortunate in that, you know, there was no real path for Ukraine and Georgia anyway and this gave Putin an excuse to act as he has.

LONG: I have to tell you, I was there at those meetings, accompanying Secretary Gates, and the amount of time and effort put forward to what, I think, you fairly described as the worst possible case we said very little, frankly, but just enough to, basically, put everybody on their own petard as far as not really delivering anything to either aspirant but delivering all kinds of problems to how NATO and the others would approach.

Kim, did you have something you wanted to add?

MARTIN: Yes. I just wanted to add that I was doing interviews at NATO headquarters and in various European countries shortly after that, and I heard from several people that the European diplomats whispered under their breath Ukraine and Georgia will be members of NATO when hell freezes over.

LONG: Michael, did you have anything you wanted to add to that?

MANDELBAUM: Let’s go to the next question.

LONG: OK. Next question, please.

I love the fact that you’re co-hosting me. It helps. (Laughs.) Next question.

OPERATOR: We will take the next question from Mikki Canton.

Q: Thank you very much. Very, very interesting and very insightful comments. I think some of your comments have probably been the most refreshing ones I’ve heard on this NATO issue because you’ve gotten to the root, I think, of why we have gotten into so many problems.

It’s obvious that the United States, primarily, I would say, the leadership—the president and the members of the cabinet—have not been able to read China or Russia well in—not just recently but in the past years and have humiliated them, whether wanting to or not, and lose face.

Those are the biggest sins that can be committed against powers such as China and Russia. We did it recently with China where the president of the United States then, Trump, went ahead and, right or wrong, made China—ridiculed China as the founder of COVID and the spreader of COVID, right or wrong. And then, of course, diplomats and folks such as yourselves that are the ones that have to go in and clean up what presidents do and say had to scramble. But the damage was done.

And I would say the same with Russia throughout the years. I don’t think there’s been one specific incident where they’ve been publicly humiliated. But I think many of you brought out that, you know, NATO considering it or not as far as membership, I mean, that dilly dallying, I think, definitely infuriated Putin as well as many in Russia.

My question to you, this having been said, what, if anything, can NATO do now at a point where, as someone observed here, absent Putin leaving power this is not going to end? So what do we do? What does NATO do? Promise this? Promise that? I mean, you’re the experts. You’re the ones that follow. Is this hopeless? What are we going to?

LONG: Anyone of you want to be the first to take that one on?

GOLDGEIER: Yeah. I want to comment. Yeah, I do want to—there was a comment, then a question. I want to comment on the comment, which was about the—there wasn’t deliberate humiliation of Russia, certainly, in the 1990s. I think Bill Clinton was very eager to see Boris Yeltsin succeed.

I’ve written on, you know, sort of how did he—how did he, in his mind, try to think about how he was going to sort of bring Central and Eastern Europe into the West and try to maintain a good relationship with Russia. I do believe he thought he could do both and, you know, there were tradeoffs involved and I think we should accept that there were tradeoffs involved. I do, even though, you know, I have been and remain a supporter of NATO enlargement.

But he was keen on this idea of not humiliating. You know, Yeltsin would constantly say to him, we want to be treated as an equal. Clinton said, I’m treating you as an equal, Boris. The whole reason the G-8—Russia was invited to join the G-8 was because Clinton was trying to give Yeltsin something to show the status that Russia had, to try not to be humiliating Russia. The NATO Russia Founding Act was designed to try to reassure Russia and to try to put it on the same level as these other countries.

So, you know, I think there were mistakes made at later times. I think that Barack Obama’s—President Obama’s comments about Russia being a regional player and dismissive of Russia as a major actor, I think that was a mistake. Putin seemed to have gotten under his skin, which I thought, you know, for a president who, you know, was—remained so cool at most times, I think he did let Putin get under his skin.

And on the question—I mean, Michael put it well earlier—which is about the future, you know, we are invested in Ukraine’s success and Russia’s failure in this instance and I don’t think we can be thinking about anything else right now, and any other issues will have to wait until Ukraine has succeeded and Russia has failed in this current war.

LONG: Wasn’t it even President Bush who, famously, the first time he met Putin, said very—he looked deep into his eyes and believed that there was commonality? Certainly, wasn’t an antagonistic approach.

Kim, do you have a comment?

MARTIN: Sure. So just in answer to the question of what we should do now, and I think that both of the other speakers—all of the speakers would agree with me on this—we need to make sure that we make NATO as strong as possible to send a very strong deterrent message to Putin that he should not bring this war onto NATO territory while, at the same time, being very wary of the possibility of miscalculation and inadvertent escalation.

And so, you know, one of the things that I’ve been concerned about was this proposal to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which, I think, is probably unnecessary because that’s not where most of the strikes on Ukraine are coming from. They’re not coming from airplanes overhead.

But it would put NATO air defenses and NATO aircraft—fighter aircraft—in direct confrontation with Russian aircraft and air defenses, and I think that would be a terrible mistake because there’s just too much chance for miscalculation and inadvertency. And so we have to strike that very careful balance between being strong without being threatening in a way that Putin interprets as being something that is directed against Russian territory or against—overthrowing his regime.

LONG: Finding that line between both of them is where everybody’s questions lie.

Michael, did you have anything you wanted to add to that?

MANDELBAUM: Yes. Two comments. First, on the comment that was made by the last speaker—

LONG: Ms. Canton.

MANDELBAUM: —I wouldn’t say that we should never offend Russia or China. We should defend our own interests and if they find that offensive, well, we’ll just have to live with that.

What I would say is that we should never unnecessarily offend Russia or China, and in my view, that’s what we did to Russia with NATO expansion in the 1990s.

Now, as to the question of what we should do, I’ve already agreed with my colleagues that we should do whatever we can to thwart Russia within reason. We’re not going to send NATO forces. But I think we also have to start thinking about the possibility of negotiations. The Russians, as the war drags on, as it gets more and more costly, as the Russian people and the Russian elite become restive because of the sanctions, the Russian regime may—I don’t know whether they will, but they may become serious about negotiations as they are not now, and that will raise some tricky questions for our side.

Who will do the negotiating? Who will have a veto? What terms will whoever is doing the negotiating be willing to accept and if there is a tentative deal we can be sure that for our side we will keep it? Can we trust Putin to keep any agreement that he makes?

On the other hand, can we afford to shun him completely if the alternative is the continuing torment and murder of the Ukrainian people? These are not simple questions and I, certainly, don’t have the answer and, I would say, we’re not there yet.

LONG: It’s interesting that you would raise the negotiations, and we’re all aware that the Turks, basically, pulled together the foreign ministers of both Ukraine and Russia. I believe Lavrov actually represented Russia, and as far as I can tell, not much came out of it other than it didn’t seem like the Russians were particularly interested in giving up any kind of points whatsoever and were looking for Ukraine to, basically, concede and not much came out of it, which is sad, I suppose. The result of that is more destruction and humanitarian crisis until one of the sides gives in.

Do we have a next question?

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Michael Haltzel.

LONG: Hi, Michael.

Q: Thank you. Terrific session. Where does one begin?

Mike Mandelbaum, in his forceful presentation, I think, was just completely wrong that we felt that Russia would always be weak and that Russia was cast out of the European security order. I won’t repeat what other panelists have said about discussion of Russia eventually joining NATO but let me just give a personal anecdote.

I was Joe Biden’s European advisor for many years and that—when he was in the Senate. In March of 1997, we took a fact-finding trip to Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, but before we started that we went to Moscow. We were supposed to meet with Yeltsin. Yeltsin had just come back from the now long forgotten summit with Clinton in Helsinki and was, quote/unquote, “indisposed” in his dacha in the suburbs.

But he did have us meet with his national security council. It was an hour and a half meeting at night in the Kremlin and they brought up the question of NATO membership for Russia toward the end of the meeting. It was as professional as one can get—unemotional.

These were the guys—and they were all guys—who had all the intel. They weren’t pleased about the possibility of NATO enlargement, that they weren’t in the slightest bit worried. And as, I think, Jim said, Putin himself discussed Russia joining as late as 2001.

In terms of humiliating or not humiliating Russia, let me—again, there’s so many examples. I’m afraid that there’s a tendency to look at Putin’s 2007 speech at Wehrkunde, at the Munich Security Conference, and then work backwards to kind of validate it, and it was just fantasy.

My one example I’d like to give is about something called the CFE Flank Document. The Russians had conducted a murderous repression of the Chechens in the mid ’90s. But they felt that they needed to have more weaponry down there in the Caucasus, also in the South Military District, but that was a sidelight. And they had to get it approved by the parties to the CFE agreement.

I was, along with my Republican colleague, put in charge of getting it through the U.S. Senate. This is after the first Chechen war. You know what the vote was in favor of allowing the Russians to amend the Flank Document? One hundred to zero. Unanimous.

There was—I mean, the idea that they were humiliated is just plain wrong. I couldn’t agree more with, I think, Kimberly, that the Kosovo war was a much more important inflection point than NATO enlargement. They were furious about that.

Won’t go into the rights and wrongs of it. But suffice it to say that, yes, that was serious. It is worth noting, though, that although the Russian contingent in SFOR performed quite well, and, again, Senator Biden and I met with them in the field in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

During the Kosovo war, they pulled a surprise maneuver, went overland with their armored vehicles and captured the Pristina airport, and for a while, if one wants to talk about the possibility of real violence, it was, basically, the Brits who were in charge there who had the cool heads and just simply said, OK, we’ll land our helicopters outside the city.

But the Russian behavior left a lot to be desired. I’ll stop there. I mean, I think—oh, yes. Let me just say, Mike testified—Mike Mandelbaum gave a terrific testimony at one of our hearings at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Anybody who thinks that this issue of NATO enlargement was not adequately debated, I would draw their attention to a 552-page report called “The Debate on NATO Enlargement.”

We had so much more debate than the rest of the NATO member parliaments combined that it’s not even close and, in fact, once again, there just was no sense of humiliation on the part of the people who were in favor of enlargement.

Enlargement—the first tranche—passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of eighty to nineteen—essentially, four to one, both parties almost exactly the same ratio. You know, obviously, I’m still emotionally involved in this. But I think NATO enlargement has been a huge success, and just imagine how Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland would feel today if they had not become members of NATO.

LONG: Michael, thank you for that.

Q: Don’t have a question. Thank you very much.

LONG: I’m sorry. I don’t mean to cut you off. We’re one minute from running out of time. Did you want to wrap up?

MANDELBAUM: Did I want to wrap up?

LONG: Yes.

MANDELBAUM: You’re asking me?

LONG: No. Sorry. No, our questioner. I apologize. Our questioner.

I think he’s—I think his microphone is off. Do we have time for one more question?

OPERATOR: Certainly. We will take our last question from Daniel Mandell.

LONG: Great. And, Mr. Haltzel, I apologize for cutting you off.

Q: Hi. Daniel Mandell. I’m a CFR term member and will be an IAF Hitachi fellow as well.

I wanted to follow up on Mary Beth’s last question and talk about the future, quickly, and drawing on James’ mention of Asia.

In recent years, there’s been discussion about whether and how NATO should become involved in the Indo-Pacific region, which, as James mentioned, was planned to be the priority of the Biden administration.

In light of the current crisis, should NATO become more involved in that region and, if so, what should that involvement look like? Should membership be open to Asian democratic countries like Japan, or is such thinking just off the table right now until we deal with the current crisis?

LONG: James, why don’t you go first? I saw you—I saw you grin, so we’ll start with—

GOLDGEIER: Well, I just—back in 2008, Ivo Daalder and I wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs called “Global NATO” in which we argued that NATO should, in fact, open up. It’s not going to happen. But it is important to note that countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia, have become important partners for NATO and I think they can be important partners.

NATO is going to issue a new Strategic Concept this summer. I think, unlike the 2010 Strategic Concept, which did not mention China, I think this one will mention China. China does have an impact on NATO and on transatlantic relations. But, clearly, as we see, NATO has its hands full in Europe, and so I think for the foreseeable future the extent of European involvement will be limited.

But I do think the United States wants its NATO—it wants all of its partners to think about how they can work together in dealing with the China challenge, and that’s not going to go away even though we are all focused on Eastern Europe right now and the fact that the president’s State of the Union had fifteen minutes on the war and three sentences on China. That’s the current focus. But we will need to address the challenge from China.

LONG: And I hate to cut anyone off. We are two minutes over and they’ll never let me preside again because CFR opens on time and closes on time.

But, Mike and Kim, is there anything burning in your soul that you’d like to add, very briefly?

MARTIN: (Off mic)—difference between Russia actually being humiliated and Putin telling Russia that they’ve been humiliated, and I’ll just end with that.

LONG: Thank you.

Well, I’d like to thank all of our members and our experts for joining today’s virtual meeting. I want to thank you personally, speakers. This was a really tough topic and you were exemplary and I learned a lot from each one of you.

Please note that today’s video and transcript will be available and posted on CFR’s website. And with that, I will close this meeting. Thank you all very much.


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