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How NATO expansion happened in the '90s

NATO Headquarters, flags, Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images)
NATO Headquarters, flags, Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images)

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new question about NATO expansion.

“A membership in NATO is a very delicate subject. Because we don’t want to end up drawing lines across Europe just at the time when we managed to knock down … the one line that divided Europe for so many, many years.”

Former Defense Secretary Les Aspin there in 1993.

But it was only a few years later that the Clinton Administration did decide to draw new lines across Europe.

NATO enlargement itself was a perfectly justifiable policy. The problem was how it happened,” Mary Elise Sarotte, a post-Cold War historian, says. “In other words, it happened in a way that maximized friction with Moscow at a time when Moscow was most in need of friends.”

Today, On Point: We’ll hear how domestic politics, not necessarily international alliances, drove the Clinton Administration’s decision to support NATO’s last major expansion.


Mary Elise Sarotte, post-Cold War historian. Professor of the history of international relations at Johns Hopkins University. Author of Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate. (@e_sarotte)

Charles Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. Director for European affairs on the National Security Council during the first Bill Clinton administration. Author ofIsolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.

Interview Highlights

On the genesis of the Partnership for Peace

Mary Elise Sarotte: “The Partnership for Peace was an answer to the question of how to enlarge NATO, and I think that’s an important point to take away here from this history. NATO’s enlargement was not one thing. There were multiple possibilities for enlargement known at the time. And as Secretary of Defense Les Aspin said, the goal was to find the one that would give relatively less heartburn to Moscow. Now, the reason for that is not just altruism.

“The reason for that is that this time period that you’re focusing on, rightly focusing on, was not only an era of NATO’s enlargement. It was also the moment of the greatest cooperation between Moscow and Washington ever, in the field of reducing nuclear confrontation. They were engaged in a cooperative effort to basically dismantle or destroy former Soviet missiles pointed at America. And so the reason to not give heartburn to Moscow was to promote that process, which was unprecedented in nuclear history.”

What was your impression of the president’s opinion about Ukraine and NATO expansion at that time?

Charles Kupchan: “I think the administration went through a great deal of debate there, and this is a debate that we will never resolve. Mary, and I and everyone else who weighs in on NATO expansion will be debating this until the end of time. And we will never resolve the issue. There are some who think it was a strategic mistake. Others who think it was a great strategic coup. And this debate will continue. And that’s the way it was in the Clinton administration.

“There was a strong group of people, myself included, who strongly supported the Partnership for Peace. And did not believe that it was wise to proceed with formal NATO enlargement. And the Partnership for Peace effectively bought time. It was a way of kicking the can down the road. And there were two alternative ways it could unfold. One, that if everything went well, if Russia became a stable democracy, then NATO and the Partnership for Peace and this other pan-European organization called the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, they would eventually merge, and you’d have a pan-European collective security organization.

“The other alternative, the other outcome would be that Russia goes dark. Russia goes in a bad direction, and then Partnership for Peace becomes the gateway to formal NATO enlargement. That’s kind of the way the debate was emerging until the later part of 1993. I think that Tony Lake was forward-leaning on the issue. The president was forward-leaning on the issue. More in my mind for ideological reasons than because of domestic pressure.

“This was the end of the Cold War. This was our moment. It was time to universalize the liberal democratic order. And there were some key moments along the way. There was the Holocaust Museum open in April of 1993, a very moving day. Elie Wiesel spoke. Václav Havel and Walesa were there, key figures from the Czech Republic and Poland. They were saying to Clinton, bring us in, get us on the right side of history.

“And then I would say the key point, as you’ve already discussed, was the NATO summit in ’94, which blessed the Partnership for Peace. But then in Prague a few days later, Clinton said a key phrase. He said, Its expansion is now not a question of whether, it’s a question of when. And that really changed the debate.”

Related Reading

New York Times: “Putin’s War in Ukraine Is a Watershed. Time for America to Get Real.” — “During his recent speech in Warsaw, President Biden said that Vladimir Putin ‘cannot remain in power,’ only to clarify a few days later that he was merely expressing outrage, not announcing a new U.S. policy aimed at toppling Russia’s leader.”

Financial Times: “Russia, Ukraine and the 30-year quest for a post-Soviet order” — “Why has the post-cold-war order broken apart in a violent fight over Ukraine? It is now beyond question that that order has crumbled, and that Europe will once again, as in 1989, bear a line of division between Moscow-centric and Washington-centric blocs.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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