Might makes right – for how much longer?

Important research results on the topic of NATO East enlargement

by Karl-Jürgen Müller

The following is recorded from the weeks before the beginning of the NATO war against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was contrary to international law: At a meeting in Belgrade, a US general urged a high-ranking Serbian politician to stop listing terrorist attacks on civilians or even police and military emanating from Kosovo. His reasoning: “For Serbian policy, it’s the American perception of reality that matters, not reality as such.” The example expresses very vividly what it means when might makes right in international relations.
  That might has long preceded right in international relations is an open secret. But when might makes right, those who prioritise might cannot speak as openly in public as the US general in Belgrade did. So, they try to choose their public words in such a way that it sounds as if they only want what is “right”. History is full of such official bending of words. So is our present.

Contradictory assertions on NATO’s East expansion

Here we will pick out just one current example that plays an important role in the ongoing negotiations between the USA and NATO on the one hand and Russia on the other: The Russian leadership claims that during the negotiations on German reunification, the Soviet leadership was promised that there would be no eastern expansion of NATO. The USA and NATO claim the opposite: there was never such a promise, it was only about Germany, but above all there is no written agreement on such a promise. … Moreover, the claim is that Russia had contractually accepted eastern expansion of NATO in 1997.
  One of the many prominent NATO voices arguing this way is the head of the Munich Security Conference and former German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger. Thus, in an interview with Deutschlandfunk on 10 January 2022, one can read:
  “Deutschlandfunk: Mr Ischinger, Moscow argues time and again that the West promised that NATO would not expand further eastwards – after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 89, then in 90 as well. [...] Is there nothing to this?
  Ischinger: No, there is no truth in it. It is true that at the time, in connection with the negotiations on the 2+4 Treaty, there were talks and a verbal exchange about the restrictions that would be accepted by the West. It was about the inclusion of the former GDR in the Federal Republic of Germany, about unification. It was about the question of NATO membership and so on. [...] This whispering about broken promises has been completely off the table since 1997 at the latest, because in 1997 [...] the Russian Federation officially accepted NATO enlargement as a principle and negotiated the modalities of NATO enlargement with the West. The NATO-Russia Founding Act1 is the document by which Russia accepted in writing NATO enlargement now 25 years ago.”
  What is to be made of this?

In 1997 Russia was still doing what the USA and NATO demanded

Russian President Boris Yeltsin had already called the NATO expansion eastward “illegal” in a letter to US President Bill Clinton in September 1993 and repeated this again at a meeting in Helsinki in March 1997. In vain! In fact, in the 1990s the Russian political leadership had to orient itself largely to the guidelines from the USA in almost all policy areas. The USA and NATO were obviously more powerful at that time; Russia had to come to terms with the transition from the Soviet system and the “shock doctrine” (Naomi Klein) imposed on it by the West. 1997 – the year in which the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed by Russia – is also the year in which Zbigniew Brzezinski’s book “The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives” – was published. In the spring of 1997, US neoconservatives founded the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) in Washington, D.C., with the aim of promoting US global leadership.2 In 1997, the USA and NATO did not regard Russia as an equal negotiating partner – even the partly “nice” formulations in the NATO-Russia Founding Act cannot hide this fact. To put it somewhat bluntly: the USA and NATO set the guidelines … and Russia had to accept them.

Open letter from the USA warned against NATO East expansion

And how does it fit with Mr Ischinger’s statements that one month after the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, in June 1997, there had been an open letter to US President Clinton urgently warning against NATO-East expansion3 signed by 50 former US senators, government officials, ambassadors, disarmament and military experts including Senate defence expert Sam Nunn, Senators Gary Hart, Bennett Johnston, Mark Hatfield and Gordon J. Humphrey, as well as Ambassadors to Moscow Jack Matlock and Arthur Hartman, Reagan’s disarmament negotiator Paul Nitze, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, former CIA Director Admiral James D. Watkins, Admiral Stansfield Turner, diplomat Philip Merrill, scientists Richard Pipes and Marshall D. Shulman, and US President Eisenhower’s granddaughter Susan Eisenhower. The letter described NATO’s membership offers as a “political mistake of historic proportions” and pointed out, among other things, that in Russia NATO’s eastward enlargement is opposed “across the political spectrum”. Moreover, Russia was not a threat to any of its neighbours.
  But already in July 1997, two months after the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act and one month after the open letter from the USA, the first three candidates for membership – Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary – were offered membership negotiations. NATO’s East enlargement had been decided long before, so it was not the result of negotiations with Russia. And the few concessions made to Russia – as has been evident for a few years now – were easy to undermine.

Study by a US university: NATO East enlargement against promises made

In November 2020, Marc Trachtenberg, professor of political science at the University of California in Los Angeles, presented a 50-page study that, 30 years after 1990, once again examined the question of what the Soviet leadership had been promised verbally in the negotiations on German reunification with regard to NATO membership for a united Germany, but also with regard to a conceivable NATO expansion to the East.4 The title of the study is: “The United States and the NATO Non-extension Assurances of 1990. New Light on an Old Problem?”
  The well-documented result of the study is: Contrary to what is widely claimed in the West and by Mr Ischinger, the assurances given to the Soviet leadership very much included that there should be no NATO expansion to the East – beyond East Germany. The negotiating politicians of the USA, Germany and the Soviet Union were already aware during the negotiations on German reunification that the Warsaw Pact might soon dissolve – in fact it did not dissolve until 1 July 1991 – and that some of the former member states might seek membership in NATO. It was precisely for this reason that the then German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher – with the agreement of his US counterpart James Baker – made the promises mentioned above. And these, although only given verbally, were also binding.
  At this point, the study by Marc Trachtenberg will not be reproduced in detail. With the recommendation to read the entire text, only one process (pp. 15ff.) is to be referred to here.

Genscher and Baker 1990: No intention to extend the NATO towards the East

In a press conference held together with James Baker on 3 February 1990, one week before decisive negotiations with the Soviet leadership in Moscow, German Foreign Minister Genscher said:

“Perhaps I might add, we [Baker and Genscher] were in full agreement that there is no intention to extend the NATO area of defense and the security toward the East. This holds true not only for GDR, which we have no intention of simply incorporating, but that holds true for all the other Eastern countries. We are at present witnessing dramatic develop-ments in the whole of the Eastern area, in COCOM, and the Warsaw Pact. I think that it is part (of) that partnership in stability which we can offer to the East that we can make it quite clear that whatever happens within the Warsaw Pact, on our side there is no intention to extend our area — NATO’s area — of defense towards the East.” (p. 15)5

At the meeting in Moscow on 9 and 10 February 1990, this was also reiterated to the Soviet negotiators once again. On 10 February Genscher told the Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze:

“For us, it’s a firm principle: NATO will not be extended toward the East. [...] Furthermore, with regard to the non-extension of NATO, that applies in general.” (p. 19)

It is also noteworthy that the US Secretary of State had called on 9 February 1990 for the membership of the united Germany to the Soviet President Gorbachev with the argument that a Germany as it was before the Second World War could be hindered.

What is “clever”?

Later, Genscher and Baker qualified their statements of February 1990. They claimed that was not meant in the way it was said. They had “wanted to ‘help the Soviet leadership over the hordle’ of joining a reunited NATO member Germany”.6 Even US president Bush senior no longer wanted to know anything about such promises. At the end of February 1990, he told German Chancellor Kohl: “We are going to win the game, but we must be clever while we are doing it.” (p. 40)7
  The fact that the US government already in 1990 did not seek a real consensus among negotiating partners is made clear by various research papers. In 2018, Christian Nünlist published a synopsis of this research, “Krieg der Narrative – Das Jahr 1990 und die Nato-Ost-Erweiterung” (War of Narratives — The year 1990 and NATO’s eastward expansion,8 an article that otherwise defends official NATO position). Thus, in connection with European proposals for the development of a pan-European peace order with greater significance of the CSCE (from 1995 the OSCE), it says: “But the USA ultimately resisted against a new peace order based on collective security and a pan-European CSCE solution.” Internal files of the US Bush administration had shown, “that in 1990, instead of a new cooperative security structure including the Soviet Union, it deliberately opted for a NATO solution and thus an exclusive security order (without Moscow), which was based on the continued US military presence in Europe and which would thus confirm US dominance in Europe even beyond the Cold War. [...] Bush’s ‘New World Order’ was [...] not based on the idea of a partnership with the Soviet Union”. Various researchers – Nünlist continues – have made it clear that the Bush administration, “in 1990, had implemented a triumphant US foreign policy which, on the one hand, strengthened the US military presence in Europe and the dominance of NATO in the changing European security architecture and, on the other hand, excluded the Soviet Union out of the post-Cold War order in Europe as far as possible”. (Translation of quotes by Current Concerns).

“Foul play”

Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson had written already in 2016 in an article for the journal International Security9:

“… the United States used guarantees against NATO expansion to exploit Soviet weaknesses and reinforce U.S. strengths in post–Cold War Europe. [...]…the United States floated a cooperative grand design for post-war Europe in discussions with the Soviets in 1990, while creating a system dominated by the United States. [...] By extension, the U.S.-Russian dispute over NATO expansion may be less a product of Soviet/Russian misrepresentation or misinterpretation of what happened in 1990, and more the result of the divergence between the cooperative approach that the United States presented to the Soviet Union and the United States’ quieter efforts to maximize its power in Europe.” (p. 11f.)

So, the question remains how well this kind of “cleverness”, which is still being used today, for international relations, for justice and for peace – and how long this kind of “cleverness” will continue to be accepted. Today, when the governments in the NATO countries claim that they are concerned about the peace order in Europe, the sovereignty and integrity of Russia’s neighbours, while at the same time calling on Russian policy-makers not to continue to be so aggressively and threaten its neighbours, but to seek the path of dialogue, this sounds like a mockery and turns the history of the last 30 years upside down.  •

1 https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_25468.htm?selectedLocale=encf
2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_for_the_New_American_Century
3 https://www.armscontrol.org/act/1997-06/arms-control-today/opposition-nato-expansion
4 The text dated 25 November 2020 can be downloaded from the internet: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/polisci/faculty/trachtenberg/cv/1990.pdf. The shortened version which appeared in the journal International Security, Winter 2020/21, o. 162–203, is also available from the internet but at a cost.
5 Trachtenberg, Marc “The United States and the NATO Non-extension Assurances of 1990 New Light on an Old Problem?”, UCLA, Political Science Departement, 25 November 2020
6 According to the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” of 19 April 2014, thus, for example, Hans-Dietrich Genscher later justified his promises made in the first half of February 1990. (“Ost-Erweiterung der NATO. Das grosse Rätsel um Genschers angebliches Versprechen”) (NATO’s eastward expansion. The great mystery surrounding Genscher’s alleged promise”)
7 Marc Trachtenberg quotes the US President on page 33 above, referring to an article by Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson published in 2016. “Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer to Limit NATO Expansion”. In: International Security, Vol. 40, No. 4, Spring 2016, pp. 7–44 (https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/files/publication/003-ISEC_a_00236-Shifrinson.pdf), where the quote on p. 40 is given with citation.
8 https://ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-for-securities-studies/pdfs/sirius-2018-4007.pdf
9 Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson. «Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer to Limit NATO Expansion». In: International Security, Vol. 40, No. 4, Spring 2016, pp. 7–44, (https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/files/publication/003-ISEC_a_00236-Shifrinson.pdf)

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