The Trouble With Great-Power Agreements

Russia complains that the United States broke a promise not to expand NATO to the east, made when the reunification of Germany was negotiated in 1990. Recent scholarship agrees that the United States promised at that time not to expand NATO, although the promise was not formalized. (Shorter podcast version here.)

Russia’s version of the story is that the United States and NATO broke their promise, and the accession of former Soviet satellites and republics to NATO poses a threat to Russia. This ignores the fact that the promise was made in a specific historical context, and the international context changed in the more than two decades since then. The promise and its aftermath also illustrate the weakness of agreements made by great powers over other nations in today’s world, a cautionary tale for any great-power agreement over Syria.

In 1990, the Soviet Union and the United States were the world’s only two great powers. It seemed appropriate for them to negotiate the fate of Germany, the proximate cause of the two world wars. Each had administered a portion of Germany immediately after World War II and had remained closely allied as those portions became more independent.

East Germany, until 1989, was a part of the Soviet system of satellites and the Warsaw Pact. West Germany became a member of NATO in 1955. In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev declared that the Soviet Union would end its influence in the governments of its satellites, which also included Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. That withdrawal made possible the reunification of Germany.

Reunification was desired by the Germans. The United States and the Soviet Union both wanted to retain and expand their influence in a unified Germany. If the great powers did not act, the Germans would take things into their own hands. The Soviet Union appropriately negotiated on behalf of all its soviet socialist republics. Beyond pressure for speed in the negotiations, Germany had limited influence on the outcome.

The late 1980s brought unrest to the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost initiatives led beyond what he had anticipated. Demonstrations and legislation for independence were led by the Baltic republics but not confined to them. Even earlier, the Solidarity movement in Poland had been agitating for removal of Soviet influence.

At the time of the negotiations over Germany, it was believed that allowing the satellites to become more independent would stabilize the Soviet Union. Protests in Poland could bloom into political parties without having to be dealt with from Moscow. The future of the former satellites was not clear. Their first priority was integration into the world economy and economic recovery. It would likely be some time before they would be able to support militaries of the kind required by NATO.

Neither great power expected that in two years the Soviet Union would split into 15 independent countries. The question of NATO expansion in 1990 applied only to the former satellites.

In December 1991, the great power known as the Soviet Union suddenly was no more. Russia, the most powerful part of that Union, inherited the Soviet seat in the United Nations, Soviet nuclear weapons, and other Soviet responsibilities. Fourteen countries proclaimed their independence during 1991 (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan).

Those fourteen former Soviet Republics were clear that they wanted independence from Moscow, albeit in differing degrees. Their attitudes toward agreements made by the Soviet Union ranged from rejection (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) to a poorly-defined acquiescence (Belarus, Kazakhstan). Were they still parties to the promise that was made over their heads?

It can be argued that the pledge not to expand NATO still bound the United States. Without the Soviet enemy, NATO was questioning its purpose. Russia and NATO tried to work together during the 1990s, although difficulties on both sides made integration impossible. A NATO-Russia Council was formed and has met as recently as April of this year.

Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, the satellites and the Baltic States pressed to join NATO, the European Union, and Eurovision. It is hard to believe that countries that were forced into alliance with or gobbled up by the Soviet Union would not want some sort of defense alliance. A while back, I imagined a central European alliance led by Sweden as an alternative to NATO membership. Such an alliance would greatly complicate the United States’ relationship with Europe and the European Union itself. It would be seen by Russia as yet another threat.

At that time, Russia was too weak to offer positive incentives and the newly independent countries were suspicious. Perhaps relationships of mutual respect would have evolved among them, although Russia’s recent actions draw that possibility into question. The United States may have promised not to expand NATO, but the Soviet Union did not promise noninterference in the region

Russia would again like to be seen as a great power. It is not quite a great power, but it cannot be relegated to a fully secondary status. It lacks economic power but holds one of the two largest nuclear arsenals. One of its objectives in Syria seems to be to put itself in the position of a great power negotiating peace with the United States over Syria.

The history of the promise not to enlarge NATO and the influence of smaller powers on subsequent events suggest that no great-power agreement on Syria can be expected to hold without the participation of the other nations involved, most notably Syria itself, but Syria’s neighbors, Iran, and Saudi Arabia feel their interests are involved as well. Russia seems to be unable to fully control Bashar al-Assad’s actions, nor can the United States fully control the factions it is closest to. Middle Eastern countries were volatile in their alliances even during the Cold War. Russia and the United States have limited capability to determine outcomes in Syria, unless they choose to unleash their full military might.

It may be useful in working with Russia for the United States to acknowledge that it promised not to expand NATO as part of the negotiations over German reunification. But Russia also needs to acknowledge that smaller countries have a right to self-determination.

Top Photo: Meeting of the NATO-Russia Council

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