TWQ: The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia - Spring 2009

In the latter half of the 1990s, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization  (NATO) was preparing to expand its membership for the first time since the admission of Spain in 1982, Russian officials claimed that the entry  of former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO would violate a solemn ‘‘pledge’’ made by the governments of West Germany and the United States  in 1990 not to bring any former Communist states into the alliance.1 Anatolii Adamishin, who was Soviet deputy foreign minister in 1990, claimed in 1997 that ‘‘we were told during the German reunification process that NATO would not expand.’’ Other former Soviet officials, including Mikhail Gorbachev, made similar assertions in 1996—1997. Some Western analysts and former officials, including Jack F. Matlock, who was the U.S. ambassador to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1990, endorsed this view, arguing that Gorbachev received a ‘‘clear commitment  that if Germany united, and stayed in NATO, the borders of NATO would not move eastward.’’ Pointing to comments recorded by the journalists Michael Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, former U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara averred that ‘‘the United States pledged never to expand  NATO eastward if Moscow would agree to the unification of Germany.’’ According to this view, ‘‘the Clinton administration reneged on that commitment . . . when it decided to expand NATO to Eastern Europe.’’

These assertions were sharply challenged at the time by other observers,  including former U.S. policymakers who played a direct role in the German reunification process. George H. W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, and James A. Baker, who served as president, national security adviser, and secretary of state in 1990 respectively, all firmly denied that the topic of extending NATO membership to former Warsaw Pact countries (other than East Germany) even came up during the negotiations with Moscow on German reunification, much less that the United States made a ‘‘pledge’’ not to pursue it. In 1997, Philip Zelikow, who in 1990 was a senior official on the National Security Council (NSC) staff responsible for German reunification issues, maintained that the United States made no commitment at all about the future shape of NATO, apart from some specific points about eastern Germany that were codified in the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany signed in September 1990. ‘‘The option of adding new members to NATO,’’ Zelikow wrote, was ‘‘not foreclosed by the deal actually made in 1990.’’

The controversy surrounding this matter abated briefly after the initial  round of NATO enlargement in 1997—1999 that led to the admission of the  Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, but it flared up again in 2001—2002 when NATO prepared to invite several more countries to join, including the three Baltic states, which until August 1991 had been part  of the USSR. In 2008, the proposed admission into NATO of two other former Soviet republics (Georgia and Ukraine) sparked a new flurry of allegations. Much of the controversy about this issue stems from a few conversations held in the first half of February 1990, just after the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The talks took place amidst unprecedented political maneuvering in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where parliamentary elections were due to be held on March 18, 1990. Of particular relevance are the conversations between Baker and Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990 and a conversation between West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Gorbachev the following day. Also of great importance are the talks between Kohl and Gorbachev in Moscow and Stavropol in July 1990. Fortunately, with the passage of time, the American, German, and Russian records from these as well as other talks and meetings pertaining to German reunification have become available. Moreover, nearly all of the major participants in the high-level diplomacy that led to German reunification have written memoirs, which collectively enrich the declassified records and fill in key gaps. The recent declassification of crucial archival materials in Germany, Russia, the United States, and numerous other European countries finally allows for clarification on the basis of contemporaneous records.  

Mark Kramer