There are some vital points in this paper by one of our finest historians of US foreign policy.
I’m sure Putin and the Russians remember this even if our politicians and pundits have consigned it to the memory hole:
What Is Grand Strategy?(.PDF)
That is a fairly important promise that was broken somewhere along the line. All thanks to Bill Clinton’s anti-strategic approach to foreign policy.
The story begins with President George H. W. Bush’s assurances to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, echoed by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, that if the Soviet Union would accept a reunified Germany’s membership in the NATO alliance, its expansion would go no further.
A hegemon cannot afford such feckless leadership. We are now paying the price for it.
Let me begin with the event that caused us to begin teaching this class. The date was September 24, 1998. A NATO briefing team had invited itself to Yale to make the case for the Clinton administration’s policy of expanding the alliance eastward. There would be no problem about including the Czechs, the Poles, and the Hungarians, the briefers told us, because so much effort had gone into reorganizing committees in Brussels to make them feel welcome. The briefing concluded after about half an hour, and questions were called for.
Our colleague Bruce Russett raised his hand and asked whether NATO expansion might not cause difficulties with the Russians, perhaps undermining President Yeltsin’s efforts to democratize the country, perhaps creating an awkward situation for the new or prospective members of the alliance as Russian power revived, perhaps even driving Russia into some new form of cooperation with the Chinese, thereby reversing one of the greatest victories for the West in the Cold War, which was the Sino-Soviet split. There was a moment of shocked silence. Then one of the briefers exclaimed, in front of our entire audience: “Good God! We’d never thought of that!”
We are also paying for Bush’s inexplicable continuation of this mindless bear-baiting.
So why did the Americans push it with such persistence? Perhaps with the thought that Russia was, and would always be, so weak that even if it did object to NATO expansion, it would never be able to do anything about it? Perhaps in the belief that, if the Russians did rebuild their power, they wouldn’t play the old American game of linkage, so that democracy expansion and missile defense would remain disconnected in the minds of Kremlin leaders? Perhaps with the expectation that the new and prospective members, knowing NATO lacked the military means of defending them against a resurgent Russia, would take care not to offend that country? Perhaps because NATO enlargement gratified domestic political interests? Perhaps for no more complicated reason than that once a policy rock starts rolling down a policy hill, it’s too hard to reverse it so you might as well get behind it? Whatever the reasons, they did not add up to a grand strategy. That’s become obvious over the past six months, as the Russians have shown us what a real grand strategy looks like.
They waited patiently until a young American-educated democracy enthusiast who happened to be the president of a prospective member state went a bit too far, whereupon they invaded his country, occupied enough of it to show how easily they could control all of it, and then withdrew from most of it. They chose a country that had not yet joined NATO, showing that they had the capacity to defy the alliance without actually having to do so. They quickly produced, thereby, a psychological chilling effect on all who sought the further expansion of the alliance, and then added to it an actual physical chill this winter by reminding both the new and old European members of NATO who controls their energy supplies. It isn’t the United States, which from eastern and central Europe now looks distant and ineffectual, something that cannot be said of Russia. Which, presumably, was the objective of the strategy the Russians set in motion in the first place last summer.