Bill Clinton's supreme NATO screw-up comes back to haunt us

Writing in the foreign policy mouthpiece of the Biden administration and the Democratic Party, The Atlantic, former president Bill Clinton attempts to defend his decision to begin the post–Cold War expansion of NATO by naming the members of his foreign policy team, especially the late Madeleine Albright, who supported this move against the advice of George F. Kennan — who knew more about Russia and its history and culture than all of Clinton's advisers combined.

Clinton claims that his approach to Russia and Europe was to "work for the best while preparing for the worst."  The "best" was helping Russia become a "functioning democracy," and the "worst" was to expand NATO in case Russia returned to "ultranationalism."  Clinton writes that he was convinced that Boris Yeltsin would continue Russia along the path toward democracy and cooperation with the West, but he didn't know who would succeed Yeltsin, so he decided that NATO expansion into lands that had for centuries been considered in Russia's sphere of influence would serve as insurance against the possibility of Russian nationalist revanchism. Apparently, Clinton and his "brilliant" foreign policy team — Albright, Strobe Talbot, Warren Christopher, Sandy Berger, Anthony Lake — failed to consider whether NATO expansion might produce or at least intensify the very Russian revanchism they sought to prevent.

But the very notion that Russia was headed in the political direction of Western-style "democracy" shows how out of touch Clinton and his foreign policy team were.  This American hubris was reminiscent of FDR's "hunch" that he could persuade Joseph Stalin to promote postwar stability, or of Woodrow Wilson's belief that Lenin's Bolsheviks, who had thrown off Russia's imperial yoke, were bringing more freedom to Russia; or of Barack Obama's puzzled reaction to Russia's invasion of Crimea in 2014 as a misplaced legacy of the 19th century.  George Kennan knew better.

In his book American Diplomacy (1951), Kennan wrote that U.S. policymakers should not be looking for a Russia that will be "liberal-democratic ... along American patterns."  He scorned those in U.S. policy circles — those "doctrinaire and impatient well-wishers" — who envision Russia as "a replica of the Western democratic dream."  Russia, he explained, has its own rich history and culture, and "forms of government are forged mainly in the fire of practice, not in the vacuum of theory.  They respond to national character and national realities."

Kennan understood, as Clinton and his team did not, that a Russian "sphere of influence" was one of those "national realities."  He singled out Ukraine for special mention in this regard.  "Ukraine," he wrote, "deserves full recognition for the peculiar genius and abilities of its people and for the requirements and possibilities of its development as a linguistic and cultural entity."  But, he continued, "Ukraine is economically as much a part of Russia as Pennsylvania is a part of the United States."  Meanwhile, the Baltic states and other satellite states, he advised, should not proceed from "feelings of revenge and hatred toward the Russian people who have shared their tragedy."

Kennan would have rolled his eyes at the notion pressed by Clinton in his Atlantic article that, as president, he "tried to put Russia on another path."  Kennan lacked the intellectual and ahistorical hubris of the Clinton foreign policy team.  He understood that Russians, not American policymakers, would decide Russia's political future.  And the Russian political tradition, as the late Russian scholar Richard Pipes repeatedly noted, was one of "patrimonialism," where all power flows directly from an autocratic leader or group of leaders.  Vladimir Putin fits within that Russian tradition.

Clinton writes that Russia's turn to revanchism was "not catalyzed ... at NATO headquarters.  It was decided in Moscow by Putin."  That's half-right.  Putin made the decision, but to ignore the influence of successive NATO expansions moving ever closer to the Russian border and in Russia's historic sphere of influence is to close one's eyes to history and to misunderstand Russian national character.

Clinton closes his article with a sentimental tribute to Madeleine Albright, who, he claims, was "right about NATO" expansion.  No, may she rest in peace, but she and Warren Christopher, Strobe Talbot, Anthony Lake, and Bill Clinton were wrong about that and many other foreign policy issues.  They set in motion successive treaty provisions whereby young American soldiers are pledged to defend the independence of Serbia, Montenegro, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Albania, and other lands of Central and Eastern Europe.

Image via Pixabay.

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