Condoleezza Rice joins the Old Guard in denial about Russia

Speaking Friday at the Aspen Security Forum, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice defended the Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama administrations' efforts "to integrate Russia into the international system."  All three administrations, Rice said, "did everything possible" to avoid humiliating Russia after its Cold War defeat.  "The idea that somehow we ... tried to impose the kind of Versailles-like" settlement in the post-Cold War world "just isn't true," she claimed.

Rice's remarks were seconded by Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser in Bush's second term.  According to Fox News, Hadley claimed that Vladimir Putin "made it impossible for the United States to integrate Russia to the international institutions."

Those remarks echoed what former President Bill Clinton said in April at Brown University.  "It is not true," Clinton said, "that we did anything to isolate, humiliate or ignore Putin."

These comments come at a time when the respected foreign policy thinker Michael Mandelbaum, in his recently released book The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy, makes a compelling case that Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama recklessly expanded NATO eastward after Western officials had promised Russia that wouldn't happen.  Mandelbaum accuses Clinton of beginning NATO expansion for domestic political reasons.  "Clinton's real motive for expansion," Mandelbaum writes, "seems to have involved domestic politics."  Clinton hoped the first round of NATO expansion "would earn him the votes of Americans with ancestral ties to Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in the 1996 presidential election."

The George W. Bush and Obama administrations added nine more countries to NATO, including the three Baltic states, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, and Croatia.  And Bush 43 invited Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance.  From Russia's perspective, the alliance that recently defeated it in the Cold War was moving closer and closer to its European border.  But the foreign policy officials of the Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama administrations either disregarded Russian perspectives or lacked the statesmanlike quality to view events from Russia's perspectives.

Russia "vehemently opposed" this expansion, but, as Mandelbaum notes, it "lacked the strength to mount effective opposition."  "The United States expanded NATO," Mandelbaum writes, "because it could."  It was done in a fit of overconfidence and hubris.  And NATO expansion "persuaded the Russians that American promises were not to be believed and that the American government would seek to take advantage of Russian weakness when it could," according to Mandelbaum.

Mandelbaum approvingly quotes George F. Kennan, who called NATO expansion "the most fateful error of American foreign policy in the entire post-Cold War era."  It not only alienated Russia from the West, but also pushed Russia into the arms of China just as China was rising to become America's new peer competitor.  "As Putin steered Russian foreign policy away from the alignment with the United States of the immediate post-Cold War years," Mandelbaum explains, "he moved his country ever closer to China, with the basis for this new orientation being a common animosity toward the hyperpower."

Mandelbaum believes that had NATO not expanded, Russia might have continued Boris Yeltsin's pro-Western, pro-American policy, and "Moscow would likely have supported, or at least not actively opposed, American policies toward China and Iran."  In other words, the United States could have revived the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of "triangular diplomacy" that helped us win the Cold War.

Instead, the United States now faces a de facto strategic alliance between China and Russia — a reformation in some respects of the Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s that threatened to marshal the resources of the Eurasian landmass against the U.S. and its allies.  It was that hostile alliance that gave North Korea's communist leaders the green light to start the Korean War.  It was that hostile alliance that aided North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War.  And it was the break-up of that hostile alliance, brilliantly exploited by the Nixon administration, that helped the U.S. undermine the Soviet empire.

Mandelbaum also rightly criticizes the Bush 43 administration for transforming the global war on terror into a futile crusade to promote democracy throughout the Middle East and beyond.  Bush expended much American blood and treasure in this Wilsonian quest, and we see the results in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Obama, meanwhile, tried conciliation with Iran by signing a flawed nuclear agreement with the Islamic regime and dangerously misread the so-called "Arab Spring," resulting in a less stable Middle East and helping to revive Russian influence in the region.  Obama's Iran policy, Mandelbaum writes, "denoted the unwillingness of the United States to exert itself to ... protect the post-Cold War order."

Mandelbaum's narrative ends at 2015.  The Trump administration initially attempted to reset relations with Russia, but that all collapsed in the wake of the false Russia collusion allegations and impeachment persecution — yet another instance of domestic politics undermining national security objectives.  And Trump admitted two more countries to NATO: Montenegro and North Macedonia.

The Biden administration made no effort to reset relations with Russia.  And after Russia's second invasion of Ukraine (the first occurred in 2014), Biden positioned the United States as a virtual co-belligerent in the war and invited Finland and Sweden to join NATO.  These actions only made the Sino-Russian strategic partnership stronger, or in the words of Chinese president Xi Jinping, "with no limits."

Mandelbaum's book describes the evolution of American foreign policy in terms of "expansion and ascent."  He divides that policy into four "ages": America as a "weak power" (1765–1865), "great power" (1865–1945), "superpower" (1945–1990), and "hyperpower" (1990–2015).  He writes that we are now in the fifth age of American foreign policy, and thanks to the Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama administrations, this may be the age of American decline.

America is politically, socially, and culturally divided as never before since the American Civil War.  Americans live in two "realities" depending on what news stations they watch, what magazines they read, and what podcasts they listen to.  This internal division comes at a time when America faces perhaps its greatest external challenge: a totalitarian regime in China that seeks to replace the United States as the world's leading power.

The protestations of Bill Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, and Stephen Hadley do not change the fact that it is the three immediate post–Cold War administrations that sowed the seeds of America's relative decline.  And there is no sign that the current administration has the ability to halt that decline.

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