How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
During negotiations over German reunification in 1990, did the United States promise the Soviet Union that NATO would not expand into eastern Europe? The answer remains subject to heated debate. Today, Moscow defends its invasion of Ukraine by claiming that NATO reneged on a promise to stay out of Russia’s backyard. Skeptics, meanwhile, counter that Russian claims are a pretext for aggression; in their view, Washington and its allies never formally committed to forego NATO expansion.
The skeptics are correct that the two sides never codified a deal on NATO’s future presence in the east. But they misinterpret the precise implications of negotiations that took place throughout 1990. After all, scholars and practitioners have long recognized that informal commitments count in world politics. This was particularly true during the Cold War: as the historian Marc Trachtenberg has shown, the Cold War settlement itself emerged from European, Soviet, and U.S. diplomatic initiatives in the late 1950s and 1960s that were not formalized until nearly a decade later.
However problematic its recent behavior, then, Moscow has reason to argue that the West broke a promise. As declassified U.S. documents show, the George H. W. Bush administration and its allies worked hard to convince Soviet leaders that Europe’s post–Cold War order would be mutually acceptable, as the Soviet Union would retrench and NATO would remain in place. Yet U.S. policymakers may not have intended to make this vision a reality. And although there are many reasons to criticize recent Russian behavior, Russia may not be lying when it claims that a promise was broken. In the end, the United States overturned the system it promised to bring about.
To understand the nature of Western guarantees, a brief timeline is in order. The story begins in the months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as policymakers struggled to determine whether and how a divided Germany might reunify. By early 1990, U.S. and West German officials decided to seek reunification. Uncertain about whether the Soviets would be willing to withdraw from East Germany, they decided to offer a quid pro quo.
On January 31, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher publicly declared that there would be “no expansion of NATO territory eastward” after reunification. Two days later, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker met with Genscher to discuss the plan. Although Baker did not publicly endorse Genscher’s plan, it served as the basis for subsequent meetings between Baker, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. During these discussions, Baker repeatedly underlined the informal deal on the table, first telling Shevardnadze that NATO’s jurisdiction “would not move eastward” and later offering Gorbachev “assurances that there would be no extension of NATO’s current jurisdiction eastward.” When Gorbachev argued that “a broadening of the NATO zone” was “not acceptable,” Baker replied, “We agree with that.” Most explicit was a meeting with Shevardnadze on February 9, in which Baker, according to the declassified State Department transcript, promised “iron-clad guarantees that NATO’s jurisdiction or forces would not move eastward.” Hammering home the point, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl advanced an identical pledge during meetings in Moscow the next day.
At that point, it was easy to see the outline of a new strategic landscape coming into view: Germany would reunify, the Soviet Union would pull back, and NATO would halt in place. According to any ordinary sense of the term “east,” all of the countries to which NATO later expanded would have remained outside the Western orbit. As a diplomatic cable summarizing Baker’s meetings put it, “The Secretary made clear that the U.S. had supported the goal of [German] unification for years; that we supported a unified Germany within NATO, but that we were prepared to ensure that NATO’s military presence would not extend further eastward.” Moscow could readily infer that Soviet agreement to reunify Germany would be met by Western restraint. So when Soviet officials agreed to negotiations over German reunification, they likely thought they were accepting a clear quid pro quo.
Skeptics offer two arguments to challenge the notion that such a post–Cold War arrangement was ever implied. The first is that the February meetings have to be understood more narrowly, as Baker, Kohl, and company were focused solely on Germany’s future. Thus, the early February discussions constituted at best a limited pledge that NATO would not move into East Germany, rather than into eastern Europe writ large.
The second argument is more general: because Moscow did not explicitly accept the deal on the table, the reasoning goes, Western policymakers were free to revise their terms. And that is precisely what they did after the February meetings by offering East Germany a “special military status” within NATO. (East Germany’s special status ultimately came to mean that NATO forces would simply have to wait four years before moving in.) By March, however, there was no further talk of excluding NATO from eastern Europe; neither Western nor Soviet leaders broached the subject again. From this perspective, an agreement did not emerge until late 1990: Moscow accepted a reunified Germany under NATO, which, in turn, agreed to delay its move into East Germany. Contrary to Moscow’s claims, it was the Soviet failure to codify the February arrangement that make its allegations of a non-expansion pledge fallacious.
Both counterarguments are contestable. For one thing, Soviet and U.S. leaders were not naïve. They recognized that the two Germanies were crucial to both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. And they had long known that control of a united Germany would bring dominance in Europe. Even if the February meetings addressed only NATO’s role in East Germany, the U.S. offer was functionally the same as a promise not to expand NATO further east. Any sensible strategist could assume that if NATO did not move into the most important Soviet satellite, then it would not move further east into less important states. Giving East Germany a special military status did not change that logic; instead, it suggested that Western leaders were willing to tie their hands when it came to the Soviets’ most important ally.
What’s more, Washington worked throughout 1990 to reinforce the premise of the early February meetings, namely that Moscow would not be isolated and that Washington would not reign supreme. As the Bush administration recognized, fears of NATO encroachment, resurgent German power, a loss of prestige, and limited freedom of maneuver drove Soviet paranoia. As Baker succinctly put it, “The Soviet Union doesn’t want to look like losers [sic].” Western leaders thus advanced several initiatives to assuage Soviet concerns, including promises to expand the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, limit military presence in Europe, and transform NATO into a more political organization. To Soviet leaders seeking, as Shevardnadze offered, “some guarantee of security against a background of development not only in Germany but development in Eastern Europe,” these offers looked like gifts. Even if East Germany joined NATO, the pledges provided new comfort. After all, if such interlocking agreements ensured that “both the US and the USSR [would] have their rightful place” in a “New Europe,” then NATO’s eastward expansion would be off the table.
In short, U.S. initiatives overtly played to Soviet interests. Analysts who argue that Moscow missed an opportunity to tie NATO’s hands or who see the negotiations centered narrowly on Germany miss the big picture. U.S. policy after February 1990 suggested that a mutually acceptable order would emerge—one that would keep NATO out of eastern Europe—to obtain a Soviet retreat.
It would be a stretch, however, to conclude that that Washington is guilty of duplicity and that Moscow’s recent actions in Ukraine are justified. In diplomacy, deals are only as good as they are enforceable. With Soviet power in decline by 1990, the United States had a strong incentive to roll back the Soviet presence from Europe and consolidate what the diplomat George Kennan called central Europe’s center “of industrial and military power.” Afterward, faced with a strategic vacuum in eastern Europe, Washington could be expected to view past promises as overtaken by events and NATO expansion as strategically necessary. This wasn’t duplicity—it was international politics as usual.
At the same time, Russian leaders may be telling the truth when they claim that Moscow’s actions in Ukraine are driven by insecurity and fear. NATO’s eastward march may have understandably left Russia feeling isolated, surrounded, and without reliable negotiating partners. No one foresaw the Ukrainian government falling to a revolution that had the sympathy of Western governments. Moscow’s response may be condemnable but should not be surprising.
Since most of the proposed solutions to the Ukraine crisis depend on some form of Russian cooperation, policymakers should heed the core lesson of 1990: if Washington wants to reduce tensions with Moscow, it must meaningfully limit NATO’s eastern presence. To this end, NATO leaders should resist calls to beef up the alliance’s military role in eastern Europe and prepare for ongoing military competition with Russia. Only then can NATO provide Russia with credible assurances of its intentions. As in 1990, words will mean little without action.