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How Bill Clinton Accidentally Started Another Cold War

Who bears responsibility for the current tensions between America and Russia? There are many answers to that question but blame is overdue to President Bill Clinton who in 1994 sealed the fate of any potential U.S.-Russia partnership when he made the decision to expand the NATO alliance into Moscow’s former sphere of influence. That set the stage for a renewed great power struggle in Europe against a revanchist Russia, just as legendary diplomat George F. Kennan repeatedly warned [1] the Clinton administration that it would.

“Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era,” Kennan wrote on February 5, 1997 in a New York Times op-ed. [1] “Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

Kennan’s sage advice was ignored, and the exact scenario he warned about has today come to pass. More than 25 years after the end of the Cold War, relations between Moscow and Washington are at their lowest point since the fall of the Soviet Union. Indeed, some have suggested that the United States and Russia are entering into a new cold war [2] of sorts.

As a liberal internationalist, Clinton was dedicated to the goal of spreading democracy and promoting free-market reforms in Russia and the former Soviet Bloc. The idea was rooted in the Kantian democratic peace theory that was popularized at the time by Francis Fukuyama in his 1989 essay “The End of History” in The National Interest. The problem ultimately was in the idea’s execution and perhaps a certain level of naiveté on Clinton’s part.

In Eastern Europe, the Clinton administration hoped to use the NATO alliance to stabilize those newly liberated states and integrate them into the West. At the same time, Clinton wanted to enter with Moscow into some sort of transatlantic security arrangement, while simultaneously promoting democratic reforms and market liberalization inside Russia. Securing such a partnership with Russia while expanding the NATO alliance would have been a challenge for any U.S. administration. Indeed, it might have been an impossible task since these are in some ways fundamentally incompatible goals. However, the Clinton administration made the situation worse because of its somewhat misleading communications with the Russian leadership—particularly during an October 1993 visit to Moscow by Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

The issue was the inclusive Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, advocated for by the Pentagon and by Christopher when he met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Even though the PfP was designed to become a path towards eventual NATO membership, it was open to all of the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet republics on an equal basis. Thus, it was palatable to Russia as Yeltsin told Christopher, later recounted in a U.S. State Department memorandum of conversation. Yeltsin interpreted PfP as meaning the NATO expansion would be deferred indefinitely into the future. “It really is a great idea, really great,” Yeltsin told Christopher according to the memorandum. “Tell Bill I am thrilled by this brilliant stroke.”

According to the memo, Christopher also told Yeltsin that “we will in due course be looking at the question of membership as a longer term eventuality. There will be an evolution, based on the development of a habit of cooperation, but over time.” However, discussions on NATO expansion started almost immediately thereafter. During a January 12, 1994 [3] speech in Prague, Clinton made it clear “the question is no longer whether NATO will take on new members but when and how” the alliance would expand. “We reneged on our part of the deal,” either James Collins or Thomas Pickering (it is unclear which ambassador said this) told Angela Stent in her book The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.

Unsurprisingly, as plans for NATO expansion started to come together, the reaction in Moscow was not a positive one. Clinton had promised Yeltsin “no surprises, no rush and no exclusion”—but the Kremlin did not see it that way. From the Russian perspective, the United States was keen on expanding into what had been the Kremlin’s backyard while offering Moscow only empty platitudes. “Europe, even before it has managed to shrug off the legacy of the Cold War, is at risk of plunging into a cold peace,” Yeltsin said in [4] December 1994.

To mollify the Kremlin, the Clinton administration proposed a NATO-Russia council where Moscow would have a voice but no veto power. Effectively, the Russians would remain outside the transatlantic security structure.

Even Clinton himself seems to have recognized the underlying flaw in that plan. “What the Russians get out of this great deal we’re offering them is a chance to sit in the same room with NATO and join us whenever we all agree to something, but they don’t have any ability to stop us from doing something that they don’t agree with,” Clinton said, as quoted by James Goldgeier and Michael McFaul in their book Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy toward Russia after the Cold War. “They can register their disapproval by walking out of the room. And for their second big benefit, they get our promise that we’re not going to put our military stuff into their former allies who are now going to be our allies, unless we happen to wake up one morning and decide to change our mind.”

The problem, however, was Clinton’s former roommate and primary Russia expert Strobe Talbott. Talbott, who was a journalist rather than a diplomat, did not seem to have a good answer when Clinton directly asked him why Kennan’s argument was incorrect. Indeed, Talbott—according to his own memoir The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy—was plainly dismissive of Kennan’s argument. Clinton’s overreliance on Talbott—whose negotiating strategy seems to have been particularly obtuse—may have caused much of the later friction with the Russians over the NATO expansion and the NATO air campaign over Kosovo in 1999 [5], which was not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council. Indeed, the Russians saw the Kosovo intervention as a breach of international law that violated Yugoslavia’s sovereignty, and as the straw that broke the camel’s back in Moscow’s relations with the alliance.

“The U.S. negotiating position had been simple, unbending and, largely for that reason, successful,” Talbott wrote. “’Table and stick’ we’d called it: Go straight to your bottom line and stick with it; wait until the other side bends. We’d been able to look the Russians in the eye and tell them that we were going forward with or without them.”

Unsurprisingly, the Russians were not impressed with Talbott’s methods. “You know it’s bad enough having you people tell us what you’re going to do whether we like it or not,” Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian foreign minister at the time, told Talbott during a private meeting about Kosovo. “Don’t add insult to injury by also telling us that it’s in our interests to obey your orders.”

Unfortunately for the Russians, the Kremlin was living out Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue—“the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”—and was meekly forced to acquiesce to Washington’s demands. Essentially, the United States, despite its rhetoric to the contrary, imposed a victor’s peace on Russia in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian academic Sergei Karaganov, as quoted by Conradi, aptly summed up Moscow’s perspective:

The West has consistently sought to expand its zone of military, economic and political influence through NATO and the EU. Russian interests and objections were flatly ignored. Russia was treated like a defeated power, though we did not see ourselves as defeated. A softer version of the Treaty of Versailles was imposed on the country.

Ultimately, while the reaction was not immediate—Russia during the 1990s was simply too weak to object strenuously—the seeds of resentment were planted under Clinton. Indeed, Moscow’s reaction has played out over time almost exactly as Kennan predicted.

As Kennan told the New York Times in 1998 [6]:

I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.

In the end, despite Clinton’s best intentions to build a new partnership with post-Soviet Russia, American triumphalism and NATO expansion created an impasse that still haunts us to this day. It was all sadly avoidable—and now it’s too late.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @Davemajumdar [7].

28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "How Bill Clinton Accidentally Started Another Cold War"

#1 Comment By Trutho On October 17, 2017 @ 11:15 pm

IN SUMMARY:
Those European countries, Baltics in particular, don’t deserve democracy, so says an American who doesn’t live there.

#2 Comment By Whine Merchant On October 18, 2017 @ 2:37 am

Sure, sure, everything is the fault of a Democrat President. This reads like more distraction from the tragic circus in the White House.

It starts from the right-wing premise that the whole world, especially our European friends, are just hankering for US ‘exceptionalism’ and had no voice in this at all. Aren’t they the ones more likely to be threatened by Putin than the good ole US of A??

#3 Comment By Fran Macadam On October 18, 2017 @ 9:13 am

It wasn’t accidental and it was in the best interests of those who have and continue to financially benefit, even if to the detriment of hundreds of millions of Americans, not to say even more foreigners. A weak electorate suffers what it must, at the hands of strong financial elites who purchase the policies they desire.

#4 Comment By Gerry teroplyn On October 18, 2017 @ 10:22 am

The problem is entirely Russia. The Russians said “we are not a defeated power.” They were. One of the biggest losers in world history. Pathetic, humiliated and destroyed thoroughly. They need to recognize they are pathetic loser nation with small extraction economy and lack of civil society. Time to do things like give up nuclear weapons and try to join NATO and give conquered people their independence like the Chechens and tatars.

#5 Comment By Ready for the Apocalypse On October 18, 2017 @ 10:47 am

“IN SUMMARY: Those European countries, Baltics in particular, don’t deserve democracy, so says an American who doesn’t live there”

More accurate summary: the USA should not extend security guarantees to an ever expanding list of foreign countries which it has no intention or capability of honoring. (See the Kennan quote.)

Also, I didn’t realize that it’s necessary to live in the Baltics to have a valid opinion on American foreign policy.

#6 Comment By SteveK9 On October 18, 2017 @ 11:08 am

What was galling at the time was the self-righteous entitlement of the Baltics. They virtually ordered us to protect them. What was good for the US or rest of NATO was of no consequence. These clowns are still screaming that the ‘Russian’s are coming’ the ‘Russians are coming’. Some of what they’ve said lately is beyond pathetic, to the point I wish the Russians really would come and shut them up.

#7 Comment By Michael Kenny On October 18, 2017 @ 11:16 am

As the author says, it’s now too late. The problem in 2017 is not what caused Putin to turn into the monster he has now become. The problem is what to do about the monster now that he exists. The quoted reference to the Versailles Treaty says it all. Just like Germany in 1918, the Soviet Union was defeated in the cold war and collapsed. A lot of Germans didn’t accept the defeat of 1918 and that spawned Hitler, who sought to revise Versailles. The consequence was that Germany suffered a second and much worse defeat. The modern Russian Federation isn’t the continuation of the Soviet Union, it is merely the largest piece of the wreckage from its collapse. Many Russian don’t accept either the collapse of the Soviet Union or the loss of their status as the colonial overlords of half of Europe. That has spawned Putin, with the same desire to revise the cold war settlement as Hitler had in regard to Versailles. This is not a new cold war, it’s the road to a fairly imminent hot war. Putin cannot retreat. That would probably bring him down at home. He also cannot stay where he is. All he’s got are two expensive white elephants in Ukraine. Whatever he wants, he clearly hasn’t yet got it and has little choice but to try to take it by force. Thus, unless Putin is removed from office by some sort of palace coup, I see no alternative to a war, whether in Ukraine, Syria, Iran or somewhere else where Putin is.

#8 Comment By Winston On October 18, 2017 @ 12:29 pm

I find it amusing that you think this was “accidental”.

#9 Comment By Evgeny On October 18, 2017 @ 2:10 pm

Gerry teroplyn says:
“The Russians said “we are not a defeated power.” They were.”
Show me the Act of Surrender. You can’t. Shut up.

#10 Comment By Tiktaalik On October 18, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

2 Gerry teroplyn

>>Time to do things like give up nuclear weapons and try to join NATO and give conquered people their independence like the Chechens and tatars.

Why should we? What will we get as a reward?
Speaking about conquered people — that’s a bit rich. Are you alsi Aztlan and La Raza Unida supporter? Or do you think that the Americans shall pack up back for Europe?

#11 Comment By Tiktaalik On October 18, 2017 @ 3:12 pm

2 Michael Kenny
>>Thus, unless Putin is removed from office by some sort of palace coup, I see no alternative to a war, whether in Ukraine, Syria, Iran or somewhere else where Putin is.

Oh my, chairborn rangers in force. Are you going to recruiting office yourself? Have you got your fallout shelter prepared?
By the way, could you please enlighten me, why should US care about some countries 10 000 km away from her borders? And why shall all other countries jump through the hoops, following US requests and orders? You’ve got your Monroe doctrine, so stick to your hemisphere, please.

#12 Comment By Jack Kalpakian On October 18, 2017 @ 4:24 pm

This is not about whether countries “deserve” or do not “deserve” democracy. That is actually a thinly veiled racist argument against those excluded from NATO, either by policy or by the objection of a sitting member. Austria is democratic, and it is not in NATO. The debate is really about whether the US can afford 1) to pay for the defense of countries at Russia’s rim, and 2) another round of fiscal bleeding in a second Cold War with Russia. As neoconservatives and Clintonian interventionists drag us to spend trillions on the defense of these “allies,” our heartland is facing an opioid crisis and a complete social and economic rot. This is not sustainable and no “exceptionalist” magic is going to address these problems.

#13 Comment By Peter On October 18, 2017 @ 4:32 pm

Gerry teroplyn:
Try to read some history books – about WWI – how Germany was “defeated” by France and the UK.
These “victors” wrote the Versailles Treaty, didn’t they?
Remember the follow up in 1940.
Remember who defeated Nazi Germany – not by bombing, but with boots on the ground.
And do some reading about how the USSR “collapsed”.
It might cool off your triumphalism.

#14 Comment By JefeTex On October 18, 2017 @ 4:40 pm

Kennan was right, NATO expansion further east was a bad idea and it should not have happened. At any rate, it shouldn’t have gone past the Polish border and into the Baltic States. (Bush bears some responsibility for that one).

That said, what do we do now? How can we climb down from this perch? The idea that Americans could be turned into cinders to keep Riga out of Russia hands is madness.

#15 Comment By fatman51 On October 18, 2017 @ 5:08 pm

this is an old “spheres of influence” argument. The policy of spheres of influence led directly to WW1. The war that, people thought then, would never happen because there were so many commercial ties, not to mention the familial ties among the ruling classes.
The expansion of NATO and the EU was the logical conclusion of the cold war, when seen as the quest to finally defeat fascism in Europe. It is most unfortunate that the temporary alliance with the Red Fascism in Russia was needed to defeat the Brown Fascism first. This circumstance arose because of the lack of resolve on the part of western democracies which allowed the brown fascism to first emerge and then strengthen without challenge. WW2 was the first result, followed by the cold war.

What is happening today is not Russian revanchism, but fascist and nationalist revival in the so called western world, added by a return to outright fascism in Russia. This is happening because of a mix of generational forgetting and socioeconomic factors. The answer is not to return Europe and the world to nationalism, but to fight back against the resurgence of fascism. Today we have nukes. Thousands of them. On day one. The next great war is likely to be the last one. We need to return to so called liberal values that drove the western world during the cold war. It is a matter of pure survival. It is a pity, truly a pity, that so called conservatives have been sliding towards fascism. perhaps one could even call it a terrible tragedy.

#16 Comment By OskarX On October 18, 2017 @ 9:57 pm

FDR and Churchill promised Stalin Eastern Europe – including the Baltics – as if Poland, Hungary, etc., were FDR’s and Winnies o promise away. In that sense – we do owe the Baltics something for all the slaughter and rape these suffered per Soviet hordes?

#17 Comment By john v. walsh On October 19, 2017 @ 12:38 am

It was no accident that the Clintons did this.
So says Jack Matlock.
See: [8]

#18 Comment By cka2nd On October 19, 2017 @ 12:45 am

Michael Kenny says: “Many Russian don’t accept either the collapse of the Soviet Union or the loss of their status as the colonial overlords of half of Europe.”

It’s not just Russians within the former USSR who regret the collapse of the Soviet Union. Significant portions of other ethnic and national groups formerly included in the USSR also regret its dissolution and the economic and social shocks that followed, reverberating down to today.

And I don’t think too many Russians miss being the “colonial overlords of half of Europe.” I think they miss much more the standard of living that they had in the USSR, the pride in being citizens of a superpower and world leader, and the security of knowing that a fourth major invasion of their homeland from the west in the last two centuries would have to go through about a thousand miles before it got to Moscow.

Michael Kenny says: “That has spawned Putin, with the same desire to revise the cold war settlement as Hitler had in regard to Versailles.”

Hitler not only wanted to revise the Treaty of Versailles but wanted to expand Germany into Eastern Europe and Russia, slaughtering Jews and either enslaving or slaughtering Slavs in the process. Putin doesn’t want to even rebuild the Russian Empire, let alone the USSR, by reincorporating the former Soviet republics in Central Asia or the Caucasus Mountains, let alone an economic basket case like Ukraine, Belrus or the Baltic states. What he wants is to not have U.S. and NATO forces or missiles or anti-missile systems on his front door, within spitting distance of St. Petersburg or cutting off Russia’s access to the Black Sea.

I have no love for the man at all, but it is not Putin but the U.s. foreign policy, economic, military/industrial and political establishments that are driving this cold war and may yet make it a hot one.

#19 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On October 19, 2017 @ 9:26 am

The next great war is likely to be the last one. We need to return to so called liberal values that drove the western world during the cold war.

200 000 people on the entire planet who survive the nuclear holocaust and find themselves in a world reduced to a new stone age will be returning to liberal values? That’s beyond ridiculous. It is a pity, truly a pity that liberal commenters here and elsewhere stick to their crumbling ideology so much that it has already become a parallel universe and an alternative reality for them.

#20 Comment By Tom S. On October 19, 2017 @ 10:10 am

I would suggest that NATO expansion was more a product of the former Soviet satellites’ and Baltic SSRs’ legitimate worries about continued domination by Russia, and the opportunity of an opening to the West’s economy.

Potential expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine was a step too far. That did not occur under Clinton.

#21 Comment By liberal On October 19, 2017 @ 10:57 am

OskarX wrote,

FDR and Churchill promised Stalin Eastern Europe – including the Baltics – as if Poland, Hungary, etc., were FDR’s and Winnies o promise away.

Huh? It had nothing whatsoever to do with promises, and everything to do with the fact that it was the Red Army that pushed the Wehrmacht out of those places and was then in a position to occupy them (whether or not that’s a good thing).

#22 Comment By Jack On October 19, 2017 @ 11:41 am

In other words, the Republican Presidents Bush I and II and their supporters, and the Republican white nationalist messiah Trump and his supporters, aren’t responsible for what they did and do.

#23 Comment By Janet Contursi On October 19, 2017 @ 12:03 pm

Accident? Only a very naive person with no understanding of long-term neocon policy would call that an accident.

#24 Comment By cka2nd On October 19, 2017 @ 6:37 pm

Alex (the one that likes Ike) says: “200 000 people on the entire planet who survive the nuclear holocaust and find themselves in a world reduced to a new stone age will be returning to liberal values?”

To be fair Alex, I think if you re-read fatman51’s comment, he was saying that we needed “to return to so called liberal values that drove the western world during the cold war” BEFORE the next great war, I assume in order to prevent it from happening altogether.

#25 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On October 19, 2017 @ 6:39 pm

Jack,

In other words, the Republican Presidents Bush I and II and their supporters, and the Republican white nationalist messiah Trump and his supporters, aren’t responsible for what they did and do.

You know, I’m already tired of explaining why that “white nationalism” is one of the most ridiculous oxymorons to have ever blessed the humanity with its existence. But Bush II and Trump in the same jury-rigged philippic? Seriously? Bush II almost openly supported Hillary Clinton, while his brother Jeb!!!!!!!1111111111 didn’t endorse Trump even when the guy whom he had endorsed previously did it. Sorry for the reality, but when you’re – rightly – kicking Bush II for his streak of foreign policy debacles, you’re at the same time kicking the Clintons, not Trump.

And yes, I’m deeply worried as to Trump’s possible grave error he may commit regarding the Iran deal, but as of yet he hasn’t sown any foreign policy disaster that wasn’t sown before him, by both Republican and Democratic presidents.

#26 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On October 20, 2017 @ 11:03 am

cka2nd,

To be fair Alex, I think if you re-read fatman51’s comment, he was saying that we needed “to return to so called liberal values that drove the western world during the cold war” BEFORE the next great war, I assume in order to prevent it from happening altogether.

Maybe. But then we should find the way of explaining to the general public that today’s liberal mainstream has as much in common with that liberalism of the Enlightenment as neocons have with Ike and Teddy. And something makes me think that it ain’t gonna be easy.

#27 Comment By SmoothieX12 On October 20, 2017 @ 3:38 pm

The problem, however, was Clinton’s former roommate and primary Russia expert Strobe Talbott. Talbott, who was a journalist rather than a diplomat, did not seem to have a good answer

Talbott, an “expert”? Sure. American “expertise” on Russia, bar some very few exceptions, is on a full parade right now. Or should we say–panopticon?

#28 Comment By Delia Ruhe On October 21, 2017 @ 5:43 pm

Exactly right. Too bad no Congressional Republican stepped forward to challenge Clinton. They were too interested in his sex life to know what he was actually doing in terms of foreign policy — or any policy, for that matter.