Over the weekend, my friend Pedro Gonzalez of Chronicles directed my attention to a column published on May 2, 1998 in the New York Times titled “Foreign Affairs; Now a Word From X.” The piece, from their relatively new foreign policy columnist Thomas Friedman, centered on Friedman’s retelling of a phone conversation he had with George Kennan, the Cold War diplomat turned historian who spent his life trying to inject a sense of realism into America’s idealist-dominated foreign policy towards the Soviet Union and then Russia. It seems not much has changed in the almost twenty four years since: The Gray Lady still publishes Friedman’s self-aggrandizing explanations of foreign happenings through whatever mishmash of metaphors he manages to scribble down that week, and, despite his passing at the remarkable age of 101 in 2005, Kennan’s analysis of U.S.-Russian relations bears repeating.
During their 1998 phone call, Friedman asked Kennan about the Senate’s approval of a planned NATO expansion, to which Kennan replied, ”I think it is the beginning of a new cold war.” At the Madrid Summit the year prior, NATO member nations agreed to invite Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to begin accession negotiations. On March 12, 1999, the three nations were granted full NATO membership and the protections that comes with it, bringing the total number of countries in the NATO alliance to 19.
“The Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake,” Kennan told Friedman. “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.”
Kennan also pilloried how the Senate, which “has no real interest in foreign affairs,” so casually and “light-hearted[ly]” went about its business with respect to NATO expansion. ”What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was,” Kennan went on to say. ”I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.”
The Senate’s framing of NATO expansion, “shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are—but this is just wrong.” Again, it seems not much has changed.
Friedman, processing the meat of Kennan’s presentation, wrote that if we are “lucky… the forces of globalization integrating Europe, coupled with the new arms control agreements, proved to be so powerful that Russia, despite NATO expansion, moved ahead with democratization and Westernization, and was gradually drawn into a loosely unified Europe.” Friedman’s idealistic foreign policy predictions always require a bit of luck to come true. But better to bank on reality than luck when it comes to assessing great power politics. In this domain, as Friedman might be hard-pressed to admit, luck is scarce.
The “unlucky” scenario, Friedman says, is if Kennan’s predictions come true and “NATO expansion set up a situation in which NATO now has to either expand all the way to Russia’s border, triggering a new cold war, or stop expanding after these three new countries and create a new dividing line through Europe.”
Kennan’s predictions have certainly come to pass, but we haven’t been unlucky or unsuccessful—this is the effect policy makers in Washington set out to achieve. And Kennan recognized that what was set to transpire was more than mere accident.
As the pair bid each other farewell, Kennan told Friedman, “This has been my life, and it pains me to see it so screwed up in the end.”