“Disastrous,” was how the Financial Times yesterday described Donald Trump’s visit to Europe. Were you to extend Trump’s influence indefinitely into the future, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy for the past 70 years, would be finished.
If, on the other hand, Trump is repudiated in 2020 – my guess is that he will be – the future of NATO depends on what happens in the congressional elections of 2018 and 2020, and the presidential elections of 2020 and 2024.
That means the discussion of NATO can go forward, at least tentatively, pretty much without reference to Trump’s boorish behavior in Belgium and Britain last week. That future has relatively little to do with whether member nations will spend more of their gross domestic product on defense.
There are, in fact, two NATOs. The first was cobbled together in a hurry in 1948 in response to a Soviet-sponsored coup in Czechoslovakia and the blockade of Berlin. The second emerged, starting in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first was shepherded into existence by Harry Truman. The second was created by Bill Clinton.
When the Berlin Wall was dismantled, in 1989, the reunification of Germany, a key U.S. foreign policy objective in the years since the end of World War II, was suddenly within reach. First, however, the question of the possibility of a unified Germany’s status within NATO had to be resolved. In exchange for assurances by the administration of George H. W. Bush that NATO would stop there, “would not move an inch” farther east, Russian leaders assented and the armed forces of the former Soviet satellite switched sides.
President Bill Clinton didn’t feel bound by any such promise.. Clinton had visited the Soviet Union in 1970 as a graduate student and had formed his own ideas. He named as Deputy Secretary of State his roommate from those days, former Time Magazine Moscow correspondent Strobe Talbott, and quietly prepared to offer membership to Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, which by then were actively seeking it.
As Clinton’s intention became more widely known, senior figures in his administration, including Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and his deputy William Perry, warned privately of a “train wreck” if NATO enlargement proceeded. Foreign policy intellectuals of both parties, led by Cold War strategist George Kennan, and including Senate Armed Services Committee head Sam Nunn, arms control negotiator Paul Nitze, and Senator Bill Bradley, went public with their opposition in 1996, on the eve of the formal vote.
Clinton and Talbott were undeterred. After the re-election of Russian president Boris Yeltsin, planning began to offer NATO membership to seven more former Soviet satellites: the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, plus Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia (now separated from the Czech Republic), Macedonia and Slovenia.
George W. Bush replaced Clinton in 2001 and, after 9/11, proceeded with the expansion that the Clinton team had planned, while also invading Afghanistan and Iraq. After the Bush administration quietly supported the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, and, the Russians believed, withheld key information about separatist terrorist activity out of sympathy with Chechen independence aims, Russian president Vladimir Putin protested strongly against American’s “unipolar” ambitions in a speech to an international security meeting in Munich in 2007. The next year, Russia briefly went to war against Georgia to make his point.
The Obama administration carried on with NATO enlargement after 2009, overseeing the admission of Croatia and Albania that the Bush administration had planned, adding Montenegro to the list, and bruiting the possibility of membership for Georgia and Ukraine. In 2012 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Putin’s reelection to a third term as president, enraging him. In 2013, her successor, John Kerry, supported a second “color revolution” in Ukraine. Those events then led in March 2014 to the Russian occupation of Crimea.
This second version of NATO is often lumped together with the first. Enough time has passed that veterans of the Cold War are aged; the policy-makers who would have succeeded them had George H. W. Bush been re-elected in 1992 have been mostly on the sidelines for twenty-five years. Architects of the second NATO dominate the mainstream news. Thus talk show host Rachel Maddow last week introduced Victoria Nuland as “one of the most experienced American diplomats walking the earth.”
In fact Nuland began her governmental career by as Strobe Talbott’s State Department chief of staff for several years. She became Vice President Dick Cheney’s adviser in the Iraq War, served for four years as NATO ambassador, before becoming State Department spokesperson for Hillary Clinton and, eventually, Assistant Secretary for Europeans and Eurasian Affairs. It was Nuland who, while passing out cookies to demonstrators in Kiev’s Maidan Square, was taped by Russian operatives declaiming to the American ambassador “F- the EU's” wishes with respect to the resolution of the crisis. Today she is chief executive of the Center for a New American Security.
Will Trump figure in the future of this narrative? Not much, as long as he isn’t re-elected to a second term. With respect to the future of NATO, there is no alternative to waiting to see how his presidency turns out – and re-examining the history of U.S.-Russia relationswhile we do. Sonorous stories about the Berlin blockade, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union are no substitute for well-informed debate about the second NATO.
David Warsh, a longtime columnist and an economic historian, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this first ran. He's based in Somerville, Mass.