Follow us on


U.S. power play

Print edition : Jun 18, 2010 T+T-
Mikhail Gorbachev. He reached out to the West for an overarching settlement in 1989-90.-TIM SHAFFER/REUTERS

Mikhail Gorbachev. He reached out to the West for an overarching settlement in 1989-90.-TIM SHAFFER/REUTERS

"A great empire and little minds go ill together."

- Edmund Burke in a speech on conciliation with rebellious America, on March 22, 1775.

THREE times in the 20th century the Unitd States of America had a God-sent opportunity, at the end of a war, to use its globally acknowledged military might and political influence to shape a world order thatrespected the interests of all. Three times it failed with consequences the world suffered and continues to suffer.

The first was in 1919, when it failed because its President, Woodrow Wilson, refused to reckon with the realities in Europe and was too arrogant to cultivate Congress. It refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, and the U.S. did not become a member of the League of Nations. It was thus doomed to irrelevance.

The second opportunity came in 1945, when it refused to recognise the Soviet Union's security interests in Germany and eastern Europe. Stalin's brutal methods in the region were indefensible. But in September 1944 Churchill entered into the famous "Percentages Agreement" with Stalin at the Kremlin, and Stalin kept his word. He refused to back the winning Greek communist guerrillas in Greece. The U.S.rejected the accord and refused to recognise the security interests of a country that had borne the main brunt of Hitler's army, sacrificed millions of lives and suffered ruin on large parts of its territory. Without the Soviet Union's contribution the war could not have been won, a fact that the West's leaders do not quite accept even now.

The third opportunity arose on November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall opened. It was the end of the Cold War, which had been unleashed by both blocs. As on the previous two occasions, the USSR emerged as the weaker power and a suitor for peace and a fair deal. The U.S.did not snub its overture. It cheated the Soviet Union on the crucial issue of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's expansion eastward, after Germany's re-unification and its membership of NATO. Moscow had accepted both; 1989 was not only an end but also a beginning. It established a new unipolar order.

In 1919, the U.S. had a great man at the helm of its affairs, Woodrow Wilson. In 1945 and 1989, it was led by men who were small in stature and devoid ofstatesmanship and vision; respectively,Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush. Their aim was American supremacy. Even Britain was humiliated and reduced to serve as a servile follower. In 1945, the Soviet Union was led by a dictator like Stalin. All interlocutors accepted that he was one they could do business with. A settlement on the basis of the recognition of Soviet interests in eastern Europe andconvincing assurances of Western disinterest conditional on respect for the independence of and democratic order in the countries of the region was not even attempted.

In 1989, the USSR was led by a man of rare qualities, Mikhail Gorbachev. Hedismantled the Stalinist state and reached out to the West for an overarching settlement. The British Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Rodric Braithwaite, records in his superbly written memoirs the stiff resistance from Soviet officials thatGorbachev faced and defeated (Across the Moscow River: The World Turned Upside Down; Yale University Press, 2002). It is such a man whom Bush deceived, a deception carried further by his successors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. India owes a lot to Gorbachev, so much so that his successor, Boris Yeltsin, snubbed India for quite some time. But our media houses, print and TV, relish the company of the rejects of the West - John Major, Jeffrey Archer and Kissinger & co. Nobody invites Gorbachev to India. Nor,for that matter, intellectuals from Japan or dissidents in West Asia. The one thing more than any other thatRussia resents today is NATO's expansioneastward.

Stupendous research

The first book is an outstandingly able work on the diplomacy of the era when the Cold War ended. Prof. Sarotte's research is stupendous. She has delved into archives, private papers, and sound and video recordings from Moscow, Warsaw, Dresden, Berlin, Leipzig, Hamburg, Koblenz, Bonn, Paris, London, Cambridge, Princeton, Washington, College Station and Simi Valley. She draws on published documents available in these locations and inBeijing, Budapest, Prague, and other places as well.

"Particularly useful were the Russian materials from the Gorbachev Foundation, the volume of documents on divided Germany published by former Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev and his adviser Anatoly Chernyaev, and the so-called Fond 89 assembled later by Russian leader Boris Yeltsin. The East German party and secret police archives were essential sources as well, as were documents from other Warsaw Pact member states..

"The relatively recent British FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] means that this study can draw on some of the first materials released from Number 10 Downing Street under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as well as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office under Douglas Hurd; .Four years of petitions and appeals in the United Kingdom (U.K.) succeeded just in time for inclusion of both sides in this publication. France does not have such legislation officially, but my individual petition for early archival access was approved as well. There is also a limited selection of primary documents published by Francois Mitterrand. In addition, some top-level materials are available from Beijing." Can a student of India's foreign affairs have similar luck? She has interviewed all the principal actors. Besides, The Cold War International History Project and the National Security Archive in the U.S. have laid students in deep debt.

Jeffrey A. Engel's collection of essays includes an insightful one on China's path towards 1989 and beyond, from the Tiananmen Square disaster. The contributions are scholarly and thoughtful, but limited in scope. One in particular demonstrates how hysterical some leading American columnists can be. They feared that a reunited Germany would pose a threat to Europe's unity and democracy.

Appropriately, it is left to Jack F. Matlock, Jr., the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, 1987-91, to demolish the myth of triumphalism that was spread after 1989. His books Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold WarEndedexplained the event. His memoirs explained why the Soviet Union collapsed. The present work is one of the most reflective and incisive to appear in a long while. It is a good antidote to triumphalism and a good guide on how to fashion a just world order.

To the House Committee on International Relations on June 20, 1996, Matlock, Jr., testified that Gorbachev received a "clear commitment that if Germany united, and stayed in NATO, the borders of NATO would not move eastward".

One cardinal fact must not be overlooked. In 1989-90 there was no public discussion in the U.S. of the possible move eastward. Hence, there was no occasion for Gorbachev to stipulate it, in writing or otherwise. It was a fundamental that was implicit in the accord, one no honourable men would later violate.

It is accepted by American writers that there was such a commitment in respect of NATO's role in East Germany, which is spelt out in the document "Final Settlement with Respect to Germany", but none for the region eastward. This has only to be stated for its disingenuity, rather dishonesty, to become apparent.

German reunification and NATO

Britain, France and even Poland were dead opposed to Germany's reunification. In September 1989, Margaret Thatcher asked Gorbachev to ignore comments by NATO leaders on the subject."Britain and France are not interested in the unification of Germany. The words written in the NATO communique may sound different, but disregard them. We do not want the unification of Germany." The reason was that "it would lead to changes in the post-war borders, and we cannot allow that because such a development would undermine the stability of the entire international situation". She assured him that the United States shared this view: "I can tell you that this is also the position of the U.S. President."

It was the German Chancellor's grit and determination, George H.W. Bush's support and the indispensable support of Mikhail Gorbachev that accomplished Germany's reunification, prodded as they all were by the surge and determination of the people themselves. The chain of events led to the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact; yet, NATO survived.

Gorbachev met U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker, III, on February 9, 1990, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl the next day. Mark Kramer, director of the Cold War Studies Project, took it upon himself to demolish "The myth of No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia" in The Washington Quarterly(April 2009). He recognises that "Gorbachev would not even have contemplated seeking an assurance about NATO expansion beyond Germany because in February 1990 that issue was not yet within his ken."

On February 2, Baker met West Germany's Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, in Washington D.C. He announced that both "were in full agreement that there is no intention to extend the NATO area of defence and security toward the East". Kramer adds his gloss - "meaning eastern Germany".

On February 9, according to the Soviet record, Baker told Gorbachev: "We understand that it would be important not only for the USSR but also for other European countries to have a guarantee that if the United States maintains its military presence in Germany within the NATO framework, there will be no extension of NATO's jurisdiction or military presence one inch to the East." The U.S. memorandum of the conversation, compiled by Baker's aide Dennis Ross, contains very similar phrasing, quoting Baker as saying that "there would be no extension of NATO's jurisdiction or NATO's forces one inch to the East".

Both documents also indicate that Baker went on to say that "we believe that the consultations and discussions in the framework of the `2 + 4' (two Germanies plus the Four Powers) mechanism must give a guarantee that the unification of Germany does not lead to the extension of NATO's military organisation to the East". Towards the end of the conversation, Baker brought up the point again: "I want to ask you a question, which you don't need to answer right now. Assuming that unification will occur, would you prefer a united Germany outside NATO and completely independent with no American troops (on its soil) or a united Germany that maintains its ties with NATO, but with a guarantee that NATO's jurisdiction and forces will not extend to the East beyond the current line?"

Kohl had two rounds of talks with Gorbachev on February 10. India still suppresses the Henderson Brooks Report of 1963 on the War of 1962. But Soviet and German transcripts of these sensitive talks of 1990 are in the public domain. Kohl at one point mentioned that "NATO must not expand the sphere of its activity", a vague formulation that did not elicit any reaction from Gorbachev. The West German document renders Kohl's comment as: "Naturally, NATO must not extend its sphere to the territory of today's GDR."

Gorbachev, initially, was opposed to a united Germany's membership of NATO. "It would be foolish if one part of Germany entered NATO and the other part entered the Warsaw Pact." The U.S. demurred but conceded that East Germany should have a "special military status".

Bush met Kohl at Camp David on February24-25. At a joint press conference Bush said: "We share a common belief that a unified Germany should remain a full member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, including participation in its military structure. We agreed that U.S. military forces should remain stationed in the united Germany and elsewhere in Europe as a continuing guarantor of stability. The Chancellor and I are also in agreement that, in a unified state, the former territory of the GDR should have a special military status, that it [sic] would take into account the legitimate security interests of all interested countries, including those of the Soviet Union."

On July 15, 1990, Gorbachev made the crucial concession to Kohl on membership of NATO. On September 12, 1990, was signed the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany. Article 5 of the treaty defined the "special military status" of the territory of eastern Germany by stipulating that no foreign troops other than those of the USSR's Western Group of Forces and no soldiers from German units assigned to NATO would be deployed on the territory of the former GDR until all Soviet forces were pulled out of Germany in 1994. Article 5 also stipulated that after the Soviet withdrawals were completed, the only soldiers ordinarily permitted in eastern Germany would be from German units, including units assigned to NATO.

Sarotte takes the reader carefully through the record, far less tendentiously than Kramer. One important episode she overlooks completely. Iraq she mentions only in the context of an exchange of dirty jokes between Baker and Gorbachev in Moscow preceding a similar elevated exchange between Gorbachev and Bush;"male-bonding" and "displays of masculinity in diplomacy".

Lawyers use the Latin words res gestae, part of the same transaction, the same train of events. In the clime of 1990, after Saddam Hussain's invasion of Kuwait on August 1, 1990, the Soviet Union warmly supported the U.S' moves for Iraq's eviction from Kuwait. In 2001, Vladimir Putin followed the same course after 9/11.

Spurious apologia

Sarotte's apologia for the U.S' breach of faith is spurious. "This agreement was extremely significant to the Soviet leader. He later recalled it as the moment `that cleared the way for compromise' on Germany. It also formed the nucleus of the controversy that remains unresolved to this day. Unwisely, Gorbachev let the meeting end without securing this agreement in any kind of written form. Emerging from a political culture in which the word of a leader overruled the law, hoping that he could still find a way to disband both military alliances entirely, and hesitating to agree to his end of the bargain (a unified Germany), Gorbachev did not try to resolve the matter there in writing. In the future, once NATO started expanding, he would therefore leave the Soviet Union's successors empty-handed when they protested against NATO enlargement. Later, Russian Presidents would assert that this meeting had given them assurances that NATO would not expand. The United States would remember this meeting differently." - very conveniently.

She, however, acknowledges: "At the time of these bilaterals, there is no evidence that the thinking about NATO's future went beyond East Germany, although such ideas would emerge within the year. In separate interviews, Baker, [Philip D.] Zelikow, and [Robert B.] Zoellick all indicated that there were musings at the State Department in the latter half of 1990 about the possibility of NATO expansion, although only in a speculative way. An internal State Department document, to be discussed below, hints at theoretical conversations as early as March 1990, but not at the time of these bilaterals." Where, then, was the need for Gorbachev to seek a written undertaking for a move that none had thought of and one that would exceed the assurance regarding East Germany?

Gorbachev had a different vision, which Matlock reported from Moscow on May 1990 - "create a pan-European security pact instantaneously by putting a united Germany into both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, simultaneously". Matlock summarised Gorbachev's logic as follows: If "Germany can participate without difficulty in the G-7, the EC-12, the NATO-16 and the CSCE-35, why couldn't it also accept participation in all or part of the Warsaw Pact political framework - an Eastern E-7, so to speak".

As a study of the diplomatic record, Sarotte's book has few equals. George Kennan called NATO's expansion eastward as a "strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions".Sarotte herself recognises that "the expansion perpetuated the military dividing line between NATO and its biggest strategic threat, Russia, into the post Cold War world", adding tellingly "which did not have to be the outcome of 1990". Precisely.

She records: "In the West, while Bonn and Washington publicly expressed sympathy for Gorbachev's reformist goals in 1989-90, they privately sensed that they did not really need to accommodate him. To repeat what Baker wrote in a summary of U.S.-Soviet relations: the Russians ` have to make hard choices. We do Gorbachev no favours when we make it easier to avoid choices.' Bonn and Washington realised that they could outmanoeuvre him. The discrepancy between what Kohl in particular suggested to Gorbachev in February - that NATO would not move eastward if the Soviet leader let Germany unite, which Gorbachev then agreed to let happen internally - and what transpired afterward created ill will in the long term.

"In other words, the goal of Bonn and Washington was, as Gates put it, to bribe the Soviets out of Germany, not to set up long-term structures of cooperation in which Gorbachev and his successors would be full partners. Gorbachev eventually came to feel that he had walked into a trap and told Kohl so in those words in September 1990. Presumably the Soviet leader was also angry at himself for failing to have gotten more out of unification, particularly with regard to NATO, since the issue was such a toxic one for any Soviet or Russian leader. The Clinton administration, seeing how difficult NATO expansion could be for Yeltsin in terms of domestic politics, waited until after the Russian leader secured re-election in July 1996 before enlarging beyond former East Germany. It also, together with the NATO Secretary General at the time, Javier Solana, organised a multinational conference in Paris in May 1997 to provide Yeltsin with a public relations boost. At this conference, the "Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security between the Russian Federation and NATO" was signed. This Act created a Permanent Joint Council that included Russia, but neither it, nor its successor organisation, the NATO-Russia Council, ever really lived up to expectations.

"Russians saw the new relationship as a counter-intelligence opportunity. Western policymakers gave Russia only token consultative rights. The window of opportunity closed. Lacking some kind of successful Western-Russian consultation to smooth over the disagreements, NATO enlargement continued to increase tension between Washington and Moscow.

"As opportunities for cooperation dwindled in the course of implementation, Russian worry about NATO enlargement intensified. During the Cold War, Leningrad was roughly twelve hundred miles [1,931 km] away from the nearest border of NATO. By 2008, the membership of Estonia meant that the border had moved to within a hundred miles [160 km] of the city, renamed Saint Petersburg."

Promises broken

Any country would be concerned about such a development, but Russia was particularly angry about it. It insisted that in implementing expansion, the United States and the West had thereby broken their promises. The U.S. resentedCuba's friendship with the USSR.

Indian academics are not the only ones to bat on the same side as the government onforeign policy - bar a few exceptions. With the same qualification, American academics are no better; perhaps worse because they have better access to information. Sarotte's gloss is preposterous. In February 1990, she claims, "Baker suggested in a highly speculative way. that NATO would not expand eastwards."

But doubts nag her. "Was there not a real opportunity to take advantage of the unexpected opportunities and accomplish more at a pan-European level? The eventual outcome of NATO expansion was already unfolding in 1990. But was there some form of international economic support or guidance, other than large handouts fromKohl, that would have eased the transit of the Soviet Union into the company of modern democracies and economics in exchange for its consent to peaceful German unification in NATO? Did the West `lose' Russia, and did it do so as early as 1990.. Between 1990 and 2008 the number of Russian nuclear warheads or ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] was cut almost 70 per cent, and four thousand of its tanks left Europe.."

The wise former British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd did "indeed think that better alternatives were conceivable. In 1989-90 there was a theoretical opportunity which won't come again, which Obama does not have, to remake the world, because America was absolutely at the pinnacle of its influence and success. Put another way, `you could argue that if they had been geniuses, George Bush and Jim Baker would have sat down in 1990 and said the whole game is coming into our hands'. They would have concluded that `we've got now an opportunity, which may not recur, to remake the world, update everything, the U.N., everything'. And maybe if they had been Churchill and Roosevelt, you know, they might have done that." But Hurd finds that "they weren't that kind of person, neither of them. George Bush had famously said he `didn't do the vision thing'. In short, they weren't visionaries, and nor were we." Hurd remembers that they played it safe, which was sensible and indeed his preference, but that they "may have let a big opportunity go by". Hurd was too polite to say that Bush and Baker were small men.

Predicament & reasons for it

Matlock, Jr.,asks: "How is it that we have moved, in less than two decades, from the confidence that enveloped America when the Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall came down, and President George H.W. Bush proclaimed a `new world order' to the division and widespread fear prevalent today? The world faces a deepening recession; American armed forces are fighting two wars that have lasted longer than World War-II; the United States has become the world's largest debtor, with a fraying infrastructure and educational system and an economy dangerously dependent on imports of energy from some of the most unstable parts of the world."

Unlike Jesting Pilate, he waits and gives the answer, an answer which our "defence intellectuals" and their companions day-dreaming about great-power status and the "hardliners" would do well to ponder. "There are many reasons for the predicament we find ourselves in, but one of the most fundamental is our failure as a nation to understand the lessons the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union should have taught us. To judge from the superficiality - sometimes even irrelevance - of much of our political debate on foreign policy issues,neither the Democratic nor Republican party leadership has a clear idea of what we should have learned from the Cold War and the way it ended..

"These events rearranged the political map of the world, but too many American politicians looked at the end of the Cold War as if it were a quasi-military victory rather than a negotiated outcome that benefited both sides. They seemed to think that the disappearance of the Soviet Union left the United States as the sole remaining `superpower', able to police the world - if necessary without international sanction or the help of allies. Armchair strategists with illusions of power never seemed to understand that the disappearance of the Soviet Union decreased American leverage over other countries, which no longer needed U.S. support to fend off the communist threat. Many pundits inflated the importance of potential ` enemies' to justify maintaining American military forces at a level far higher than needed for the nation's defence."

Military might does not necessarily add to security, and conciliation is not a vice. "Instead of working to create an international order that would address the issues most important to its own security - an order in which power and responsibility would be shared, local conflicts contained, and weapons of mass destruction brought under reliable control - the United States allowed itself to be distracted. It involved its military forces in struggles hardly relevant to American well-being, and did so in a way that engendered the hostility of countries whose cooperation was in the long run essential to American security. The Clinton administration's decision to expand NATO to the east, rather than draw Russia into a cooperative arrangement to ensure European security, undermined the prospects of democracy in Russia, made it more difficult to keep peace in the Balkans, and slowed the process of nuclear disarmament started by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev."

This touches the basics which even critics of George W. Bush ignore. They lament the failure, not the crime and folly of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The author proceeds methodically to pinpoint the failures -neglect of a domestic consensus, economics, dependence on foreign soil. "It does not help anyone's understanding that debate on these issues is often couched in terms of conservative versus liberal politics.. There is nothing conservative about invading a country that has not attacked you, and nothing liberal about devastating another country in the belief that doing so will promote democracy." We have similar stereotypes in Indian discourse on foreign policy.

Matlock, Jr.,is very well read and draws on his considerable knowledge of history as he dissects the tortuous course of American policies exposing, en passant, the bogus themes of revered pundits, especially the one who popularised "the unipolar moment". The most instructive chapter is the one on "Hubris and its Consequences". His sweep is global; a virtual primer to an understanding of the present scene for someone like - Barack Obama.

On Iran, for instance, he points out that the U.S. and Iran's interests are not incompatible. He pleads for a diplomatic approach. Matlock, Jr., concludes: "Ultimately, President Obama's ability to bring about the changes America needs in its domestic and foreign policy will depend on the American public's resistance to the false myths and the false ideologies that led both the Clinton and - to a much greater degree - the Bush-Cheney administrations astray. Although the United States will possess for a long time the most powerful armed forces in the world and - for a few more years, at least - the largest economy, it is not and has never been a `superpower' in the sense that it can alone rearrange the world to its liking. As David Sanger put it: `We have to adjust to a world that Bush could never accept - one in which new power centres arise, one in which America does not always set the rules and sometimes has to heed rules set by others.'"

If President Obama can make that adjustment, replacing attempts to enforce hegemony with efforts to cooperate to achieve common purposes,America will emerge both stronger and more secure than it has been since the beginning of this century.

But Obama's central tasks are to repair the breach of faith with Russia and force Israel to settle. He is more likely to accomplish the first and much less likely to attempt the second.