Why I disagree with Tom Friedman
BRUSSELS -- In his column entitled "What Did We Expect?" in the New York Times of August 20, 2008, Tom Freidman argues that the recent conflict in Georgia proves that Nato enlargement in the 1990s was a strategic mistake and helped create the kind of Russia that would attack Georgia. Mr. Friedman has, of course, been arguing against Nato enlargement for a very long time. But I felt the need to explain why, in my view, he is wrong .
If any strategic decision of the 1990s has stood the test of time, it is the decision to enlarge NATO to Central and Eastern Europe. Those suggesting that this decision is the cause of the current crisis with Russia are turning history on its head. Had we not enlarged NATO, the U.S. today would be worse off strategically with more problems and fewer allies.
For starts, let's just imagine what Europe would look like. The fact that core Europe today is more secure, democratic and free than at any time in recent history is not an accident. NATO enlargement provided the shield behind which EU enlargement became possible and secured the eastern half of the continent. Had we not acted, Europe today might again look like it did in the 1920s and 1930s - torn by rising nationalism and geopolitical completion in the heart of the continent. Russia's relations with Poland and the Baltics might look a bit like those between Moscow and Georgia or Ukraine today. Polish-German relations would have long collapsed in acrimony. Such instability could have spilled over into the Western half of the continent and made it even more inward-looking. We could forget about European allies supporting us in the Middle East or Afghanistan as they would be too absorbed in managing their continent's own instability.
And what would Russia look like? I don't believe that Russia would look that much different than it does. Russia's failure to make the transition to a more democratic future and its fall back into an atavistic nationalism is not a consequence of Western foreign policy decision but Russia's own internal dynamics and the leadership of Vladimir Putin. We should not buy into the kind of cheap revisionism that pins the blame for this turn of event s on the West. The West went to remarkable lengths to try to bring Russia into the West in the 1990s. That policy may have failed, but not for lack of Western trying.
Friedman asks: what did we expect? The answer is simple. We thought Russia was capable of moving beyond its imperial past. We expected Moscow to behave like a normal and modern European country -- and to abide by the commitments and agreements it had signed up to. Those commitments included abandoning such things as spheres of influence or the use of force against its neighbors and instead recognizing the rights of all European countries, big and small, to choose their own destiny and to join whatever alliance they liked. NATO enlargement did not create any new threat on Russia western border. That border is the most peaceful, safe and secure border Russia has anywhere.
In his time, Boris Yeltsin understood this. In conversations with President Clinton a decade ago, he admitted that NATO enlargement did not pose a strategic threat, although he did worry that his political enemies could use the issue against him at home. At heart he was an anti-imperialist and the leader who had let much of the old Soviet empire go. He wanted Russia to go west, too, which is why he felt he could not deny Moscow's neighbors that right. In return for his acquiescence, we pledged to enlarge NATO in a way that did not create any military threat and to build up in parallel expanded institutional relationships between Moscow and NATO and the EU. That is why Yeltsin was willing to sign on to the NATO-Russia deal in the late 1990s.
But we also knew that not all future Russian leaders would necessarily think like Yeltsin. That is why NATO enlargement was also a political hedge against a Russia that, down the road, might again become a bully or threat. Yeltsin's appointed successor Vladimir Putin initiated the change in Russian thinking and policy that has become just that. Putin is someone who laments the collapse of the old USSR, who apparently is prepared to abandon Russia's past commitments on the game rules of post Cold War European security and is determined to restore Russian power and hegemony its neighbors. But let's not pretend that it was NATO enlargement created Vladimir Putin or his outlook. The evoking of the enemy at the gate is an old ruse that many Russian leaders have used to consolidate their rule and to justify tough policies for their own reasons €“even if that enemy does not exist and NATO had never enlarged.
There was a historic window to enlarge NATO and we used it. Thank God we did. As a result, the U.S. President today does not have to worry about instability and war in the heart of Europe. If we had not enlarged, we would in all likelihood still face an aggressive Russia but have to do so from a weaker position, with greater European instability and fewer allies around the world to help out with other crises. But there is something even more disturbing about the argument s of these who now resurrect old arguments against NATO enlargement and blame it for today's Georgian crisis. It is their inability to understand that enlargement's very success in Central and Eastern Europe helped inspire many Georgians and Ukrainians to think that they, too, could perhaps go West and transform their countries into societies like ours. It is the implication that such aspirations -- the desire of these countries to enjoy the kind of freedom, sovereignty, and security that we so often take for granted -- are somehow misguided, unwelcome, and should not be encouraged. That would be the worst misreading of history of all.
Ronald D. Asmus was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State from 1997-2000 and is the author of Opening Nato's Door, a history of Nato enlargement.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.