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We Had Other Options
Flag symbol of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

We Had Other Options

Michael Mandelbaum replies to Francis Fukuyama and Bruce Weinrod on NATO expansion.

Michael Mandelbaum

In his critique of my American Purpose article “Anatomy of a Blunder,” Frank Fukuyama seriously misrepresents my views on NATO expansion. He suggests that my objection to expansion was based on “the notion that great powers should have spheres of influence” and the consequent belief that Russia should have been allowed such a sphere on the territory of the former Soviet Union. This is in fact the opposite of what I said during the debate about NATO expansion and afterward.

I argued in that debate, and elaborated on my argument in parts of three of my books—The Dawn of Peace in Europe (1996), The Ideas That Conquered the World (2002), and The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth (2019)—that the collapse of communism had left all of Europe with a security order that was, in historical terms, uniquely peaceful and in which no country dominated any other. In those books I described the fundamental features of that peaceful order—I called it “common security”—and explained how it had come into existence. I opposed NATO expansion because it violated the letter and spirit of that order and placed it in jeopardy.
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In the absence of NATO expansion, whether that order would have persisted depended, it was clear in the 1990s, on Russia. Fukuyama takes what was called at the time of the debate an “essentialist” view of that country, asserting that for historical and cultural reasons it was bound to act aggressively and that therefore all other countries in its general region needed protection from it. To this assertion, on which his argument rests, three points are worth making.

First, while culture and history are powerfully important, history does have changes of direction and cultures do change. In the immediate aftermath of World War II there were those, including scholars well acquainted with German history, who were certain that that country was incorrigibly aggressive and would certainly seek to dominate Europe again. So far it hasn’t.

Second, many of those who knew Russia well opposed NATO expansion. Ambassador George F. Kennan and Professor Richard Pipes, for example, perhaps the two most distinguished students of Russian and Soviet history of their generation, who almost never agreed on any matter of policy, both publicly opposed NATO expansion. Apparently they were not convinced that Russia would inevitably seek dominance.

Third, the book I discussed in my essay, Not One Inch (2021) by M.E. Sarotte, a careful reconstruction of the Clinton Administration’s decision to expand NATO, makes it clear that an alternative to expansion was available—the Partnership for Peace—that offered the best of both worlds: a security organization to which the non-Russians could belong that would not have alienated Russia and would therefore have bought time to see how post-Cold War Russia would develop. NATO expansion threw that alternative away.

Fukuyama closes his critique by saying that if my and others’ advice had been followed, “Russian forces would be banging at the doors of Poland and the Baltic states today rather than Ukraine.” My view is that, to the contrary, in that case there is a good chance Russia would not be banging at the door of any country. We cannot, of course, know which of those two outcomes the embrace of the Partnership for Peace rather than NATO expansion would have produced; but keeping intact the common security order, not the creation of a Russian sphere of influence, is what I advocated then and what I hope can one day, after Putin is gone, be revived.

Bruce Weinrod is dismissive of the Partnership for Peace. William Perry, the American secretary of defense when expansion was first proposed, took the contrary view. For those interested in this issue I recommend the discussion in Not One Inch. On the purported relationship between NATO membership and democracy, I note that NATO had non-democratic members during the Cold War era, for parts of which Portugal and Turkey fit that description. Moreover, Poland and Hungary have become less democratic since joining the Alliance than they were before. Finally, if it is true, as Weinrod writes, that “NATO membership expansion solidified regional stability,” why is a large Russian army massed on the border with Ukraine, threatening to invade?

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a member of the editorial board of American Purpose. His new history of American foreign policy from 1765 to 2015, The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, will be published in June.


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With warmest thanks,

Jeffrey Gedmin, Francis Fukuyama, and the American Purpose team