In Box

A Diplomatic Mystery

A Diplomatic Mystery

Back when I was a senator, my colleague Russell Long had a favorite retort for someone speechifying against him in the Finance Committee. "Well, your lips say, ‘No, no, no,’" Russell would say, "but your eyes say, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’" I’ve thought a lot about Russell and the perils of miscommunication recently as I’ve tried to untangle a mystery that has bothered me — and tainted U.S. relations with Russia — for nearly two decades: Just how exactly did the United States end up expanding NATO into Eastern Europe after the Cold War, when NATO’s ostensible purpose would seem to have expired along with the Soviet Union itself?

The Russians insist that NATO expansion violated an explicit promise made by the first Bush administration; the Americans have not only denied it, but seem quite unaware of how much this dispute has haunted U.S. dealings with Russia. During a trip to Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, told me that during his 1990 negotiations with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker about Germany’s reunification and the removal of 300,000 Soviet troops from East Germany, the Russians made it clear that they didn’t want German reunification within NATO. The negotiations went back and forth with little progress. Finally, according to Gorbachev, Baker looked at him directly and said, "Look, if you remove your troops and allow unification of Germany in NATO, NATO will not expand one inch to the east."

When I spoke with Baker, he agreed that he told Gorbachev that if the Soviet Union allowed German reunification and membership in NATO, the West would not expand NATO "one inch to the east." But "the east," for Baker, meant East Germany — not Eastern Europe. The United States later dialed back Baker’s offer even further, saying that legally, if Germany reunified, the White House couldn’t promise no NATO expansion into East Germany. The final compromise was that no "non-German" NATO troops could be in East Germany, but German troops were allowed. According to the American participants in the negotiation, NATO expansion east of Germany didn’t even come up.

Then, of course, President Bill Clinton expanded NATO to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, and President George W. Bush pushed it even further in early 2004. Russia perceived these actions as threatening, and they remain a bone of contention today. As former Russian presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky once told me, "We Russians might not understand financial puts and calls, but we do understand tanks."

Baker and Gorbachev are honorable men, and I was confused at first by how their stories differed. But thinking of Russell’s old line, I saw the possibility for honest miscommunication. Given President George H.W. Bush’s earlier vow at the 1989 Malta summit that if Gorbachev allowed Eastern Europe to go its own way, the United States wouldn’t take advantage, one can see how Gorbachev might have thought Baker was referring to any eastward expansion, not just expansion into East Germany. And, indeed, when I asked former U.S. national security advisor Brent Scowcroft what had happened, he said that Gorbachev "had misinterpreted" Baker’s words. The misunderstanding, which has caused so much enmity and mistrust, tells us one thing for sure: In diplomacy, always make sure your eyes are saying exactly what your lips do.