U.S. Talks Itself Into a Box

Larry T. Caldwell is a professor of politics and teaches international affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles

President Clinton and his former secretary of state, Warren Christopher, have led the nation toward a radical new foreign policy. They have committed the nation to the expansion of NATO, pushing U.S. nuclear guarantees right up to the Russian border.

This is the same president who did not raise a single foreign policy issue in his second inaugural address. And this is the same president who told the American people at his party’s convention that he knew they were not talking about or even much interested in foreign policy. It would be ironic if the success of Clinton’s second term and perhaps even his presidency’s place in history depended on this one foreign policy issue: NATO expansion. The policy has escaped serious national debate, but that soon will end when the Senate considers revisions of the NATO treaty.

So far, however, Clinton has gotten off lightly. He has pursued a policy of words, rather than deal with Russia’s strong opposition. Poland, Hungary, the Czech and the Slovak republics have pushed for admission to NATO. The Bush administration, then the Clinton administration were initially quite skeptical. They understood that the East Europeans wanted into NATO as a hedge against possible future Russian aggression. They also understood that NATO expansion carried the potential to drive Russian policy toward hostility, possibly ending the delicate market and democratic reforms there. U.S. policy created the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, then the Partnership for Peace to give NATO something to talk to the East Europeans and Russians about while delaying any real decisions.

Now the Clinton administration has changed its stand and embraced expansion of NATO, but is still trying to lead with a policy of words. Christopher’s speech to the NATO foreign ministers in December included the formula that was also adopted in the communique: “NATO countries have no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members.”

These words hide a real struggle within NATO and the defense ministries of member states. Would the new members have “full membership,” meaning complete nuclear guarantees? Russia has pushed hard to prevent NATO from deploying its nuclear forces “forward” into Eastern Europe. Yet no one in NATO wants members with “conditions” on their membership. Hence, the communique also said, “new members . . . will be full members of the Alliance in all respects,” including their expected support for “the concept of [nuclear] deterrence.”


This policy of words tries to have it both ways. It tries to reassure Russia that NATO has no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of its new states. But it also reserves the right to do so by insisting on full membership for them, which includes nuclear deterrence.

Words have their utility in diplomacy. But the moment inevitably arrives when they will not suffice. The Clinton policy of trying to expand NATO and keep the Russians happy will come up against the hard reality that NATO is an alliance that provides a nuclear umbrella.

Washington and NATO are asking Moscow to accept verbal guarantees that they have “no intention, no plan and no reason” to put nuclear weapons on the territory of the prospective members. Of course, NATO has no such plans at present.

But strategic thinkers with any historical perspective will remember a similar moment during the Cold War, when the shoe was on the other foot. In 1977 at Tula, then Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev “promised” that Soviet military doctrine did not contemplate “first use” of nuclear weapons. His statement triggered one of the fiercest debates in the history of U.S. defense policy. American policymakers appropriately rejected Brezhnev’s “declaratory policy” as “wholly inadequate.” Skepticism about the Soviet Union’s intentions contributed to the defeat of Jimmy Carter and election of Ronald Reagan.

The lesson is salutary. The United States, and NATO, did not accept Soviet declarations as a real indication of military policy. Brezhnev’s “policy of words” had a profound impact on the politics of the United States and Western Europe. Can it be that Russians will be any less insistent on more than verbal guarantees? Russian Defense Minister Igor Rodionov has made it clear that Moscow is not buying the words. This declaratory policy, he said, can be changed at any time.

NATO dispatched German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and its own secretary-general, Javier Solana, to Moscow to try to soften Russian opposition. So far, these efforts have failed, and Boris Yeltsin has indicated that stopping NATO expansion will be his top foreign policy priority.

Clinton’s policy of words will not do. So far, debate has been left to a relatively narrow group of specialists. But the time is coming when the Senate will be asked to approve NATO treaty revisions. And it will have to consider whether it is in America’s interests to pledge that the new states “will be full members . . . in all respects,” including a place under NATO’s nuclear umbrella.