The November 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in myriad discussions about German reunification. In addition to questions about the domestic future of Germany, concerns over who would be responsible for Germany’s security and stability and with whom the new German state would ally persisted. Marc Trachtenberg revisits the February 1990 meeting wherein United States Secretary of State James Baker assured the Soviet Union that the U.S. would not support NATO’s eastward expansion if Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would accept its presence in a newly reunified Germany. While both the Soviet Union and the United States expressed an understanding of the consequences of leaving Germany to unilaterally reestablish its own security, Baker’s statement was remarkable. Perhaps even more remarkable, though, was the Soviet Union’s willingness to accept this condition knowing that it would likely alter the global balance of power, at least in the short term. Thirty years later, Germany remains a successful example of reunification as a democratic state reintegrated into the international system. A key exception from what was envisioned in that February meeting, however, is that in the same thirty-year period NATO grew from sixteen to thirty member states – it expanded significantly further than Baker’s “one inch” east promise. The United States’ ultimate decision to support and advocate in favor of NATO expansion post-Cold War was met with Russian condemnation which persists to this day.
In the presidential election of 2020, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was given a reprieve from what could very well have been a death sentence in the four years to follow. Reelection of Donald Trump would have given the anti-NATO American president the opportunity to cancel the American commitment to the mutual defense provision of the alliance and pull U.S. forces out of Europe, both of which had been suggested as possibilities during his first term.
NATO’s enlargement after 1999 to include fourteen new member-states from Central and Eastern Europe remains among the most consequential and controversial policies of the post-Cold War era. In an effort to deepen the debate over enlargement, we edited a special issue of the journal International Politics that included twelve articles by leading scholars representing a diverse array of thinking on the merits of expansion. A subset of those authors have written for this H-Diplo/ISSF roundtable, highlighting the continued interest in the topic.
Do we really need another analysis of NATO enlargement? Hasn’t the topic been done to death? According to M. E. Sarotte’s article, “How to Enlarge NATO: The Debate inside the Clinton Administration, 1993–95,” there are some compelling reasons to reopen the debate on one of the most pivotal decisions of the post-Cold War era. Investigating the decision to enlarge NATO, Sarotte zooms in on a critical period of the history of the alliance between 1993-1995, when many of the key decisions were made within the Bill Clinton administration. She argues that another investigation of this period is essential, not just because of what was at stake in Europe—in Clinton’s own words “the first chance ever since the rise of the nation state to have the entire continent live in peace” (9) – but also due to the release of newly declassified sources including records of conversations between Presidents Clinton and Russia President Boris Yeltsin about the timing and process of the enlargement policy. The article thus largely avoids the more studied historical debate about whether NATO should have been expanded, and the implications of that decision for relations with Russia, and focuses on the important questions of when and how.
As the Trump administration’s second year in office rolls onward, what is the state of the transatlantic alliance? Writing for H-Diplo last year, I argued that Trump’s first year in office saw the emergence of a “Trumpian NATO policy.” In brief, this policy encompassed significant continuity with the substance of prior U.S. policy towards NATO, coupled with highly conditional U.S. rhetorical backing for the transatlantic relationship. As Trump—in a break from his campaign rhetoric—emphasized through mid-2017, NATO provided value to the United States, even as he suggested the United States might exit the alliance should its allies not agree to U.S. demands in intra-alliance discussions.
In How NATO Adapts, Seth Johnston has written a timely and important study of critical moments in the Atlantic Alliance’s history. Johnston persuasively argues that organizational and strategic adaptation has been a consistent feature of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since its founding in 1949. Unlike many other major studies on NATO which tend to emphasize state-centric explanations for the Alliance’s staying power, Johnston treats NATO as an actor in its own right. This focus on the underappreciated role NATO’s institutional actors have played in facilitating important organizational changes is one of the major contributions of the book.
When future historians write the story of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), 2017 is likely to go down as the Year of Sound and Fury. With the arrival of the Donald J. Trump administration, the first two-thirds of the year witnessed an array of nominal zig-zags in United States policy towards the transatlantic alliance that would have been inconceivable for any other U.S. administration. Unsurprisingly, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic struggled to make sense of the shifts, with members of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment particularly scathing in their evaluation of Trump’s moves.
On 10 June 2017 newspapers record that President Donald J. Trump went out of his way during a press appearance with the president of Romania to declare that, “I’m committing the United States to Article 5,” of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) treaty. Sighs of relief could be heard on both sides of The Pond. But as we recover from that diplomatic shock we can learn from the parallel idiocy going on the Middle East, as well as the way both sets of errors have been abetted by the administration’s foreign policy structure. The present foreign policy can be viewed usefully as a mixture of stability and flexibility. For the purposes of this discussion ‘stability’ refers to the degree of continuity between present and past American foreign policy, and ‘flexibility’ denotes the extent to which the president is able to forge an independent course in foreign policy.
NATO is a unique alliance in world history, outlasting its original purpose of deterring the Soviet Union and, in so doing, demonstrating the persistence of the shared values and interests among its members. Donald Trump is a unique president, rejecting past practice, procedures and principles. The interaction between NATO and this president in just a few months has upended decades-old assumptions about the transatlantic alliance and the presidency.
In an analytical review of alliance research, James Morrow posed the title question, “Alliances: why write them down?” A decade and a half later, Keren Yarhi-Milo, Alexander Lanoszka, and Zack Cooper revisit this issue, posing their own title question: “To arm or to ally?” Yarhi-Milo, Lanoszka, and Cooper pose this question through the structural lens of hierarchical relations, setting it up as a “patron’s dilemma” of how patrons can best ensure a client state’s security—through either a formal guarantee to defend the state against foreign attack, the provision of significant arms, or both (or neither). Hierarchical relations and patrons’ dilemmas have received increased attention in security scholarship, with several scholars expounding upon the nature of international hierarchy and its role in security provision, economic relations, democratization efforts, and many other international political issues. In their article, Yarhi-Milo, Lanoszka, and Cooper focus on the central alliance tradeoff of credibility versus flexibility. By agreeing to a formal institutionalized security pact in the nature of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) a patron can send a clear and credible signal of commitment, but such an ironclad commitment may trap the patron in an unwanted conflict. Conversely, simply supplying arms provides greater flexibility and will enhance the client’s security, but not to the degree that a formal defense pact would. How then do patrons decide which strategy to adopt? Yarhi-Milo, Lanoszka, and Cooper seek to answer that question.