- NATO Non-expansion and German Reunification
To the Editors (Richard W. Maass writes):
In “Deal or No Deal,” Joshua Itzkowitz Shifrinson sheds new light on an important case.1 At the article’s core is a clear historical question: Did U.S. leaders offer to limit NATO expansion in 1990? Shifrinson provides substantial evidence that they did, proposing a quid pro quo that convinced Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to accept German reunification within NATO. The article frames its modern relevance by conflating that historical question with distinct causal and moral questions, however, distorting its contribution and undermining its policy recommendations.
First, the article claims that verifying the existence of the NATO-limitation offer resolves the debate over whether recent Russian aggressions were “responses to the broken non-expansion agreement” or “adventurism” using the offer as “pretext” (p. 7). In doing so, it neglects that a pretext need not be factually incorrect. Pretexts are claims that leaders use to justify an action that are not the true reasons why it was taken. They allege false causation, but much of their value comes from their historical accuracy, which allows shrewd leaders to twist critiques of the necessity or appropriateness of their actions into historical debates they have already won.
For example, President Franklin Roosevelt used deception “to preempt debate over whether the use of force is justified by shifting blame for hostilities onto the adversary.” In doing so, he gained an unassailable pretext for war on December 7, 1941, even though he had long been maneuvering against the Axis powers.2 President James Polk similarly used the claim that Mexico had “shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil” as pretext to conquer California.3 Although both pretexts occurred, neither adequately explains subsequent U.S. actions. Verifying the NATO-limitation offer is necessary but insufficient to argue that feelings of betrayal/insecurity caused recent Russian aggressions, much as showing that Adolf Hitler was rejected from art school is necessary but insufficient to argue that his acceptance would have prevented World [End Page 197] War II. In Stephen Van Evera’s terms, this is a hoop test, not a smoking gun: “[A] flunked test kills a theory … but a passed test gives it little support.”4
Interpreting causation from U.S.-Soviet diplomacy in early 1990 to current U.S.-Russian relations is particularly delicate given the transformative magnitude of intervening events. As Shifrinson notes, the NATO-limitation offer was made “at a time when no one expected the Soviet Union to disintegrate and U.S. planners had to prepare for a world in which the Soviet Union might remain the largest military threat in Europe” (p. 35). At minimum, the Soviet Union’s dissolution raises questions about how meaningfully we should speak of a “broken promise” (p. 40).
Second, the article conflates its core historical question with a moral one: Does the NATO-limitation offer justify Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and 2014 annexation of Crimea? Having determined that “Russian charges of U.S. betrayal are correct” (p. 9), it advises U.S. leaders to avoid further “justifying Russian aggression” (p. 44), confusing the historical accuracy of a grievance with the legitimacy of a response to that grievance. Instead of weighing the severity of the response against the gravity of the offense, the article implies that a broken promise justified conquering parts of two countries uninvolved in making that promise. Even a discussion limited to broken promises should include the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia pledged “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”5 Annexing Crimea violated that pledge as well as broader international law, and it was a voluntary decision that cannot be excused as the inevitable result of opportunity.6
In a follow-up op-ed, Shifrinson clarified his view that “NATO’s widening umbrella doesn’t justify Vladimir Putin’s bellicosity or his incursions in Ukraine or Georgia.”7 Yet no such disclaimer appears in “Deal or No Deal,” which is troubling because its historical research and scholarly platform should make it more authoritatively...