Friedman, Kennan and Putin

NY Times columnist Tom Friedman has opined that, although Vladimir Putin is responsible for the ongoing war in Ukraine, “America is not entirely innocent of fueling his fires.”  Why?  Because, says Friedman, in the 1990s the U.S. and its NATO partners made “the ill-considered decision … to expand NATO after—indeed, despite—the collapse of the Soviet Union.”  (Emphasis in original.)  And this ill-considered decision was “cynically exploited” by Putin “to rally Russians to his side to cover for his huge failure of leadership.”  (Ditto.)

With regard to that supposedly ill-considered decision to expand NATO, Friedman says that “a very small group of officials and policy wonks at that time, myself included, asked [why the U.S. would choose to quickly push NATO into Russia’s face when it was weak], but we were drowned out.”  The small group Friedman refers to included, very significantly, George Kennan, the architect of the containment policy America followed to wage and ultimately win the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

In May of 1998, when the U.S. Senate approved the treaty modifications that permitted NATO’s expansion to Russia’s border, Friedman asked Kennan for his opinion.  This is what Kennan said:

“I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves.

“We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was. I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.

“Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.”

Friedman asserts: “It’s EXACTLY what has happened.”  (Ditto.)

Is Friedman—and, by extension, was the late George Kennan—correct?  With all due respect, the historical record strongly suggests the answer is “no”.

First, a note about terminology.  Mr. Kennan asserted that NATO expansion in 1998 marked “the beginning of a new cold war,” but, until last week, one would have had great difficulty in finding any serious political leader who would have agreed that the West was again engaged in a cold war with Russia.  Only in the last week, after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, have we seen a multitude of references to a new cold war.  It would therefore seem that the 1998 NATO expansion did not in fact usher in a new cold war.  Rather, some twenty-four years after that expansion, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine did the ushering.

But, putting terminology aside, there is something very important that Mr. Friedman entirely omits to mention in his praise of Mr. Kennan’s (and his own) criticism of NATO’s expansion.  The omission is this: Since that expansion occurred, under Putin’s command Russia has engaged in three major military transgressions against neighboring states.  One such transgression was against Georgia in August of 2008; the second was against Ukraine in February and March of 2014, when Russia seized and subsequently purported to annex the Crimean Peninsula; the third was last week, when Russia invaded across all of Ukraine’s borders.  It is generally agreed (except by Russia and its allies) that these transgressions all were in violation of international law.

What is crucial is that not a single one of Russia’s three major transgressions was perpetrated against a member-state of NATO; every one was committed against a state not in NATO.  The evidence that history provides, therefore, is consistent with the view that a state’s membership in NATO—including member-states which border on Russia—is a safeguard against unlawful Russian military aggression.  Thus, the historical evidence indicates that, if Ukraine had been a member of NATO, Putin would not have invaded.  Regardless of vague, largely terminological speculations about “the beginning of a new cold war,” the historical facts suggest very strongly that membership in NATO is effective protection against a hot war commenced by Putin’s Russia.

Friedman says that Kennan’s prediction is EXACTLY what happened.  That is wrong.  The fact is that what happened is the exact opposite of what Kennan predicted.  Kennan was in essence predicting that NATO expansion would make it more likely that there would be conflict between Russia and NATO, but the facts point in the opposite direction.  History strongly suggests that it was Ukraine’s status as a non-member of NATO that emboldened Putin to attack that country, and that the mistake NATO made in 1998 was in not expanding even farther than it did, because there is no evidence that Putin attacks member-states of NATO.  If the goal was and is to keep the peace, expansion of NATO would seem to further that goal.

Some might argue that, even if Ukraine had been a member-state of NATO, Putin nevertheless would have attacked.  This is a counter-factual hypothetical and, like predictions about the future, it cannot be proven to be incorrect.  So, it might be correct.  But the record of history is that Putin attacks states that are not members of NATO, and not ones that are members.  The only hard evidence we have suggests that that counter-factual hypothetical is more likely to be incorrect than correct.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at:
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