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Madeleine Albright's NATO expansion helped keep Russia in check

Albright’s compelling 1997 argument that collective defense would be less costly and destabilizing in the long run has come full circle.
Image: Madeleine Albright was the first female Secretary of State.
Madeleine Albright was the first female Secretary of State.Wally McNamee / Corbis via Getty Images file

Madeleine Albright, who served as secretary of state under then-President Bill Clinton and was the first woman to occupy the office, passed away this week. Her work is particularly relevant amid the breakout of a conventional war of conquest in Europe with Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Maybe the most consequential accomplishment of Albright’s tenure at Foggy Bottom was the 1999 expansion of NATO to include nations that were once captives within the Warsaw Pact, as well as the efforts of Albright and the Clinton administration to appease Moscow.

As Russia’s war on Ukraine attests, the pre-modern world in which brutal force is the ultimate arbiter of events is still very real.

Of all the legacies Albright left behind, setting the stage for the former Soviet-dominated world’s integration — first militarily and, eventually, economically and politically — is among her finest. As Russia’s war on Ukraine attests, the pre-modern world in which brutal force is the ultimate arbiter of events is still very real. Only the compelling deterrent power of counterforce stays the hand of land-hungry despots.

At the beginning of Clinton’s second term in office, NATO’s eastward expansion beyond its Cold War borders (including a recently unified Germany) was not a sure thing. Integrating first Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the North Atlantic Alliance required the unanimous consent of all the alliance’s 16 member states. It was a treaty obligation, which required the consent of two-thirds of the GOP-led Senate. And it involved mollifying Russia, which objected to not just NATO’s enlargement, but also Western-led military actions in its neighborhood, like one that was ongoing in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Building on the longest-lived military alliance in world history and the European security architecture we take for granted today was a herculean task, and Albright did much of the heavy lifting.

Bundled up in the matter of NATO expansion were existential questions about the alliance’s remit and even its validity in a post-Cold War world. Was this a strictly military relationship, or was it an association of advanced, Democratic nations? Could NATO incorporate these three states without also including fledgling democracies such as Bulgaria and Romania? And if it could, what was to stop the alliance from including the former Soviet republics in the Baltics, which only became part of the Soviet Union because of a corrupt bargain with Nazi Germany and which feel uniquely menaced by Russia? And how would Russia react to what it insists is a direct assault on its interests in Europe?

At the time, some of the most respected voices in foreign policy and international relations regarded NATO expansion with fear and contempt. George Kennan, author of the “long telegram” and the architect of the policy of “containment,” opposed NATO expansion and later called it “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” He and others believed the move would transform Russia from Western partner into an adversary, and many in the West who are sympathetic to Russia’s self-professed grievances still share this view. Indeed, the Clinton administration and its European partners were sympathetic to Russian concerns. Although NATO declined to sacrifice Central Europe’s sovereignty and security over Russian anxieties, they made several concessions to Moscow — some of which threatened the viability of NATO enlargement as a political project.

At the time, some of the most respected voices in foreign policy and international relations regarded NATO expansion with fear and contempt.

In early 1997, Albright traveled to Moscow to reassure her vocally hostile Russian counterparts that NATO’s eastward drift was not a threat to their security. There, she floated a series of compromises, including provisions that would provide Russia with input on NATO’s deployments and even its strategic maneuvers. The Kremlin wanted those provisions to be legally binding. If Albright had consented to this demand, it’s not clear NATO’s expansion would have happened at all.

That year, NATO and Russia formalized the relations with the establishment to the Permanent Joint Council, which later became the NATO-Russia Council. Its mission was to establish lines of communication over security issues. But the “Founding Act,” as it was called, also involved mutual commitments. Among them, the codification of a 1996 statement affirming that NATO had no plan, intention or need to deploy nuclear weapons or permanent bases housing Western European or North American combat troops to former Warsaw Pact states. Albright even “offered to freeze NATO military forces near Russia's European periphery,” The New York Times reported. She could not offer the Russians what they wanted; a “binding charter” preserving a geopolitical order they could not secure militarily, economically, or politically. But these concessions still unnerved Republicans, who were as apprehensive about the Clinton administration’s intentions as Moscow.

Back home, the Republican Senate majority mistrusted what they saw as Albright’s coddling of the paranoiacs in Moscow. Somehow, the Clinton White House allowed Russia to dictate terms to the United States from a position of weakness. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, related his “fear that the U.S. overture to Russia may already have gone too far.” They worried that the security agreements the Clinton White House envisioned would give Russia a veto over NATO’s mutual security provisions, or even pave the way for Russia’s NATO ascension — something that some prominent Democrats welcomed. Still other Republicans feared that the White House was sowing the “seeds of strife,” in Sen. John Warner’s words, by admitting some Warsaw Pact states but not others. And most of the majority party in the Senate were deeply concerned that the costs of defending NATO’s new members would be disproportionately borne by U.S. taxpayers.

Albright pivoted from reassuring nervous Russians to satisfying equally nervous Republicans. She promised that the “old allies” would “share this burden fairly.” She insisted that the Permanent Joint Council would not “dilute, delay or block NATO decisions,” which were made at the level of the “sacrosanct” North Atlantic Council to which no non-member state would ever ascend. And she made a compelling theoretical argument that the collective defense would ultimately be less costly and destabilizing in the long run than allowing a power vacuum to form in Europe. ''Why would America choose to be allied to Europe's old democracies forever, but its new democracies never?” Albright asked. “Were we to do that, confidence would crumble in Central Europe, leading to a search for security by other means, including costly arms buildups and competition among neighbors.” Her lobbying efforts worked. In May 1998, 80 Senators — including 45 Republicans and 35 Democrats — ratified the ascension of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO.

Albright pivoted from reassuring nervous Russians to satisfying equally nervous Republicans.

In the decades since, Russia and its sympathizers have insisted that Moscow’s belligerence is a biproduct of a broken promise by the George H.W. Bush and the Clinton administrations to never expand eastward. No such promise was made — at least, not to Mikhail Gorbachev, who would have been privy to such assurances. Any misunderstandings between Washington and Moscow in that regard were definitively cleared up well before the Soviet Union dissolved. Even if no assurances were made, many insist that the very right of sovereign nations in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence to choose their own affiliations has forced Russia to make war on its neighbors. That is unconvincing not just because it robs Moscow of agency and chauvinistically ascribes omnipotence to the West (the United States, in particular). It’s also uncompelling because Russia seems more inclined to menace non-NATO states and is functionally deterred when those nations ascend to membership within the alliance.

It wasn’t Ukraine’s imminent ascension into NATO that led Russia to twice invade Ukraine. Both Ukraine and Georgia’s Membership Action Plan stalled in May 2008, when NATO’s allies committed to those nations’ ascension only in the distant and indefinite future. It was Ukraine’s efforts to integrate with the European Union that led to the Maidan revolution of 2013-14 and the subsequent invasion of Crimea and Donbas. Economic ties with the E.U. similarly led Moscow to support (perhaps materially) an attempted coup in Montenegro designed to decapitate its pro-Western government — menacing behavior that ended after the former Yugoslavian country joined the North Atlantic Alliance. Russia does violate the sovereignty of NATO members — Estonia, in particular — but that exception proves Albright’s rule: the alliance is a force for stability, not volatility.

Some of the concessions the Clinton administration was forced to make to Russia remain bitterly resented by the allied nations on the Eastern frontier. Albright’s assurances about permanent NATO basing in the former Warsaw Pact and in the Baltics have outlived their usefulness. But these were necessary compromises at the time. Their abrogation, if and when the time comes, will be entirely attributable to Russian aggression, not Western perfidy. Thanks to figures like Albright, NATO stands athwart the return of history, and we owe a debt to all who devoted their careers to its preservation and expansion.