A man juggling on the Berlin Wall

Deal or No Deal: The End of the Cold War and the US Offer to Limit NATO Expansion

May 05, 2016
Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson

This article originally appeared in the journal International Security, Spring 2016, Vol. 40, No. 4, Pages 7-44. Below is the introduction and a PDF of the full article.

During the negotiations on German reunification in 1990, did the United States promise the Soviet Union that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would not expand into Eastern Europe? The answer depends on who is being asked. Russian leaders since the mid-1990s have claimed that the United States violated a pledge that NATO would not expand into Eastern Europe following German reunification. More recently, they have argued that Russian actions during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and in Ukraine were in part responses to the broken non-expansion agreement.1 Many U.S. and allied policymakers and pundits counter, however, that Russian claims of a non-expansion commitment are a pretext for Russian adventurism. From this perspective, the United States never promised to limit NATO expansion, with NATO itself declaring in 2014: “No such pledge was made, and no evidence to back up Russia’s claims has ever been produced.”2 Post-Cold War U.S.-Russian relations are thus over shadowed by a standoff over the history of U.S.-Soviet relations at the end of the Cold War.3

Western scholars are similarly divided on the question of what the United States offered the Soviet Union in 1990. Drawing largely upon public statements and memoirs by Western and Soviet leaders, some scholars in the 1990s contended that NATO’s eastward expansion violated what Michael MccGwire termed “top-level assurances” against NATO enlargement.4 More recently, however, access to declassified archival materials has led most scholars to agree with the historian Mary Sarotte, who writes that “contrary to Russian allegations, [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev never got the West to promise that it would freeze NATO’s borders.”5 Still, current studies are divided into two schools of thought over the process and implications of the 1990 reunification negotiations for NATO’s future. One school largely agrees with U.S. policymakers that—as Mark Kramer claims—NATO expansion into Eastern Europe “never came up during the negotiations.”6 As a result, Russian accusations of a broken non-expansion promise are “spurious.”7 In contrast, a second school contends that a NATO non-expansion offer that may have applied to Eastern Europe was discussed briefly in  talks  among  U.S., West  German and Soviet leaders in February 1990. This non-expansion proposal was quickly withdrawn, but given the February meetings, Russian complaints cannot be entirely dismissed: The United States and the Soviet Union never struck a deal against NATO expansion, yet Soviet leaders may have thought otherwise.8

Resolving the question of whether the United States advanced a NATO non-expansion pledge requires analysis of the course and motivations of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union in 1990. Given both the United States’ dominance within NATO and its outsized influence on the issue of German reunification in 1990, the key to determining whether Russian accusations have merit is understanding the rationale behind U.S. actions at the time.9 In the process, an analysis of previous U.S. policy can inform current U.S. and NATO policy, international relations theory and diplomatic history. For example, determining whether Russian charges of U.S. betrayal are correct can help explain whether bellicose Russian actions in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe are in part a response to NATO’s post-Cold War expansion or an effort to alter the status quo in Europe.10 Since the late 2000s, many Western policymakers and pundits have attributed Russian actions to a revisionist foreign policy.11 From this perspective, Russian claims against NATO are misleading; Russian actions in and around the former Soviet Union represent a Western failure to halt Russian adventurism; and only a firm Western response now can keep future Russian threats in check. As Anne Applebaum argues, the West’s cardinal mistake was to “underrate Russia’s revanchist, revisionist, disruptive potential.”12 Conversely, evidence that Russian accusations are not fabrications implies that Russia’s actions may stem from feelings of insecurity and real worries that the West is an unreliable partner. Hard-line measures to deter Russian aggression such as troop deployments and sanctions will therefore only increase Russia’s sense of isolation and betrayal.13

An examination of this case is also useful for international relations theory and diplomatic history. Since the end of the Cold War, analysts have treated the U.S.-Soviet negotiations over German reunification and NATO’s post-Cold War continuation as a shining example of how great powers can overcome past rivalries and find ways to cooperate.14 Although the cooperation narrative is being challenged as scholars gain increasing access to Western and Eastern bloc primary sources, it remains influential in policy, international relations theory and historiographic circles.15 Russian accusations of a broken non-expansion pledge thus raise fundamental questions over the nature of U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russian relations during and after the end of the Cold War. In particular, if the United States violated a promise not to expand NATO, then scholars must further examine the drivers of U.S. foreign policy at the end of the Cold War and the sources of stable diplomatic settlements writ large.16 Conversely, if Russian claims of a NATO non-expansion pledge are bogus, and if Russian behavior in places such as Georgia and Ukraine is meant to upend Europe’s status quo, then scholars must determine why a party to an accepted diplomatic deal may reject that arrangement in favor of a revisionist foreign policy.

Drawing on a wider array of U.S. archival materials than prior studies and applying insights from international relations theory, this article refines and challenges scholarship on a NATO non-expansion pledge by tracing the evolution of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union and European security throughout the 1990 diplomacy on reunification.17 In line with research by Sarotte and others sympathetic to Russian claims, I show that despite the absence of a formal deal, the United States did raise the issue of NATO expansion with the Soviet Union during the 1990 negotiations. In contrast to what scholars sympathetic to Russian claims propose, however, I argue that the topic of NATO expansion was more than just a fleeting aspect of the negotiations in February 1990. Additional archival evidence indicates that U.S. officials repeatedly offered the Soviets informal assurances—a standard diplomatic practice—against NATO expansion during talks on German reunification throughout the spring, summer and fall of 1990. Central to this effort was a series of bargaining positions through which the George H.W. Bush administration indicated that Europe’s post-Cold War order would be acceptable to both Washington and Moscow: NATO would halt in place, and Europe’s security architecture would include the Soviet Union.18 Collectively, this evidence suggests that Russian leaders are essentially correct in claiming that U.S. efforts to expand NATO since the 1990s violate the “spirit” of the 1990 negotiations: NATO expansion nullified the assurances given to the Soviet Union in 1990.19

Distinct from what Soviet leaders were told in 1990, however, I also present new evidence suggesting that the United States used guarantees against NATO expansion to exploit Soviet weaknesses and reinforce U.S. strengths in post-Cold War Europe. To do so, the United States adopted positions designed to give it a free hand in Europe following German reunification—allowing it to decide whether and how to expand the U.S. presence on the continent—even while telling Soviet leaders that Soviet interests would be respected. Baldly stated, the United States floated a cooperative grand design for postwar Europe in discussions with the Soviets in 1990, while creating a system dominated by the United States. Although it remains unclear whether and why Soviet leaders believed the U.S. proposals, this two-pronged strategy helps explain how the United States exploited the reunification issue to reify its preeminence in post–Cold War Europe.20 By extension, the U.S.-Russian dispute over NATO expansion may be less a product of Soviet/Russian misrepresentation or misinterpretation of what happened in 1990, and more the result of the divergence between the cooperative approach that the United States presented to the Soviet Union and the United States’ quieter efforts to maximize its power in Europe.

The remainder of this article proceeds in six sections. First, I review the U.S.-Russian dispute over a NATO non-expansion pledge. In the second section, I highlight conceptual and historical problems with the non-expansion pledge debate and suggest a revised standard against which to assess Russian claims. Drawing heavily from U.S. archival materials, I then review the 1990 negotiations to identify what the United States offered the Soviet Union and why the terms of this deal could have suggested to the Soviets that NATO would not expand. Following this, I offer evidence that the United States misled the Soviet Union. In the fifth section, I reevaluate the non-expansion debate in light of these findings. The article concludes with a discussion of the implications of the analysis for U.S. and NATO policy, international relations theory and Cold War historiography.

PDF of full article

Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson

Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson is an assistant professor in the Department of International Affairs at the George Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University. He was formerly an associate (2012–2013) and a research fellow (2011-2012) with the International Security Program of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.


  1. Ronald D. Asmus, Opening NATO’s Door: How the Alliance Remade Itself for a New Era (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), pp. 3–6; Kenneth N. Waltz, “Structural Realism after the Cold War,” International Security, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Summer 2000), p. 22; David Herszenhorn, “Away from Shadow of Diplomacy in Geneva, Putin Puts on a Show of His Own,” New York Times, April 17, 2014; “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin,” April 17, 2014, President of Russia website; Vladimir Putin, “Address by President of the Russian Federation,” March 18, 2014, President of Russia website; and “Interview by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, in a Special Edition of the Programme ‘Voskresny vecher s Vladimirom Solovyovim’” (Moscow: Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 11, 2014).
  2. NATO, “Russia’s Accusations—Setting the Record  Straight,” fact sheet (Brussels: NATO, July 2014). See also Steven Pifer, “Did NATO Promise Not to Enlarge? Gorbachev Says ‘No,’Brookings Up Front blog, November 6, 2014; Chris Miller, “Russia’s NATO Expansion Myth,” Cicero Magazine, May 28, 2014; and Michael Ruhle, “NATO Enlargement and Russia: Myths and Realities,” NATO Review, 2014.
  3. Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, “Put It in Writing: How the West Broke Its Promise to Moscow,” Foreign Affairs, October 29, 2014.
  4. Michael MccGwire, “NATO Expansion: ‘A Policy Error of Historic Importance,’” Review of International Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1 (January 1998), p. 26.
  5. Mary Elise Sarotte, “A Broken Promise? What the West Really Told Moscow about NATO Expansion,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 93, No. 5 (September/October 2014), p. 96.
  6. Mark Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” Washington Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 2 (April 2009), p. 41; and Mark Kramer and Mary Elise Sarotte, “Letters to the Editor: No Such Promise,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 93, No. 6 (December 2014), p. 208.
  7. Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” p. 55.
  8. Mary Elise Sarotte, “Not One Inch Eastward? Bush, Baker, Kohl, Genscher, Gorbachev, and the Origin of Russian Resentment toward NATO Enlargement in February 1990,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 34, No. 1 (January 2010), pp. 119–140; Sarotte, “A Broken Promise?”; Mary Elise Sarotte, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, rev. ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2014), pp. 219–229; Thomas Blanton, “U.S. Policy and the Revolutions of 1989,” in Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas Blanton, and Vladimir Zubok, eds., Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Eastern Europe, 1989 (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2010), pp. 93– 95; Alexander Von Plato, The End of the Cold War? Bush, Kohl, Gorbachev, and the Reunification of Germany, trans. Edith Burley (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 184; and Kristina Spohr, “Precluded or Precedent-Setting? The ‘NATO Enlargement Question’ in the Triangular Bonn-Washington-Moscow Diplomacy of 1990–1991,” Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 14, No. 4 (October 2012), pp. 24,  48–50.
  9. The United States did not cause German reunification, but it did play a dominant role inensuring that reunification went forward in the face of international opposition and in establishing the conditions under which it occurred. See Alexander Moens, “American Diplomacy and German Unification,” Survival, 33, No. 6 (November/December 1991), pp. 531–545.
  10. John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 93, No. 5 (October 2014), pp. 77–89; and Michael McFaul, “Moscow’s Choice,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 93, No. 6 (December 2014), pp. 167–171.
  11. Daniel J. Fried, testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Protocols to the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 on the Accession of the Republic of Albania and the Republic of Croatia, 110th Cong., 2nd sess., 2008, S. Hrg. 110-507, pp. 6–14; David J. Kramer, testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hearing on Ukraine—Countering Russian Intervention and Supporting a Democratic State, 113th Cong., 2nd sess., 2014, S. Hrg. 113-602, pp. 58–60; John Herbst, testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hearing on U.S. Policy in Ukraine: Countering Russia and Driving Reform, 114th Cong., 1st sess., 2015, S. Hrg. 114-77, pp. 51–54; and Stephen Sestanovich, “Could It Have Been Otherwise?” American Interest, Vol. 10, No. 5 (April 2015).

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