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How Much Did US Elections Factor in Post-Cold War NATO Expansion?

December 04, 2019
Thomas Schaffner

As leaders of NATO countries at their 70th anniversary this week welcomed the imminent membership of North Macedonia—another former republic of the now-defunct Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—and pledged to “increase security for all,” it is worth recalling that European security considerations were not the only factor that set off the alliance’s expansion into some countries of the former Socialist Bloc.

According to top members of the Clinton administration, on whose watch the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were admitted to NATO, the expansion of the bloc was first and foremost about making Europe secure, safe and prosperous. In a May 1997 speech at the Atlantic Council, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott presented the Clinton administration’s case for NATO’s expansion into the former Eastern bloc: “We believe the case for enlargement is compelling and rooted in the most vital security interests of this country. ... The enlargement of NATO is a key part of America's attempt to ensure that Europe is a more peaceful place in the 21st century than it has been in the 20th. If Europe is safer and more prosperous, the United States will be too …  [W]e want to finish the historic project we started in 1949—making war in Europe impossible.” Talbott’s boss, President Bill Clinton, similarly emphasized that a “gray zone of insecurity must not reemerge in Europe,” and promised that NATO expansion would ''advance the security of everyone.''

What neither these U.S. statesmen nor other members of the Clinton administration mentioned when discussing NATO’s eastward expansion at the time, was Clinton’s desire to secure votes from the Central and Eastern European diaspora, a segment of the electorate that became increasingly important as the 1996 presidential election neared following the loss of the House to Republicans in the 1994 midterms. That this desire played a major role in Clinton’s decision-making follows from analysis of voting patterns in the U.S. at the time and other evidence presented by such U.S. elections experts and scholars of NATO expansion as James Goldgeier, Alvin Rubinstein, Mary Sarotte and Kimberly Marten.

Seven months before Talbott’s Atlantic Council speech, during the final weeks of the 1996 presidential election campaign, Clinton, speaking at Fisher Theater in downtown Detroit, announced that “[b]y 1999 … the first group of countries we invite to join [Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic] should be full-fledged members of NATO.” Clinton’s setting of a definite date for NATO expansion came after leading Republicans had claimed the President was “dragging his feet” on NATO expansion by not publicizing a clear timeline for the transition to membership. For some observers, Clinton’s choice to publicly commit to a deadline in Detroit seemed to be no coincidence. Alvin Rubinstein, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist, stated before the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations in 1997 that “Clinton's policy on NATO enlargement was driven by domestic considerations.” Rubinstein further claimed that Clinton gave the address in Detroit in order to “attract maximum support from the Central and East European ethnic groups who were crucial to the electoral outcome in the Mid-Western part of the United States.”

At the time, Americans with Polish ancestry made up 4 percent of the total U.S. population and close to 10 percent of the population in the electorally key Mid-Western states of Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, as well as sizable populations of Ohio and Pennsylvania. According to John Kromkowski, an expert on electoral demographics at Catholic University, Polish Americans were an exemplary model of a “swing-vote” demographic. They could provide the small percent of votes needed to put a candidate over the competition in contentious Midwestern races.

Clinton’s Detroit address did not mark the conclusion of his attempt to win over this portion of the electorate. After stepping down from the podium, he took lunch at the Polish Village Cafe, where “he ingested stuffed cabbage, pierogies and sauerkraut.” Clinton’s efforts must be placed in the context of the Democrats’ decisive defeat in the 1994 midterm elections, where the Republicans won 56 seats in the House, the largest gain for either party in nearly 50 years. In “Not Whether But When: The U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO,” James Goldgeier highlights that of the ten congressional districts with the highest concentration of Polish Americans (New York’s 30th, Wisconsin’s 4th; Illinois’s 3rd, 5th,  6th and 13th; Michigan’s 10th, 12th, and 16th; Pennsylvania’s 11th; districts which overwhelmingly voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s), Clinton took seven in 1992 and eight in 1996. In the 1994 midterms, which came at the same time as Clinton’s approval rating dipped to around 40 percent, the Democrats did far worse in these districts, losing Illinois’s fifth district, which had been held by the Democrats since 1907, and failing to gain any new seats. Mary Sarotte, a professor of historical studies at Johns Hopkins University, argues that the Democrats’ poor performance in the 1994 election “rest[ed] in part on [the Republicans’] support for more aggressive [NATO] expansion.” Before the midterms, minority whip Newt Gingrich, seen as the leading figure of the so-called “Republican revolution,” offered a “Contract With America,” which promised that the Republican controlled House and Senate would support bills to allow “Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia … to join NATO in the near future.”  Later, in an article written with Serhii Plokhii, a professor of Ukrianian history at Harvard, Sarotte states that “opponents of the Partnership for Peace, who wanted to expand NATO proper as soon as possible … gained new momentum thanks to the midterm election victory of the Republican Party.” The perception that the Democrats’ ineffectual waffling on NATO expansion had contributed to Republican victory meant that Clinton viewed NATO expansion as a key electoral issue. Kimberly Marten, the chair of the political science department at Barnard College, argues that, in the aftermath of the midterms, domestic considerations made “NATO’s geographic expansion inevitable.

Goldgeier notes that Clinton’s domestic considerations were “not just the ‘Polish vote.’” Clinton was also pressured to “demonstrate that a Democratic president could conduct foreign and defense policy effectively.” However, for Clinton’s Republican challenger, Sen. Bob Dole, the chief executive’s apparent inaction offered an opportunity to “outflank President Clinton … [by] naming names and setting a date [for NATO expansion].” Citing an anonymous Dole campaign staffer, Goldgeier states that “[Dole’s] team knew that the ethnic community was disappointed with Clinton's delays, and thus their vote appeared up for grabs, despite Clinton's success with these voters in the 1992 campaign.” This apparent pandering caught the attention of some, like New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, who wrote six months after Clinton’s Detroit speech that the decision to expand NATO “was a cynical effort to attract votes from Polish, Czech and Hungarian Americans by promising their motherlands’ membership. This silly decision set NATO on a slippery slope to who knows where.”

Officials in the Clinton administration rejected the suggestion that NATO expansion was a domestic political ploy. According to Goldgeier, “[national security advisor Anthony] Lake grew visibly upset if they even joked about ethnic votes when discussing NATO enlargement.” However, declassified documents suggest that Clinton was looking at NATO expansion as at least a partially domestic political concern. In May 1995, while meeting at the Kremlin with Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, Clinton emphasized that he could not slow NATO expansion, stating that “I face a difficult campaign, but I have a reasonable chance. The Republicans are pushing NATO expansion. Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio are key; they represented a big part of my majority last time—states where I won by a narrow margin. The Republicans think they can take away those states by playing on the idea of NATO expansion.” Clinton concluded that Yeltsin, who was increasingly concerned that NATO expansion would amount to his country’s international “humiliation,” could not “ask us to slow [enlargement] down ... we’ll just have to keep saying no.” It should be noted that Clinton’s own administration was far from united on the decision at the time—some officials in the Department of Defense were strongly opposed to the move, favoring continued participation in NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” program over full membership for the Eastern European countries. In the end, however, the Partnership for Peace program proved to be “lack[ing] the internal political traction to slow down the enlargement train inside the Clinton administration,” according to Marten.

Were the Republicans hopes, and Clinton’s fears, based on the actual concerns of voters from Eastern and Central European demographics? It is exceedingly difficult to show definitive causal relationships in voting behavior. That said, a 1997 poll suggests that Clinton’s and Dole’s assumptions about the high importance of NATO for Americans of Eastern European descent were not unfounded. The poll found that while “there were no differences in the overall level of support for expanding NATO between individuals who were born in Eastern Europe or had parents or grandparents born there [and other Americans],” individuals of Eastern European ancestry “do feel more strongly about NATO expansion [than other Americans] whether pro or con. Among those people of Eastern European descent, the majority (by a six to five ratio) said they felt strongly about their position rather than just somewhat favoring or opposing.”

Ultimately, the question of how much NATO expansion actually mattered to voters is secondary to the fact that Clinton and his opponent in the 1996 presidential race Dole perceived it as mattering. In a 1998 article, Goldgeier stated that even “[i]f domestic politics did not drive the decision, they gave it more resonance for the White House, and both parties certainly used the policy for political purposes.”

Thomas Schaffner is a student web assistant with Russia Matters and a graduate of American University.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.