Sometimes Tom Friedman blathers and sometimes he speaks the truth. But he often has a sense of history and geopolitics that others lack. He came on strong in The New York Times yesterday about how the U.S. and its NATO allies aren’t just “innocent bystanders” to Putin’s despicable offensive in Ukraine.
In my view, there are two huge logs fueling this fire. The first log was the ill-considered decision by the U.S. in the 1990s to expand NATO after—indeed, despite—the collapse of the Soviet Union.
And the second and far bigger log is how Putin cynically exploited NATO’s expansion closer to Russia’s borders to rally Russians to his side to cover for his huge failure of leadership.
In what now seems like the dreamlike ‘90s Friedman says that the U.S. chose recklessly “to quickly push NATO into Russia’s face when it was weak.” Bill Perry, Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, later recalled that moment in 2016: “Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in Eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia.”
Our present disaster, however, has been years in the making. After NATO expanded in 1998, Friedman talked with George Kennan, then and still one of America’s wisest foreign policy professionals. Here’s what Kennan said to him in full, though you should read the whole piece.
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 comments: “It’s EXACTLY what has happened.” We also should note that Putin is living out a distorted view of history, a revanchist effort to restore Russia to its former Soviet glory. How we get into conflicts like this can be as important as how to resolve them.