The Expansion and Transformation of NATO ... The Real Clinton Doctrine


Lee Ruddin is a roundup editor at the History News Network.

William Jefferson Clinton is the 16th presidential profile in the American Experience series to be broadcast on PBS. The president programs have, to date, won a litany of honors including Emmys, Peabodys and DuPont-Columbia Journalism Awards. They have been particularly well-received for highlighting the contradictory nature of the commanders-in-chief. Previous installments include FDR ("a man who could not walk [that] led a crippled country"), Truman (a self-proclaimed "sissy" who dropped the A-bomb), LBJ (an individual who lived a "Jekyll and Hyde existence"), Nixon (a politician who "rose to power as a crusader against communism only to make his most lasting mark as building bridges to China and the Soviet Union"), Carter (a personality comprised of "hubris arrogance [as well as] Christian humbleness"), Reagan (a chief executive who was "ideological in his rhetoric yet pragmatic in his actions") and Bush ("an emotive … emotional leader [who] refused to show his emotions").

I regret to say, though, that Clinton bucks the trend when it comes to the contradictory side of things. Granted, the four-part miniseries recounts a life full of triumph and tragedy and features unprecedented access to supporters and detractors alike of Bill Clinton (fifty-seven by my last count). But to dedicate a mere seventeen-or-so minutes (out of approximately three-and-a-half-hours) to foreign-policy matters reinforces the myth that Clinton was a domestic-orientated chief executive. Despite Clinton saying that "foreign policy is not what I came here to do," the doctrine that bears his name relates to what he did do on the international stage, yet it is far more nuanced than the February 26, 1999 speech about “interests” that writer and producer Barak Goodman (mis)interprets it to be. It is for those viewers that I now unearth the real Clinton Doctrine.

Being a graduate of the prestigious School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, it was not surprising that candidate Clinton felt confident enough to make the incumbent’s post-Soviet policy an electoral issue in the 1992 presidential election. The Democratic nominee, let us not forget, had visited Moscow in his student days. Having also read about European affairs during his time at Oxford -- as a Rhodes Scholar no less -- the “New Democrat” campaigned (albeit briefly) on the idea of promoting democracy to Central and Eastern Europe.

His foreign policy theme was built upon a firm belief in the Democratic Peace Thesis -- which argues that western-style democracies do not go to war with one another -- and the goal of fostering democracy. An intellectual heir to Woodrow Wilson, Clinton was committed to the expansion of international institutions as a way of achieving global peace and economic prosperity. George H.W. Bush’s refusal to discuss enlarging the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on his final trip to Europe ensured that the task of NATO enlargement was left to 41’s successor.

The former governor of Arkansas had to nurture the organization through an "existential crisis" which, British Americanist John Dumbrell writes in Clinton's Foreign Policy: Between the Bushes, 1992-2000, was no mean feat. The collapse of the Soviet adversary was welcomed in capital cities across the Western world, but the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact deprived NATO of its raison d'être. As a consequence, Clinton had to ensure that the inherent destabilization that followed the loss of purpose did not translate into an incoherent policy if he was to prove Thomas Hobbes wrong about alliances disintegrating after the disappearance of their enemies.

The Clinton White House was cognizant of the fact that expanding NATO could leave Russia out in the cold and that President Boris Yeltsin’s opposition had to be softened. The "Bill and Boris show," as Dumbrell terms it, went some way to ameliorating tensions, as did his administration’s two-pronged approach to the "Russian Question" which, on the one hand, signaled a determination to maximize NATO’s role in the emerging pan-European security framework while, on the other, reassured Russia about its eventual incorporation into such structures should its transition to a democratic, market-orientated partner be realized. Negotiations surrounding the Partnership for Peace (PfP), a scheme designed to formalize military cooperation falling short of full membership, in early 1994 best illustrate this, culminating as they did in the admission of all former communist states.

Deliberations over NATO enlargement were not taking place in a vacuum; the ever-worsening conditions on the ground in Bosnia forced the Atlantic alliance to stare into what the late policymaker Ronald D. Asmus described as an "abyss" in his illuminating work, Opening NATO's Door: How the Alliance Remade Itself for a New Era. But Clinton changed tack during the summer of 1995 and extended new security guarantees to Central and Eastern Europe. With a ceasefire established, the U.S. moved speedily to get the warring parties to the negotiating table. The talks at Dayton, Ohio, were so effective that the peace deal helped pave the way for enlargement, restoring as it did a sense of purpose NATO had yet to experience in the post-Cold War world.

If the PfP was not viewed as valid before Dayton, the Dayton Peace Accords validated it in such a way that NATO now utilized it as an effective framework to bring allies and non-allies together into an Implementation Force (IFOR). The Bosnian case illustrates, to be sure, how the Clinton administration introduced the meshing of NATO’s membership selection with involvement in new missions. The first round of additions had much to do with Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia in the southeast corner of Europe and the reluctance by northwestern nations to contain Serb aggression, so there was little wonder existing members looked to the southeast to erect, what was and continues to be, a quasi-regional deterrent.

Aware that IFOR’s ability to enforce the Dayton provisions would be compromised by what Ellen Hallams, author of The United States and NATO Since 9/11, describes as "the U.S.-driven obsession with an exit strategy," Clinton oversaw the nominations (and subsequent membership invitations in 1997) of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO as a way to neutralize threats by planting the democratic seed before autocrats could blossom. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- otherwise referred to as the “early birds” -- were deemed to be the most strategically-placed nations and ones who were most eager to participate in NATO missions. And it did not take long for the three countries to repay the faith shown in them by member states. Take the Czechs, for example: they contributed over 6,000 troops to a repertoire of IFOR and Stabilization Force (SFOR) missions for approximately six years -- the first few of those predating their actual membership in NATO.

With the U.S. just one of sixteen members (prior to the inclusion of post-communist nations), it is only right and proper, some might say, to question the degree of America’s influence in the alliance’s expansion and transformation and, in turn, its candidacy as the Clinton Doctrine. But NATO only opened the door to expansion, the late Richard Holbrooke informed Foreign Affairs readers ("America, a European Power"), after Clinton boldly "led" the way with speeches in Central and Eastern Europe at the start of 1994. What is more, the organization could not have transformed had its most powerful member not agreed in 1995 to stop the hostilities in Bosnia. The coherent and effective policies implemented by the unrivaled power in the post-Cold War system explain NATO’s institutional persistence and adaptation.

Joe Klein, the most-cited interviewee in Clinton, is given the last word before the credits roll and the author of Primary Colors concludes by saying that the Clinton years were "a lot of fun to watch." The same, alas, cannot be said for PBS's latest offering, omitting as it does the Clinton Doctrine of enlarging NATO -- comprising the nurturing of, nominating into and neutralizing threats by -- which reiterated (and, indeed, continues to reiterate) the New World’s commitment to the Old and a model for new members to join an age-old alliance.

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