When I first became president, I said that I would support Russian President Boris Yeltsin in his efforts to build a good economy and a functioning democracy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union—but I would also support an expansion of NATO to include former Warsaw Pact members and post-Soviet states. My policy was to work for the best while preparing for the worst. I was worried not about a Russian return to communism, but about a return to ultranationalism, replacing democracy and cooperation with aspirations to empire, like Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. I didn’t believe Yeltsin would do that, but who knew what would come after him?
If Russia stayed on a path toward democracy and cooperation, we would all be together in meeting the security challenges of our time: terrorism; ethnic, religious, and other tribal conflicts; and the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. If Russia chose to revert to ultranationalist imperialism, an enlarged NATO and a growing European Union would bolster the continent’s security. Near the end of my second term, in 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO despite Russian opposition. The alliance gained 11 more members under subsequent administrations, again over Russian objections.
Lately, NATO expansion has been criticized in some quarters for provoking Russia and even laying the groundwork for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The expansion certainly was a consequential decision, one that I continue to believe was correct.
As United Nations ambassador and later secretary of state, my friend Madeleine Albright, who recently passed away, was an outspoken supporter of NATO expansion. So were Secretary of State Warren Christopher; National Security Adviser Tony Lake; his successor, Sandy Berger; and two others with firsthand experience in the area: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili, who was born in Poland to Georgian parents and came to the U.S. as a teenager, and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who translated and edited Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs while we were housemates at Oxford in 1969 and 1970.
At the time I proposed NATO expansion, however, there was a lot of respected opinion on the other side. The legendary diplomat George Kennan, famous for advocating for the policy of containment during the Cold War, argued that with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, NATO had outlived its usefulness. The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman said Russia would feel humiliated and cornered by an enlarged NATO, and when it recovered from the economic weakness of the last years of Communist rule, we would see a terrible reaction. Mike Mandelbaum, a respected authority on Russia, thought it was a mistake too, arguing that it wouldn’t promote democracy or capitalism.
I understood that renewed conflict was a possibility. But in my view, whether it happened depended less on NATO and more on whether Russia remained a democracy and how it defined its greatness in the 21st century. Would it build a modern economy based on its human talent in science, technology, and the arts, or seek to re-create a version of its 18th-century empire fueled by natural resources and characterized by a strong authoritarian government with a powerful military?