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Talbott on expanding NATO

The pros and cons involved with the decision to expand NATO: Clinton, Yeltsin, Partnership for Peace. Fmr. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in conversation with Walter Isaacson, President & CEO of The Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute and I'm here with former Deputy Secretary of State strobe Talbott talking about the tools in American diplomacy one of those tools we've talked about a lot was NATO created in the late 1940s as a defense alliance after the Soviet Union collapses one of the big questions and contentious questions was during the administration of President Bill Clinton while Boris Yeltsin's a president of russia to decide to expand nato to include some of those countries that had been part of either the soviet union or the soviet union's own alliance and CEO of influence walk us through that decision there was a valid argument on the other side namely that it would be a mistake to expand NATO there was basically one reason for taking that position and quite a number of people in the government and many people outside the government took that position and the argument was this it will upset the Russians it will throw Russian reform into reverse we don't want to antagonize the Russians at a time when they are moving in the right direction fair point the counterpoint I felt and certainly President Clinton felt much more importantly was the following wait a minute everybody what are we talking about here first of all we are talking about a NATO that is not principally going to be aimed at deterring the Russian Federation anymore that's no longer necessary but the people who live in Central Europe need assurances that they are part of a Western alliance otherwise a they're going to be terrified of Russia coming back in a rabid bear form sometime in the future and they're going to start having fights among themselves when NATO was formed the Truman administration told the Europeans they couldn't have NATO unless they buried their own hatchet hatchets and the the Romanians and the Hungarians and all kinds of other permutations of old animosities could have boiled up if Central Europe was not protected and if wasn't knitted into a military alliance there was another reason for keeping NATO in business and in fact expanding it and that is we couldn't be sure that Russia would always stay on a path of reform Russia might go back into its old behavior and that was called the hedge rationale for expanding NATO and just looking at it from the perspective of today there are a hundred million people in Europe who are living under the protection of NATO quite a few of them are in the Baltic States Estonia Latvia and Lithuania who would be much more frightened of today's Russia if it weren't for being in NATO so how did you work and what tools did you use to convince Yeltsin and the Russians to go along or at least not go ballistic literally and figuratively when NATO tried to expand well they weren't in a position to go ballistic literally they were in a position to go ballistic virtually and sometimes did I might add a lot there were a lot of arguments in which the president was involved and certainly those who worked for him we used a number of arguments that carried the day one was we made clear that the expansion of NATO might at some point in the future include the Russian Federation itself that was very important to to Yeltsin we also set up a partnership for peace which brought the military establishments of the traditional NATO countries the new NATO countries and the various former republics of the Soviet Union together and peacekeeping operations and we had at least one extended episode where it was possible for the United States and Russia to work together to bring peace to another communist country it had fallen apart in a very violent way and that was Yugoslavia which I think at least at the time had a certain confidence building effect on both sides Yeltsin at one point was very open to NATO expansion even telling polish leaders that that would be okay with him but his own establishment tries to pull him back and I think he had a couple of drinks I remember that very well there was a lot of walking back on the part of his associates but I think it whether their alcohol was involved or not pretty sure it was he was basically expressing in an inelegant or very blunt way what he felt he was convinced that the West was now in the hands of leaders who really were his friends and we're going to help him on his his big issue which was not a threat from NATO his big issue was rebuilding or building really for the first time a modern society in Russia one of the opposition's to NATO expansion came from a surprising quarter which is in the United States in the Pentagon in the Defense Department even people like defense secretary les aspin saying wait a minute where you can't just willy-nilly expand NATO because that is a real commitment that we are going to defend these countries less asmund's a successor bill Perry was not enthusiastic John shell akash feely the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff was one of the great soldiers a statesman i have ever ever known was wary about this too it was a huge thing to take on also they had this legitimate worry that there could be a backlash against an expanded nation nato from a backsliding russia there are some evidence of that that that wasn't a complete marawi seeing that today i think we are seeing that in ukraine I think yes in short the prospect of Ukraine someday being part of NATO fits into the Putin narrative that the West is out to get us and we can't trust them and their enemies and we're going to set up a new version of something something close to the Soviet Union and we're going to have our own sphere of influence and it's going to spread to countries around our periphery yes and does that mean because the baltic states latvia estonia and lithuania are now in NATO we are definitely committed that any attack or undermining of them by the Russians would mean we would go to war with right here absolutely committed to do everything necessary to protect them if they were attacked by Russia if its covert activity there we would do everything possible to help them and giving them equipment and so forth and so on my own strong conviction is that the Russians even though they're in a very bad place and are going to be for a long time are still operating under the original premise which is that an all-out war between the United States and now the Russian Federation before that the Soviet Union is simply an insanity and an impossibility and must be kept that way thank you