Gorbachev will be rightly praised for helping to liberate Russians from generations of autocracy. As the world was shattering around him, though, he lost his bearings at a crucial moment.
Mikhail Gorbachev, who died in Moscow Tuesday at 91, will be remembered as a statesman, peacemaker, moralist, political visionary, idealist, and true believer in the essential goodness of humanity. History may grant him another title: world’s worst negotiator.
Gorbachev had been running the Soviet Union for just two years when, in 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Berlin Wall and cried: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” To everyone’s shock, he did. It was part of one of the most stunning political reversals in modern history.
Gorbachev withdrew Soviet support for oppressive Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. He allowed vast regions of the Soviet Union to break away and become independent countries. Ultimately, he presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. Russia was left but a shadow of the great power that had shaken the world for decades.
In Gorbachev’s view, this was not necessarily bad. On the contrary, he welcomed it. He saw himself as midwife to a better Europe. In it, the wide band of nations between Moscow and Berlin would be neutral, a zone of peace, a bridge between East and West.
Early in 1990, just a few months after the Berlin Wall fell, Gorbachev came to Berlin for decisive talks with Western leaders. He was in a generous mood. He was open to dissolving the Warsaw Pact, the alliance through which the Soviets had subjugated Eastern Europe; allowing Germany to reunite; and even bringing all Soviet troops home to Russia. In return, he wanted a guarantee that the countries Moscow was liberating would not use their newfound freedom against Moscow. Specifically, no expansion of the American-led military alliance, NATO, into Central or Eastern Europe. New nations would be independent but neutral — not part of NATO.
Western leaders jumped at the offer. James Baker, the US secretary of state, assured Gorbachev that whatever happened, NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift “one inch to the east.” Years later, Baker said he had never intended this as a promise and conceded that he “may have been a little bit forward on my skis” when he said it. Nonetheless, the next day Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany reiterated the assurance, telling Gorbachev that NATO should not “expand the sphere of its activity.” Later the British and French agreed. It was a highly promising deal: an end to the Soviet empire in exchange for a promise that the swath of land between Russia and Western Europe remain neutral.
One evening a century and a half ago, Secretary of State William Seward received word that the Russian czar had agreed to sell Alaska and that the treaty could be signed the next day. Seward rose from his card game, insisted that the treaty be concluded immediately, and ordered his aides roused from their beds. At 4 a.m., the treaty was signed.
That’s what Gorbachev should have done. The moment he heard Western leaders promise not to expand NATO, he should have whipped out his pen and asked for their signatures on a binding accord. Instead, he walked away with nothing more than the kind of “pinky promise” children make on the playground. Years later, it became clear that this too-trusting soul had committed a historic diplomatic blunder.
Events moved at breakneck speed following the Berlin talks. Gorbachev fell from power at the end of 1991. President George H. W. Bush, who had been the deal’s main Western guarantor, left office barely a year later. The pinky promise was forgotten.
President Bill Clinton took up the cause of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe as a way of winning ethnic votes in his 1996 reelection campaign. The arms industry, eager for new markets, also pressed for expansion. Their efforts bore fruit. In 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republicjoined NATO. Over the next decades, nine more countries joined. It is precisely what Gorbachev thought he had been assured would never happen.
Gorbachev will be rightly praised for helping to liberate Russians from generations of autocracy. As the world was shattering around him, though, he lost his bearings at a crucial moment. If he had come away from Berlin with a treaty or signed pledge assuring that NATO would never expand, today’s upheaval in Europe might have been avoided. Lamentably, he went home with just a wink and a nod. His epitaph could be a warning to us all: Get it in writing.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.