George Kennan Warned NATO Expansion Would Lead to This

We are now deep into the weeds with respect to Ukraine. So deep, in fact, that the underlying architecture of the situation doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in the hot place of getting even a fleeting mention in the 24/7 war news cycle.

So let’s call a spade a spade. The current fraught situation has nothing at all to do with the rule of international law or the sovereignty of national borders or the spread of democracy; and certainly not even remotely with any kind of threat to the safety and security of the American homeland posed by Russia.

To the contrary, it all goes back to the fall of 1991 when the old Soviet Union slithered off the pages of history, but the Washington-based military industrial complex refused to go quietly into the good night. Instead, it busied itself with policing the far-flung precincts of the planet as if the Cold War had not even ended, and extending Washington’s hegemony to any and every vacuum left behind by the vanished Soviet Union and its former satellites, allies and vassals.

Foremost among these misbegotten projects was the perpetuation of NATO and its subsequent extension to most of the former Warsaw Pact nations. At the time the senate approved the treaty admitting the first three new members – Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic – in 1998, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman had the good sense to track down the single wisest voice in America about the matter.

We are referring, of course, to the legendary George F. Kennan, who had been ambassador to Russia during the Stalinist era and had authored the famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs published in 1947. The latter laid out the subsequent US policy of Soviet “containment” and the was the foundational document for the creation of NATO in 1949.

Needless to say, the then aging Kennan delivered the (then) youngish NYT columnist an earful – one which literally echoes down through the ages. Kennan virtually predicted today’s insane brink of war with Russia:

“I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,” said Mr. Kennan from his Princeton home. ”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 light-hearted 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,” added Mr. Kennan, who was present at the creation of NATO and whose anonymous 1947 article in the journal Foreign Affairs, signed ”X,” defined America’s cold-war containment policy for 40 years. ”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,” said Mr. Kennan, who joined the State Department in 1926 and was U.S. Ambassador to Moscow in 1952. “It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. 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.”

Moreover, in one of the few insightful things he has ever penned, Tom Friedman hit the nail on the head with respect to the utter foolishness of the US Senate:

And what was America’s response? It was to expand the NATO cold-war alliance against Russia and bring it closer to Russia’s borders.

Yes, tell your children, and your children’s children, that you lived in the age of Bill Clinton and William Cohen, the age of Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger, the age of Trent Lott and Joe Lieberman, and you too were present at the creation of the post-cold-war order, when these foreign policy Titans put their heads together and produced . . . a mouse.

We are in the age of midgets. The only good news is that we got here in one piece because there was another age – one of great statesmen who had both imagination and courage.

Alas, if were only a matter of intellectual “midgets” the initial foolishness of expanding NATO might have become stillborn in its tracks. Unfortunately, however, what was at work was not merely weak brain-power but massive lobby-power and influence peddling of the military industrial complex.

That is to say, the reason there was no peace when the great 44-years Cold War ended was that America’s then $507 billion defense budget (constant 2012 $) couldn’t tolerate disarmament and demobilization, which the objective condition of the world clearly beckoned. And most especially because the neocons, unreconstructed cold war hawks and defense pork barrelers who dominated the GOP were lined up resolutely against it.

For crying out loud, after years of the Reagan defense buildup the GOP on Capitol Hill was so addicted to war spending that they even put expansion of NATO into their 1996 party platform. Doing so they reverted in knee-jerk fashion to phony peace-through-strength rhetoric in a world in which there was zero effective military threat to the security of the American homeland.

Indeed, the GOP’s 1996 platform amounted to nothing more than recycled “captive nations” humbug that had been faithfully broadcast to Polish, Baltic, Hungarian, Czech and other eastern European constituencies throughout the Cold War with no intention of doing anything about it. As a young legislative assistant on Capitol Hill during the 1970s, working for a Congressman from Illinois who had statewide ambitions, in fact, we drafted more than our share of Captive Nation’s resolutions, which, of course, were not worth the mimeograph paper they were printed on.

So the truth is, George Kennan was dead right. The original expansion of NATO, which was forced on the Clinton Administration by the GOP Senate, was every bit as frivolous and superficial as the Captive Nation’s resolutions: That is, foreign policy extracted from the flotsam and jetsam of domestic election bloc maneuvers.

We are the party of peace through strength….We believe the safety and prosperity of the American home and workplace depend upon ensuring our national security in a dangerous world. This principle was proven in our long struggle against Communism, and – as recent events have tragically shown – it is still true today. The gains we made for democracy around the world under two Republican presidents are now imperiled by a rudderless foreign policy. We vigorously support restoring the promotion of democracy worldwide as a cornerstone of US foreign policy. Democracy is the best guarantor of peace and will ensure greater respect for fundamental human rights and the rule of law.

Let us begin by reaffirming that Europe’s security is indispensable to the security of the United States, and that American leadership is absolutely indispensable to the security of Europe.”

The Atlantic Alliance: Our relations with the nations of Europe must continue to be based on the NATO alliance, which remains the worlds’ strongest bulwark of freedom and international stability. Our policy will strive to consolidate our Cold War victory in Europe and to build a firm foundation for a new century of peace. In the same spirit that Ronald Reagan called for the integration of Spain into the NATO alliance, we call for the immediate expansion of the framework for peace to include those countries of Central Europe which demonstrate the strongest commitment to the democratic ideals NATO was created to protect.

With the people of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary we have special bonds. These nations – and others – are rightfully part of the future of Europe. As Bob Dole said, “It is an outrage that the patriots who threw off the chains of Soviet bondage have been told by Bill Clinton that they must wait to join the NATO alliance.” We strongly endorse Bob Dole’s call for Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary to enter NATO by 1998.

Let’s see. Was is not also the case that the “captive nations” of the Warsaw Pact were enabled to throw-off their “chains” because the patriots in Moscow had first done the same in 1991?

That is to say, with the old Soviet Union gone there was no point in NATO whatsoever. What the world needed was a new League of Peace that included all of the old Soviet bloc nations – Russia and all the Captive Nations, too.

Needless to say, the League of Peace never had a chance because President Eisenhower had been correct in his famous “Farewell Address” way back in 1961. Ike had famously warned about the excessive power of the military-industrial complex, but it was the sudden end of the Cold War in the early 1990s that proved him correct in spades.

That is too say, Ike had recommended a national defense budget of $402 billion (constant 2012 $) for 1961 as more than adequate to ensure the security of America’s homeland. By your way, that represented a 29% shrinkage in real terms from Truman’s Korean War budget ($566 billion) that Ike had inherited in FY 1953. But it was still adequate in the judgment of the greatest general ever to occupy the Oval Office to deter the Soviet Union, which was still at the peak of its industrial and military vigor in 1961.

So if $402 billion was adequate in 1961, in no way, shape or form did Washington need to perpetuate the $507 billion (constant 2012 $) budget that was in place when the Soviet Union collapsed (FY 1992). With no industrialized military power left on the planet outside of NATO, the US defense budget could have easily been cut by 60% to $200 billion during the 1990s.

As it happened, however, the expansion, rather than indicated dismantlement, of NATO was the way out for the military-industrial complex. In effect, NATO became the political marketing department for the defense industry. That was true with respect to weapons purchases by old NATO members, who no longer faced any serious security threat; new NATO members from the Warsaw Pact, which wanted to prove their bona-fides; and the Pentagon itself, which soon had twenty-nine Section 5 mutual defense obligations to plan for, when, in fact, it should have had zero such obligations.

As it happened, therefore, the Clinton Administration was unable to deliver a “peace dividend” of the type that Dem Administrations had historically promised because the GOP neocons and warmongers kept up a steady drumbeat of peace-through strength and NATO expansion. It was as if the latter were some enlightened instrument of spreading democracy when, in fact, it was an excuse for rekindling a global arms spending spree.

Accordingly, by the time Bill Clinton shuffled out of the Oval Office, the FY 2001 defense budget stood at $432 billion (constant 2012 $), an admitted 14% decline from the 1992 peak, but still more than double what was actually needed.

Moreover, once the GOP got back into the Oval Office and the neocon warmongers took over the national security apparatus lock, stock and barrel, it was Katie-bar-the-door time. After Bush the Younger’s two terms, two unfinanced wars of invasion and occupation, and the addition of eight more NATO members – Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia – the FY 2009 defense budget stood at $702 billion (constant 2012 $).

That represented a 38% increase from the last US defense budget during the Soviet era, and 72% more than what Ike had deemed necessary at the peak of the Cold War. That is to say, by 2009 the League of Peace had been butchered on the alter of the military-industrial complex and the defense budget had become the equivalent of a self-licking ice cream cone: There was so much loose change for think tanks, NGOs and defense contractor lobbies in the $702 billion total, that insanity like the proposed addition of Ukraine to NATO and the Washington funded Maidan coup of February 2014 had become par for the course.

For want of doubt, it is worth recalling that when Obama left office, the constant dollar defense budget had eroded considerably – from $702 billion to $572 billion in FY 2017 – as a result of George Bush’s middle eastern wars being wound down. But the GOP neocons were not remotely done.

As it happened, the Donald turned out to be the GOP’s final gift to the military-industrial complex. Because he fell hook, line and sinker for the eroded “readiness” canard (which they had pulled on Ronald Reagan, too), Trump ended up restoring real defense spending to near record levels of $674 billion ( constant 2012 $) – even as he foolishly harassed the rest of NATO to spend even more.

As shown below, non-US NATO spending (light blue area) rose from $262 billion in 2016 to $323 billion (constant 2015 $) in 2020 or by 23%. Of course, that’s how the ill-informed Donald Trump got bamboozled on his correct instinct that NATO was obsolete: They talked him into solving the problem by having the balance of NATO spend more – when the problem was it was spending way too much already.

As per the current, red hot confrontation on the so called “contact” line in the breakaway Donbas republics, it might be supposed that Vlad Putin is not the paranoid aggressor he’s cracked-up to be.

After all, who is the $1.027 trillion of combined NATO spending directed against other than Russia?

Poor George Kennan. The man is truly rolling in his grave.

David Stockman was a two-term Congressman from Michigan. He was also the Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan. After leaving the White House, Stockman had a 20-year career on Wall Street. He’s the author of three books, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed, The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America and TRUMPED! A Nation on the Brink of Ruin… And How to Bring It Back. He also is founder of David Stockman’s Contra Corner and David Stockman’s Bubble Finance Trader.