Countering disinformation on German reunification and NATO enlargement


Picture of James Bindenagel
James Bindenagel

Former US embassy minister in the German Democratic Republic and US embassy minister and charge d’affaires in the Federal Republic of Germany

NATO enlargement has been at the heart of several heated security debates. Pundits and scholars alike have conflated several ‘promises’ not to extend NATO eastward. Much of their arguments draw from the Baker-Gorbachev and Kohl-Gorbachev discussions of the early nineties.

There is only one little problem with this wonderful saga of so-called ‘promises’ – it’s just that, a saga, not a fact. Here’s what actually happened: there were two separate negotiations. One for German reunification in 1990 and a second, separate negotiation for the post-1991 opening of NATO. Conflating the two negotiations is an analytical mistake that leads to spurious conclusions.

Regarding the first series of negotiations: scholar Mary Sarotte has asserted that former US secretary of state James Baker, in his discussions with Gorbachev on German unification and Germany’s membership in NATO, had an informal verbal agreement that there would be no expansion of NATO. This is the so-called ‘promise’ that has been the source of so much controversy.

However, on closer inspection, it is apparent no such assurances were made. First, the reality is that in 1990 NATO expansion was not yet on the agenda – indeed the Central and Eastern European states that would later join NATO were still part of the Warsaw Pact at the time. In negotiating German unification with Gorbachev, the priority for Baker was the right of a united Germany to stay in NATO.

In this context, there were no agreements or treaties that prohibited NATO from accepting new members, nor were there secret assurances not to expand NATO eastward. While the notion of ‘eastward expansion’ did come up in the discussions, this was not related to NATO expansion. Rather, it was about the decision whether to move NATO troops into the then eastern borders of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). That is the context for which to understand Baker’s famous note that he jotted down after his meeting with Gorbachev: “End result: Unified Ger. anchored* in a changed (polit.) NATO –* whose jurisd. would not move* eastwards!”

Baker – speaking at the American Academy in Berlin on October 7, 2014 – dismissed claims that he made promises to Gorbachev not to expand NATO

However, much has been made of Gorbachev’s statement that the expansion of NATO would be unacceptable in the German unification debate. It is important to remember the context of this statement: it was entirely consistent with his efforts to ensure Soviet forces did not engage militarily in the peaceful Velvet Revolutions.

Horst Teltschik, former advisor to Chancellor Kohl, confirmed that Gorbachev’s statement about NATO expansion was made in the context of German membership in NATO. The talks were exclusively focused on the future status of a united Germany in NATO. Chancellor Kohl sent a letter to Gorbachev the next day on that very subject.

In this long-running debate, Baker – speaking at the American Academy in Berlin on October 7, 2014 – dismissed claims that he made promises to Gorbachev not to expand NATO. On October 16, 2014, Gorbachev confirmed Baker’s claims, saying that the “topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed…not brought up in those years.” Likewise, Hans Dietrich Genscher, former German foreign minister, acknowledged, “This was never the subject of negotiations, and most certainly not a negotiation result.”

Then there was the question of what to do with military forces stationed in the former GDR. Declassified reports show that George H.W. Bush, Kohl, and Gorbachev resolved to address three developments: (1) the disintegration of the East German Communist Party regime; (2) the Soviet leader’s decision for a united Germany to remain in NATO; and (3) uncertainty about the status of the 380,000 Soviet soldiers in the GDR.

The Baker-Kohl understanding was that only troops from the newly created German Bundeswehr-Ost (converted from the East German National Peoples’ Army (NVA)) – not foreign forces – would be stationed in the territory of the former GDR after unification.

Did NATO membership for Germany set the standard for security after the end of the Cold War?

The stationing of foreign forces in Germany is governed in NATO countries through a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The Germans have always distinguished between the Presence Convention and the Status of Forces Agreements. The latter only regulates “status” when present.  The decision to move NATO Forces east, after unification, needed legal authority in a Supplemental Agreement (SA) to the US-German SOFA.

After the last Russian soldiers left Germany on August 31, 1994, an Exchange of Notes with other stationing countries was signed. This document granted the armed forces of France, the UK, the US, Belgium, Canada, and the Netherlands the right of temporary presence in the new regions of the GDR, including in reunified Berlin, with the consent of the German authorities.

At unification, the West did not disappoint Gorbachev. In return for his support of German reunification, Gorbachev achieved agreements for:

  1. A new German-Soviet treaty.
  2. A CSCE Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty reducing the number of military forces in Europe.
  3. A German-Polish treaty settled the Oder-Neisse border, which established stability on the Russian border.
  4. NATO also assured Russia repeatedly that it was not a threat to the Soviet Union.
  5. NATO changed its strategy to make nuclear weapons indeed of last resort, minimising the principle of “first use.”
  6. The Allies changed both “forward defence” and “flexible response” concepts that had been against east European and Soviet territory.
  7. NATO also extended a hand of friendship to establish diplomatic liaison with NATO and later signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act.

The second story is of the opening of NATO that began after 1991 when the Warsaw Pact dissolved. Competing visions of the Euro-Atlantic security structure of NATO and the pan-European security architecture proposed by Gorbachev presented Germany with a dilemma. Did NATO membership for Germany set the standard for security after the end of the Cold War?

Poland sought to join NATO in 1992 and invoked Gorbachev’s decision to end the Brezhnev Doctrine and return sovereignty to former Soviet satellite states. In other words, this would allow them to decide for themselves which security alliance to join. After unification, Germany saw itself surrounded by allies and friendly neighbours. However, the security border shifted from the former West German – GDR border to the eastern edges of an expanding European Union.

It was the German Defence Minister Rühe that advocated for NATO membership for Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic

In 1992, German Defence Minister Völker Rühe raised the possibility of offering NATO membership to other European countries. But it is a myth the US immediately embraced the goal of extending NATO eastward. Rather, former Warsaw Pact members were offered ‘partnerships for peace’ (PfP) as an alternative to outright membership.

NATO then negotiated with Russia and agreed to establish a NATO-Russia Council and a NATO-Russia Founding Act. Although the Founding Act is a political agreement and not a legally binding treaty, it speaks of no “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.” NATO has complied with this, vowing to carry out its collective defence without additional permanent stationing of such forces.

However, it was the German Defence Minister Rühe that advocated for NATO membership for Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. While Chancellor Kohl and Foreign Minister Genscher were cautious, Rühe reached out to the United States and found a willing partner in Ambassador Holbrooke.  In 1994 Holbrooke and Rühe advocated opening NATO at the Berlin New Traditions Conference organised by the US Embassy in Berlin in 1994. Vice President Al Gore and Rühe publicly called for a debate on the opening of NATO. US Secretary of Defense William Perry represented the military position, which showed more reluctance to accept new NATO members so soon after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. However, with these kinds of discussions percolating President Clinton agreed to debate whether the US would support new NATO members.

The issue was whether a NATO consensus could be found for three new members – Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. The final decision came at the 1997 Madrid Summit. Talbott and Clinton’s National Security Advisor Tony Lake sought to seal an agreement with Chancellor Kohl and arranged for Kohl to meet in the Oval Office with Clinton. Kohl then promised to join a consensus for three new members at the Madrid Summit.

As well chronicled by Ron Asmus in his book ‘Opening NATO’s Door,’ the actual opening of NATO was delayed from 1992 to 1999 when the first new members entered NATO.

Russian behaviour in Ukraine and Crimea has changed the security environment.  However, NATO has kept its deployments below the “substantial” level, which other agreements make clear would be 10,000.  The Brezhnev Doctrine, where Russia decides on its neighbours’ security, is dead. NATO membership is a decision of the requesting States and NATO. At the same time, NATO has not called that provision of the Founding Act into question.

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