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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Did the West Break Promise Over NATO?

You remember the Marlin and Gennady double act, that staple of the Cold War road show. The squat one in the cheap suit who looked like he'd been born on a collective farm to spend a lifetime swigging vodka, that was Marlin. Curiously, he was the American.


The tall, slim and elegant one with the Parisian silk ties and the English suits, his carefully-styled hair worn just a tasteful inch or so too long, that was the Kremlin's own silver-tongued Gennady Gerasimov.


In the years from 1986 to 1992, the dog days of the Cold War, I spent an extraordinary proportion of my time in their company. Gennady was the first person ever formally appointed as spokesman for the Soviet Foreign Ministry and occasionally for former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Marlin Fitzwater was the first person ever appointed press secretary to two presidents: Ronald Reagan and George Bush.


So I thought it would be pure pleasure to see them again, when they asked me up to the chapel of Muhlenburg College in Pennsylvania last week to help moderate a televised replay of their Cold War debates.


Convivial as the reunion was, and long though we stayed reminiscing in the bar afterwards, it was a sobering occasion. One of the questions I put was whether either man would confirm that the German or American governments had ever formally promised Gorbachev that if he swallowed German unification, there would never be any enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.


"I can see how the Russians could take that view," Fitzwater replied, after some hemming and hawing. "We told them we had no intention of taking advantage of their situation. I don't know about a specific pledge, but that was the meaning."


Gerasimov read out the text of a 1990 letter from Bush to Gorbachev, whose key passage said: "German unification will take place only as part of a transition to a European security system in which NATO itself will be transformed."


"We feel cheated," said Gennady.


Marlin neither looked nor felt guilty. He was brought up on the received wisdom of the Bush and Clinton White Houses alike that in the long term, the Russians do not really have any geo-strategic choice.


"China is the largest growing threat to the United States in the future, and Russia is equally threatened by it. Maybe even more," Fitzwater told us. "Russia will be an important ally as we face that threat."


Gerasimov shook his head. He was in the room in Beijing where Gorbachev was negotiating with Deng Xiao Ping, and described how he watched Gorbachev's knuckles whiten on the arm of his chair as Deng denounced the "unequal treaties" by which tsarist Russia had taken vast swathes of Chinese territory in the 19th century.


"But now bygones are bygones," Deng concluded, and Gorbachev relaxed. Gerasimov says the border is now virtually demilitarized and no longer disputed.


"If you assume China will expand, maybe for the future Russia and the West should get together," Gennady conceded. "But we Russians must work to keep good relations with our great neighbor. Beware of self-fulfilling prophecies about great powers inevitably being rivals. That was how we got into this mess in the first place."