September 10, 2018

Documents Avoid the Creation of Myths

AP/Scanpix
US President Bill Clinton, right and his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin shake hands as they attend the Helsinki Summit to discuss NATO expansion, at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, March 20, 1997.
US President Bill Clinton, right and his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin shake hands as they attend the Helsinki Summit to discuss NATO expansion, at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, March 20, 1997.

Recently declassified documents from Bill Clinton’s presidential library show how the then Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, tried to convince Clinton not to expand NATO to former Soviet republics.

Their meeting took place in the margins of the 1997 Helsinki Summit. Basically, the documents reveal the imperial thinking of Russia. One may draw the conclusion that the reason NATO expanded was not due to changed Russian attitudes, but rather to Russia’s weakness. And Yeltsin knew it.

However, the declassification just confirms what we already knew from Clinton’s memoirs. “When I told Boris I wanted NATO both to expand and to sign an agreement with Russia, he asked me to commit secretly—in his words, ‘in a closet’—to limiting future NATO expansion to the Warsaw Pact nations, thus excluding the states of the former Soviet Union, like the Baltics and Ukraine. I said I couldn’t do that because, first of all, it wouldn’t remain secret, and doing so would undermine the credibility of the Partnership for Peace,” Clinton writes.1 The event is corroborated by Strobe Talbott, Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of State.

The declassification—or should I say the documents themselves—indicates how important it is to have a paper trail from summits between heads of state. Clearly, documented proof avoids the creation of myths such as the one generated by Russia that the West promised Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand to the East. This claim is being repeated over and over by Russian propaganda and historians.

Second, the documentation of summits works against secret deals. Remember the meeting between presidents Putin and Trump in Helsinki (Helsinki again!) when the presidents spoke only in the presence of interpreters and no notes were taken. This allowed Putin later to claim many things. And, of course, the Baltic nations remembered the Clinton–Yeltsin summit 21 years earlier, so no wonder they were worried about the face-to-face meeting between Putin and Trump.

And third, documents also help to write proper history. If even heads of state are willing to talk to historians, their memory could fail them, so notes are a great help here. This is why we should welcome and study the declassified documents from the Clinton library.

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1 Bill Clinton, My Life, Hutchinson (UK), 2004, p. 750.

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