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William Perry, Bill Clinton’s Defence Secretary: He argued for a slower expansion of Nato (TSGT Marvin Krause)

When Putin’s personality cult was on the rise I heard a joke in Moscow. Deciding he would be buried in Jerusalem, he sends a flunkey to fix it. No problem with the Israelis or Palestinians, the fellow reports, but the tomb would be expensive: a million dollars. “A million dollars!”, Putin explodes, “for three days?”

Mandelbaum begins and ends his litany of American post-Cold War policy failures with China, then Russia, a culture so irredeemably sunk in its past that for older folk — and some younger — its leader incarnates something close to a Second Coming.

A crumbling empire with centuries of failure behind it — first serfdom, then Communism — Moscow needed sensitive handling, but didn’t get it. The main culprit, Mandelbaum argues, was Bill Clinton. At first all was well. George H.W. Bush cannily stayed out of the USSR’s collapse. Keen on a “strategic alliance with Russian reform”, and with a country “too nuclear to fail”, Clinton began by working as well as you could with Yeltsin, the half-sozzled leader of a semi-mafia state, and there was progress in democratisation and market reform.

What damaged America’s Russia policy irretrievably, Mandelbaum believes, was Clinton’s line on Nato. During discussions on German reunification, the previous presidency had explicitly promised Moscow that Nato would not be expanded eastwards. Nor was the White House policy arrived at in orderly executive fashion: William Perry, the Defence Secretary, opposed it, and learned of the decision after Clinton had taken it.

Like Perry and his hard-nosed defence staff at the time, Mandelbaum argues in persuasive detail that the extension brought no military gain. Overstatement is not his style, nor is he soft on Russia, yet he describes Clinton’s move as “one of the greatest blunders in the history of US foreign policy.”

Not only Yeltsin but the Russian opposition felt deceived, and Nato’s bungled handling of the Ukrainian and Georgian candidacies didn’t help. Hard though it is to admit grounds for Russian neurosis under Putin, how clever was it to feed it? In Mandelbaum’s words, “Peace in Europe came to rest not on Russian consent but on Russian weakness; and ultimately Russia felt strong enough to violate that peace.”

He is equally hard on Clinton’s effort to link trade and reform in China — another tough-sounding but misguided strategy. The Chinese prime minister, Li Peng, a nasty piece of work prominent in the Tiananmen massacre, duly declined (“China will never accept the American concept of human rights”). And under US business pressure Clinton duly retreated.

The fallback strategy was the more realistic “economic missionary” position: the contention that trade itself would spread democracy, something that has worked well enough to get Xi Jinping stamping out sparks of freedom. As to China’s foreign and defence policy, Mandelbaum does not deny the right of a renascent great power to develop its navy to assert itself in the Pacific and defend its trade routes, as Britain herself did.

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