This year marks the 30th anniversary of Germany’s reunification at the end of the Cold War.

More than a generation later, the diplomacy that made it possible is still a fount of controversy. There is a raging debate — involving scholars, former policymakers and even a former secretary of state — over whether U.S. and West German officials promised their Soviet counterparts that NATO would not expand into Eastern Europe.

That debate can seem incredibly narrow: It fixates on who said what to whom on some particular occasion. Yet the reason the argument continues is that it is a stalking horse for a much bigger dispute over whether America should pull back from the world.

The first thing to understand about the diplomacy of early 1990 is that history was moving very fast at the time. The Berlin Wall had fallen in November 1989. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, with support from U.S. President George H.W. Bush, was beginning a pell-mell drive to absorb a collapsing East Germany into the West.

This created problems for the Soviets, who were losing their most important “ally” and seeing their position in Europe collapse. The challenge for Western policymakers was to pursue reunification while making that bitter pill easier for Moscow to swallow.

They undoubtedly succeeded: The Soviets signed off on German reunification in a formal agreement a few months later. The controversy concerns what exactly U.S. and German officials said to ease Soviet concerns along the way.

Critics of U.S. policy have pointed out that West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and U.S. secretary of State James Baker made various comments — publicly and privately — to the effect that NATO would not push its frontiers eastward if Moscow permitted reunification.

When the U.S. later decided to expand NATO in the mid-1990s, then, it was breaking an earlier promise. Defenders of U.S. policy have argued that these comments pertained to the issue of stationing NATO troops in the former East Germany, not to expanding NATO into Eastern Europe. And they argue that any such pledges were not binding because they were not included in the formal agreement that allowed reunification to occur.

The truth is messy. Genscher, Baker and other officials did explicitly propose limitations on NATO’s future expansion at certain moments in early 1990, including in a formal meeting between Baker and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Yet the Bush administration began walking back Baker’s offer almost as soon as he made it.

Moreover, Bush carefully avoided any formal promise to constrain NATO’s future growth. Nonetheless, the “broken promises” argument has dragged on ever since, even though it confuses more than it clarifies.

For starters, focusing so obsessively on the diplomacy of early 1990 makes it seem that the great moral question surrounding NATO’s later expansion was whether America violated a pledge made to the dying Soviet Union. That’s myopic. The great moral question surrounding NATO expansion was whether to allow post-Soviet Russia to continue controlling the security choices of countries it had abused for decades.

The Clinton administration decided that it would be morally and strategically obtuse to continue treating Eastern Europe as a Russian sphere of influence — and that decision was fundamentally the right one.

Second, endlessly replaying the “who said what” game creates an impression that comments made in early 1990 should have determined U.S. policy for years thereafter. But think about that proposition for a moment. In early 1990, the U.S. and West Germany were navigating an incredibly fraught and fluid environment, and seeking to maneuver the Soviets out of Germany without starting a war in the process. In the mid-1990s, U.S. policymakers were trying to fill an emerging security vacuum in Eastern Europe while preserving a decent relationship with Russia.

After decades of relative stasis, change was happening at a rate that was both inspiring and terrifying. It is not surprising that statesmen tested and then rejected certain ideas, that they selected and then reconsidered certain policies. What is striking is that the policy they ultimately settled on — extending NATO as a way of tamping down instability, tying a reunified Germany to its eastern neighbors, and preventing an anarchic nightmare in Europe — worked so well.

In fact, there is a certain bizarre quality to the “broken promises” debate. Many critics of U.S. policy are self-described realists. They believe that considerations of power drive a country’s behavior. Yet if power is what drives behavior, why focus so intently on legalistic, semantic issues — questions of who promised what at a given time? Perhaps because there’s a bigger issue lurking in the background.

That issue is the broader debate about America’s global role. Many of the analysts who argue that the U.S. violated a no-NATO enlargement pledge also believe that American foreign policy has been a march of folly since the Cold War. They contend that America needlessly alienated Russia and is now paying the price.

And so the diplomacy of 1990, in which the U.S. allegedly extended and then violated a promise to exercise restraint, constitutes the original sin. It was the earliest manifestation of all the terrible qualities — heedlessness, arrogance, over-commitment — that came to afflict American statecraft.

But the decision to expand NATO was not a sin; it was the moment when American policymakers realized that combating the instability that the end of the Cold War threatened to unleash required enlarging rather than contracting U.S. commitments overseas.

It beggars belief to suggest that had only America not extended NATO into Eastern Europe, Russia would not have once again sought to bully its neighbors or that U.S.-Russia relations would have been forever tranquil. And arguing that the post-Cold War era has been uniquely disastrous requires ignoring all the ways in which U.S. engagement has made the world as peaceful, stable, prosperous, and democratic as it is today.

The ongoing controversy about 1990 is really a proxy for a larger debate about whether the United States should lean forward in the world or whether it can minimize its geopolitical troubles by minimizing its global commitments. That debate has incredibly high stakes and won’t be ending anytime soon. When we argue about what happened in Germany 30 years ago, we’re really arguing about what America has done in the world since then — and what it should be doing today.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.