D.A. Henderson, China's promise to protect Ukraine, The Steve Jobs of Metals, George Washington's unacknowledged son.
This weekend’s News Items comes in two parts: this one and another one. This one is a collection of essays and longer-form reports that I think are interesting, important or both. The other one will be distributed later today, or tomorrow, or never. Right now, I would guess “later today.”
1. Richard Preston, The New Yorker, 17 July 1999:
“While I was sitting with D. A. Henderson in his house, I mentioned what seemed to me the great and tragic paradox of his life's work. The eradication caused the human species to lose its immunity to smallpox, and that was what made it possible for the Soviets to turn smallpox into a weapon rivaling the hydrogen bomb.
“Henderson responded with silence, and then he said, thoughtfully, ‘I feel very sad about this. The eradication never would have succeeded without the Russians. Viktor Zhdanov started it, and they did so much. They were extremely proud of what they had done. I felt the virus was in good hands with the Russians. I never would have suspected. They made twenty tons -- twenty tons -- of smallpox. For us to have come so far with the disease, and now to have to deal with this human creation, when there are so many other problems in the world . . .’ He was quiet again. ‘It's a great letdown,’" he said. (Sources: newyorker.com, nytimes.com, italics mine)
2. Mostly forgotten, but not completely forgotten. 11 March 2022.
An unusual and mostly forgotten pledge Chinese President Xi Jinping signed eight years ago that China would protect Ukraine in the event of a nuclear attack is getting fresh attention following Russia’s invasion of its Eastern European neighbor.
China’s 2013 promise to Ukraine of unspecified security guarantees echoed the kind of commitment nuclear-armed states—including China—have long made to nonnuclear ones, assurances that the U.S., U.K. and Russia had earlier also extended directly to Ukraine for relinquishing Soviet-era weapons. Yet Beijing appeared to be promising more than it had in past commitments, and why it singled out Ukraine for such an arrangement has confounded nuclear experts ever since.
Now, its existence appears to further muddy Beijing’s policy stance in the context of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s warning last month it was raising the alert level of its nuclear forces.
“It’s a promise of a nuclear-weapon state to stand up for a nonnuclear-weapon state being threatened by a nuclear-weapon state,” says Gregory Kulacki, a Japan-based analyst who focuses on nuclear issues and China for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. “It means something and it should be pointed out to China,” he says. (Source: wsj.com)
3. Not One Inch. April 7, 2022 Issue.
The last thing Joe Biden must have expected upon fulfilling his dream of becoming president in January 2021 was that a year later he would face a Russian invasion of Ukraine and the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II. This wasn’t supposed to happen. China was seen as the new threat. The Quad—the alliance of the US, Japan, India, and Australia, designed to contain Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions—was the main focus of Washington’s foreign policy. Now suddenly Vladimir Putin, keen to prove Russia’s status as a great power, was hell-bent on reconquering the second-largest republic of the former Soviet Union. The scope and brutality of his invasion has been shocking; yet to many of those old enough to remember the end of the cold war—when the USSR lay supine and a series of American presidents set out to expand (or as their aides put it, in an attempt to avoid accusations of neo-imperialism, “enlarge”) the NATO military alliance to include nearly every nation in Central and Eastern Europe that had been a vassal of the Kremlin for the previous half-century—the attack, at least initially, came as little surprise. In a sense, it was a backlash waiting to happen.
Not One Inch, M.E. Sarotte’s highly detailed, thoroughly researched, and briskly written chronicle of NATO’s expansion in the first decade after the end of the cold war, leaves the impression that Putin has a case for resenting how the United States and its allies took in the western parts of his country’s erstwhile empire—though not as good a case as he seems to believe. Sarotte, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins, takes her title from Putin’s frequent references to a “promise,” allegedly made by American leaders at the end of the cold war, not to expand NATO into the power vacuums of Central and Eastern Europe. “‘Not an inch to the east,’ we were told in the 1990s,” Putin said in a December 2021 speech. “They cheated us—vehemently, blatantly.”
But as Sarotte documents, the US made no such promise. On February 9, 1990, shortly after the Berlin Wall fell but before the Soviet Union imploded, James Baker, President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, met with Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet leader had no illusions that he could prevent the unification of East and West Germany, but he wanted assurances that the new German state would not be part of NATO, the US-led military alliance that was created in 1949 to contain the Soviet Union. West Germany had been a member of NATO since 1955; East Germany was a member of the Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact. For the reunified German state to be a part of NATO would rub defeat a bit too harshly in the Russians’ faces. It might be better, Gorbachev said, to keep the new Germany neutral. Baker replied that a unified neutral Germany might not be in anyone’s interest, that it might even build its own nuclear arsenal. He asked, according to a transcript of the meeting:
Would you prefer to see a united Germany outside of NATO, independent and with no US forces, or would you prefer a unified Germany be tied to NATO, with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?
It was a question, not a pledge. Gorbachev said that, put that way, he preferred the latter; Baker said he did too. But upon returning to Washington, Baker was upbraided. “To hell with that!” President Bush exclaimed, dismissing the notion of letting the Soviets have a say on the fate of the new German state. “We prevailed and they didn’t. We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.” Baker never mentioned “not one inch” again.
But the dilemma couldn’t be sidestepped so easily. The Soviet Union—which at this point hadn’t yet dissolved—had thousands of troops and hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons in the eastern part of Germany, which gave Gorbachev leverage to undermine any effort to establish a new order in the heart of Europe. Bush, German chancellor Helmut Kohl, and other Western leaders worried about what they might have to concede in order to win his consent to keep a unified Germany in NATO and to get the Soviet troops and weapons out. Remarkably, though, Gorbachev gave up the one strong card in his otherwise meager hand. In a meeting the day after Baker’s, Kohl asked Gorbachev if he agreed “that the Germans themselves must now decide” all questions about unification. Gorbachev allowed that this was “very close” to his view.
Kohl was stunned. He proceeded to boast publicly that Gorbachev had agreed to German unification without conditions—and Gorbachev did not push back. The Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, later wrote in his memoir that the concession left him in “a melancholy and fatalistic mood.” Bush announced that the unified Germany would hold full membership in NATO. Kohl’s task was now to mollify Gorbachev—whose economy was tanking—with vast financial assistance.
And so the pattern was set for the next decade: NATO expanded, first into the former East Germany, then beyond; Gorbachev—and later Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Federation after the USSR’s implosion in 1991—put up a fuss; the US, Germany, and the IMF sent Moscow billions of dollars to quell his protests (though much of the money disappeared, as the elites controlling Russia’s government shifted it to foreign bank accounts). When President Clinton told Yeltsin that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—the three Baltic states that had once been Soviet republics—would join NATO at some point, Yeltsin begged him not to pile on such deep humiliation. Clinton held out the bribe of Russian membership in several Western institutions, including the prestigious Group of Seven, consisting of the most powerful industrial democracies. Yeltsin caved; he had no alternative. (Russia was expelled from the G-8, turning it back into the G-7, in 2014, as punishment for annexing Crimea.) (Sources: nybooks.com, yalebooks.yale.edu)