Berlin Wall 1989
The fall of the Berlin Wall drove treaty talks between the Soviet Union and western powers. Image by EPA PHOTO

False treaty claims attempt to rewrite history

David Williams March 7, 2024

Western nations signed a treaty guaranteeing NATO would not expand 'one inch' to the east after German reunification in 1990.


False. The 'not one inch' assurance was discussed in negotiations but was never mentioned in a treaty.

Social media users are claiming the West broke a 1990 treaty undertaking not to expand the NATO security alliance closer to Russia’s borders.

The claim is false. While a US commitment that NATO would not expand towards Russia was made during talks with the Soviets in 1990, and remains a topic of heated dispute, no undertaking was written into the treaty on German reunification.

One post (archived here) claims that NATO vowed it would not expand “one inch” further east, and signed a treaty with Russia to guarantee the promise.

Other examples of posts making the claim are here, here and here.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made similar claims to justify his invasion of Ukraine.

A similar claim has also been made by comic-turned-commentator Russell Brand on YouTube.

Brand shows presidential hopeful Robert F Kennedy Jr, (16min 05sec) saying: “In ’92 the wall came down, in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev said, ‘I’m going to allow you to reunify Germany but I want your commitment after that, you will not move NATO one inch to the east’, and we solemnly swore we wouldn’t do it”.

Facebook post
 Posts wrongly claim a much-debated “not one inch” promise was in the German reunification treaty. 

Brand comments: “That’s a pretty important commitment that was made between Reagan and Gorbachev there, one that appears to have been reneged upon”.

The US president at the time was George HW Bush, not Ronald Reagan, and the “one inch” guarantee was not demanded by then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

It was a guarantee offered by then-US secretary of state James A Baker to Gorbachev during negotiations on February 9, 1990 about the reunification of Germany. The reunification talks followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (not 1992 as claimed by Kennedy Jr).

Archives show Baker said (p5) he understood the importance to the Soviet Union of the US guaranteeing that “not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction”.

Baker asked Gorbachev if he would prefer (p8) “a united Germany outside of NATO” or a united Germany in NATO “but with the guarantee that NATO’s jurisprudence or troops will not spread east of the present boundary”.

Gorbachev responded: “It goes without saying that a broadening of the NATO zone is not acceptable”.

Baker replied: “We agree with that”.

Mikhail Gorbachev
 Former Soviet Union head Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated with the US on German reunification in 1990. 

The significance of Baker’s guarantee is disputed. However, whether the guarantee appeared in the treaty is not.

In 1989 NATO comprised 16 countries but another 15 have since joined, most east of Germany.

Asked in 2014 why he had not insisted that NATO expansion be addressed in the treaty, Gorbachev told Russia Beyond the topic “was not discussed at all”.

He said what was discussed was “making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance” and that NATO troops “would not be deployed on the territory of (the former East Germany) after German reunification”.

“Baker’s statement … was made in that context,” Gorbachev said.

In an interview with Germany’s Bild in 2009, Gorbachev said: “(West German chancellor Helmut) Kohl, US Secretary of State James Baker and others assured me that NATO would not move an inch to the east. The Americans didn’t stick to that.”

Historian ME Sarotte, in her 2021 book Not One Inch, says Baker’s promise was not the official US government position.

“For decades after, various leaders in Moscow would point to this exchange as an agreement barring NATO from expanding beyond its eastern Cold War border,” she writes.

“Baker and his aides and supporters, in contrast, would point to the hypothetical phrasing and lack of any written agreement afterward as a sign that the secretary had only been test-driving one potential option of many”. (Ch 2, p 55)

In an interview, Sarotte points out (61min) the 1990 Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, signed by the Soviet Union, the US, UK, France, East Germany and West Germany, did not mention NATO, its expansion or Baker’s guarantee.

Historian and political scientist Professor Ronald Suny of the University of Michigan told AAP FactCheck that Baker’s promise was “nothing more than a handshake or just a verbal agreement”.

“(Baker’s promise) was brought up repeatedly but it was never codified,” Prof Suny said.

Prof Suny said Baker’s words showed how cynical the US was regarding the Soviet Union at the time.

“They understood how needy the Soviet Union was and they could muscle the Soviet Union into this kind of concession,” he said.

The Verdict

The claim Western nations signed a treaty guaranteeing NATO would not expand “one inch” to the east after German reunification in 1990
is false.

The US negotiator offered such an undertaking in talks with the Soviet Union but it was not codified in the reunification treaty agreed to by the Soviets.

False – The claim is inaccurate.

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