The madness of expanding NATO

·7 min read
The NATO symbol.
The NATO symbol. Illustrated | iStock, Wikimedia Commons

On Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's upcoming trip to Europe, he is set to tell Georgia and Ukraine that there is an "open door" for the two states to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a stunning development that is sure to roil already-sour relations between the U.S. and Russia. While safeguarding the sovereignty and prosperity of both countries is a laudable aspiration, inviting two states on Russia's border into an anti-Russian security alliance in an era of escalating brinksmanship between Moscow and Washington is beyond reckless.

It is easy to understand the temptation. Both Ukraine and Georgia are struggling democracies that have had pieces of their territory lopped off by Russian revanchism this century. Russian military forces occupied the South Ossetia region of Georgia in 2008 and never left, creating an autonomous region and expelling ethnic Georgians. And in 2014, Russian forces occupied and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and sent forces to support ethnic Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine, where they remain. Both conflicts have their roots in unresolved territorial disputes stemming from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I visited the Georgian capital of Tblisi in 2014, and found it to be fascinating. The city has a ramshackle beauty, and Georgians are among the most ardently pro-American people I have ever encountered overseas — part of the taxi ride from the airport took us along a road named after George W. Bush. A trip to a monastery in Kazbegi, improbably perched atop a snow-capped mountaintop, topped off with jugs of Georgian Rosé in a packed café, gave me a soft spot for the country that will last a lifetime.

Unfortunately, sympathy and cheap wine are not firm bases for consequential foreign policymaking. NATO is a collective security pact, and Article 5 of the organization's charter treats an attack on any member state as an attack on all. And because both Georgia and Ukraine are already involved in unsettled border disputes with Russia, inviting them into the alliance absent a broader settlement with Russia is a bad idea.

There is also a bigger-picture problem here. When NATO expanded into Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, boosters promised not just a military alliance but an engine of democratization. By requiring member states to settle territorial disputes with one another, joining NATO could avert potentially destructive conflicts like those that engulfed the Balkans in the early 1990s. And the pact's security guarantees would help keep far-right forces from exploiting nationalist claims in the service of militarism, ensure civilian control over military apparatuses, and embed post-Soviet countries in an alliance of democracies that were unlikely to go to war with one another.

Reading through the arguments for NATO expansion in the 1990s and early aughts is an eye-opener. In a 1997 essay for Commentary, neoconservative Joshua Muravchik dismissed concerns that Russia might react badly to the expansion of a defensive security alliance to its borders. "A sustained dialogue with Russian political and military leaders," he mused, "might help them to see how little intrinsic conflict exists between their enlightened self-interest and ours." Vladimir Putin was first elected president three years later. He did not, in the end, see much of any overlap in our mutual self-interest.

Bringing in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic did not, of course, lead to disaster. Writing in 2005 for the venerable journal Security Studies, international relations scholar Rachel Epstein claimed vindication for the pro-expansion forces. Not only had the initial 1999 round of expansion into Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic "precluded the rise of destructive military cultures by insisting on democratic standards," expansion hadn't destabilized relations with Russia as critics warned.

Epstein concluded that "Russian politics had not undergone undue radicalization as a result of NATO enlargement, there was no new cold war, and key arms control agreements endured." I'm picking on Muravchik and Epstein only because a full rundown of this kind of thinking, rampant and almost unquestioned at the time, would consume tens of thousands of words.

Today these hopeful assessments are almost laughable. Under Putin, Russia fell into deep-freeze authoritarianism and became a malign influence on beleaguered democracies not just in Europe but around the world. Multiple arms control agreements are now in tatters (mostly, it must be said, at the behest of Republican U.S. presidents), including the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Worse, Russia has aggressively moved to reclaim territory on its periphery, believing that an unjust settlement was imposed by the U.S. and its allies at Moscow's moment of maximum weakness immediately after the Cold War.

It's not just Russia. Clearly, neither NATO nor accession into the European Union has been sufficient to stave off a drift into authoritarianism for countries like Hungary, which has seen an alarming decline in the quality of its democracy over the course of the 21st century. Freedom House, which produces an index of democracy every year in its Freedom in the World report, downgraded Hungary to its "Partly Free" category in 2019. Other early-expansion NATO states like Poland and the Czech Republic, while still considered democracies, have seen their scores decline in recent years as right-wing populism has swept across the continent.

NATO has added 11 more countries since 1999, including the Baltic countries of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, which directly border Russia. I would invite you to look at a map and consider how this development might be perceived in Moscow. The not-unreasonable perception that post-Soviet Russia was snookered by the West into coughing up too much of the USSR's holdings played a major role in the rise of Putin, whose philosophy includes a strong element of irredentism, the desire to recover national territory.

That rapid expansion of what had been a tight-knit alliance has also given the organization an identity crisis. Is NATO meant to keep the peace in Europe, or to respond to other threats to peace and security far from the continent, or both? And if the goal is continental peace, what exactly is the upside of intentionally rattling the cage of a hostile Russia?

Remember, had Georgia been a NATO member in 2008, or Ukraine in 2014, the alliance would have been obligated to engage in a shooting war with Russia. Indeed, the prospect of NATO membership seemed to have made the Georgian leadership careless in 2008, and convinced Russia that it needed to make its territorial grabs before the strategic situation changed. And the Biden administration really should think very carefully about whether it wants to reproduce those dynamics, especially at a time when the American public is in an especially anti-interventionist mood.

Enthusiasts of enlargement might respond that NATO membership would have scared Moscow away from aggression in the first place. Maybe so. But it is just as likely that NATO's promises to these friendly — but strategically unimportant — countries would have proved empty when faced with the prospect of war between nuclear-armed powers. Another decade of foreign policy failure can only have strengthened the perception in Moscow that U.S. resolve to come to the aid of Kiev and Tbilisi is thinner than ever. And the wider the United States stretches its forces and commitments at a time when both its relative and absolute global power are on the wane, the less likely anyone is to take them seriously.

All this means that expanding NATO into these countries is folly, a provocation that could cause a new crisis with Russia, and is therefore unlikely to meaningfully improve the security situation of either new member.

That sounds like a door the Biden administration might rather keep closed.

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