My apologies for the unusually long silence over the past week. I am a week overdue in addressing the responses to my last column, but I did want to make a few remarks about James Joyner’s careful rebuttal of my main claim of NATO’s obsolescence. First, here is James:
But our primary motivation was our own security, not selfless sacrifice for the love of our European cousins. Yes, we were there to protect Western Europe. But we were drawing the line on the limits of Soviet influence.
NATO’s premise from the very beginning was that we were all in this thing together. And that remains the idea behind the Alliance. “Out of area” and various mission sets are force planning concepts, not rationales for existence.
I regret if I gave the impression that I think the creation of NATO had something to do with “selfless sacrifice” or “love of our European cousins.” It didn’t. As James says, Americans were motivated by our own security to create the Alliance. This an important point, and one that weakens pro-NATO and anti-anti-NATO arguments considerably. It is because the creation of NATO was first and foremost an anti-Soviet measure designed to enhance American security that America has no need of it any longer. When James diverts later to make an appeal to a “Europe whole and free” as justification for NATO expansion, he is appealing to sentiment and the idea that the Alliance has everything to do with “love of our European cousins,” or at least sympathy for the Poles and the Baltic nations.
The idea that “we’re all in this thing together” makes a great deal more sense if there were a general conflict or geopolitical struggle in which Americans and Europeans share common cause. There is a strong desire to make the “war on terror” fit that description, but it doesn’t. This brings us back to the matter of “out of area” operations. James writes that “it simply made sense for the West to continue working together to achieve our shared interests,” but the idea that Europeans share security interests in central Asia or the Near East with America doesn’t really make sense. It’s true that the “out of area” missions are not attempts to find “new conflicts to justify NATO’s existence.” They are the product of deciding that the post-Balkans NATO will be an international stabilizing force. The “out of area” missions have resulted from the re-definition of NATO that already happened in the 1990s when member states were confronted with the Alliance’s obsolescence for the first time. Once NATO opted for international vigilantism in Kosovo, there were all kinds of conflicts that could conceivably require the Alliance’s attentions.
It’s true that the U.S. has intervened and will continue to intervene militarily in other countries without NATO’s support or approval, but it is hardly news to James that many of the new allied governments brought in during the last two rounds of NATO expansion were among the most willing and eager to lend political cover to the invasion of Iraq. Yes, a few NATO members strongly opposed the invasion, but by my count at least twelve Alliance members rallied behind the U.S. in a war that clearly had nothing to do with European security. Albania supported the Iraq war and sent a few dozen soldiers as part of the initial invasion. This was before it had formally been accepted into NATO, and it was mostly done out of gratitude for U.S./NATO support for the KLA terrorists in Kosovo, but one can also see Albanian support in terms of its desire to be accepted into the Alliance. Slovakia was another would-be member that sent soldiers to Iraq to secure its place in the Alliance.
The enthusiasm of central and eastern European governments to help invade Iraq was a small but significant political boost for pro-war arguments in 2002-03, and Italian and Spanish participation left Germany relatively isolated among the Alliance’s major European members. All of this helped to maintain the fiction that the invasion was a “coalition” war akin to the Gulf War rather than an overwhelmingly Anglo-American effort. I should add that all of this enthusiasm was only at the official, government level; the nations of central, eastern and southern Europe were against the war as much as any other European nation. Without NATO expansion since 1996, it is hard to imagine many governments in Europe besides Britain lending any support to the Iraq war.
Admittedly, these new NATO members are militarily very weak countries, and other than Poland they have not contributed much to U.S.-led war efforts. That just points to a more significant flaw with NATO expansion: it extends security guarantees to countries that contribute next to nothing and which are net liabilities to the United States. If the Cold War-era NATO enhanced American security, the post-Cold War NATO detracts from it.
Regarding NATO expansion, I argued last week that expansion has been clearly detrimental to European stability and security because of the role of expansion in escalating the “frozen” conflicts in the Caucasus. James’ reply on this point is probably his weakest:
The counter-argument to this is that the problem in Georgia was not the proposed expansion of NATO but rather the lack of it. Would Russia have invaded the sovereign territory of a NATO Ally, risking military retaliation from the West, over its rather meager interests in South Ossetia and Abkhazia? It’s unknowable but I rather doubt it.
Yes, that is the counter-argument, and it is one that doesn’t have much evidence to support it. Russia didn’t just happen to invade Georgia. Yes, it goaded Saakashvili into lashing out, but he was the one who lashed out and escalated the conflict. The Georgian war in 2008 was the result of Saakashvili’s belief that he had the backing of the West and could “reintegrate” South Ossetia without suffering the consequences of using force against a region he knew to be under Russian control. Would Saakashvili have shown greater restraint and patience if he had a formal security guarantee from NATO? All that he needed in 2008 was a vague promise given at the Bucharest summit earlier that year that Georgia would eventually be granted membership, and that was enough to enable his reckless behavior. Had Georgia been admitted to NATO earlier in 2008, it would not have made Saakashvili less reckless, but it would have obliged the U.S. and all our allies to defend Georgia or show our security guarantees to be the empty, and therefore dangerous, political gestures that I believe most of them really are.