The Atlantic Council’s Ian Hansen made the argument last month that realists are wrong to identify NATO’s expansion as the source of tension with Russia. He argued that if only NATO had been enlarged even further to include Georgia and Ukraine, the entirety of Eastern Europe would have been made safer:

This theoretically sound conclusion fails to acknowledge that NATO expansion has actually ensured greater security against inevitable Russian aggression by consistently filling vacuums of power.

Hansen’s counterfactual advances the empirically grounded point that Russia has never attacked a NATO member, therefore NATO membership would have prevented the wars in Georgia and Ukraine. This assertion is predicated on what can only be called ignorance: both of NATO’s capabilities and interests, and of Russia’s.

In late April I took part in the NorSec ‘Nordic Security’ conference in Oslo, organized by the Norwegian Youth Atlantic Treaty Association. A number of distinguished scholars and practitioners spoke at the conference, and I truly wish Ian Hansen had been there to learn how those from Norway—NATO founding member and Cold War frontline state—think about the alliance. Unlike the Atlanticists in Washington D.C., Paris, or London, there was little talk of confronting Russia, with several panelists agreeing that in hindsight turning away Kiev and Tbilisi at the Bucharest summit had been very wise.


Norway, despite sharing land and sea borders with Russia along with competing interests in the Arctic, has always managed to preserve stability in the north. More to the point, a concept discussed in Oslo severely undermines Hansen’s world view: ‘membership +’. Norwegians believe NATO has become so bloated and incoherent that any state wishing to truly count on U.S. military assistance now has to do more than merely display their NATO membership card. Consequently, Nordic countries like Norway and Denmark have done their best to keep their defense spending high and do their part in such NATO operations as Odyssey Dawn in Libya.

Ukraine and Georgia also understood this very well, and dutifully sent what few troops they had to help in the war effort of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In spite of their volunteerism, however, the U.S. did not have their back when the Russian bear came out of hibernation. Which begs the question: would NATO membership have made much of a difference?

Norway’s strategic pragmatism stems from being all too aware that, while a frontline NATO ally, its theater of operations was not a priority for Alliance planning during the Cold War. Central Germany and the Fulda gap worried Washington far more, and in the event of conflict with the Warsaw Pact, reinforcements would only be sent to the Norwegian front if and when they could be spared. Oslo thus learned from early on that even for a full-fledged ally, NATO was a collective alliance with divergent interests. This realization counts double after the expansion to central and eastern Europe.

At 28 member-states, the Atlantic Alliance is spread thin: Eastern Europeans fear Russia, Southern Europeans fear North Africa or threats to sea lanes, Greece and Turkey actually plan against each other. This is why after the end of the Cold War, the alliance has tried to find a raison d’etre in small, cheap, and largely inconsequential operations. Occasionally military campaigns like Kosovo and Libya are undertaken, but they usually end up revealing more about what divides NATO rather than what unites it.

Take Kosovo: for an operation of such importance, it is still curious to note that the most fervent apologists were those farthest from the Balkans. The only NATO Balkan ally, Greece, was not only largely absent from military operations against Yugoslavia, but in fact kept trying to slow the drums of war against Belgrade. Without the U.S., the entire operation would have never taken place. Or take Libya: where most allies didn’t bother to show up at all, and the direct economic interests of Germany and Italy were trampled over by the interventionists.

Realists therefore sensibly calculate that these divisions would be all the greater in case of war with a major regional power like Russia, which is still one of the world’s foremost nuclear powers. Georgia and Ukraine being rebuffed at the Bucharest summit was not a source of instability in Eastern Europe, but rather of stability (it is in fact quite bizarre that Russia gets all the blame for upsetting the status quo in Europe’s east, when it is us in the West that wholeheartedly support revolutions and, in the case of Georgia, military escalation). Had they been put on the path to membership, Russia would have undoubtedly acted quickly to impose a new “frozen” favorable tactical situation on the ground.

By moving to keep Russia’s periphery out, allies like France and Germany prevented the entire alliance from having to make dramatic decisions that could have split the organization and undermined its credibility as an instrument of deterrence. This was the result of a valuable lesson learned from the Iraq War, when some in Washington still believed NATO was going to fall in line with America’s plans by default. Even Norway sat that one out.

Especially disturbing in this light is Hansen’s contention that Afghanistan is a prime example of NATO’s “flourishing”! He writes:

They argued that without the Soviet Union, the alliance would have dissolved or become irrelevant. It has instead flourished—and not just with the significant 11-year ISAF mission in Afghanistan. NATO conducts counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, operates an anti-terrorist mission in the Mediterranean, and provides direct support in the Balkans and Africa. All of these patently display the alliance filling voids in international security.

Either Ian Hansen lives in a different reality, or he has a very different definition of flourishing. Let me be clear: the Taliban disgust me and I abhor al-Qaeda. Nothing would have given me more pleasure than to see them beaten or actually obliterated. That said, if we want to succeed in the future, we must be objective about what the past has to teach in both positive and negative lessons. Afghanistan is very much a negative lesson—if not in motivation, certainly in execution. Not only did the operation largely fail in its nation-building aims, but it leaves AfPak more divided, not less. This is simple material reality.

This leads us to the reason for such euphoric analysis on Hansen’s part, analysis afflictively detached from reality. Ian Hansen has personally lived in states that must face the challenge of Russian influence, and works at an organization dedicated to the promotion of transatlantic values. To this school of thought, NATO is not a mere instrument of foreign and security policy; nor is, for that matter, the EU. These are organizations birthed by diplomats and statesmen to accomplish objective goals, goals that have since been politicized in order to justify the organizations’ continued existence.

NATO serves many purposes, and calling for its abolition might be a step too far, but it would serve the cause of political common sense to recognize that the Alliance was expanded for political reasons—what LSE’s Christopher Coker calls the “halfway house for EU membership [and with it democratization]”—instead of strategic ones. As Coker put it: “in the 90s, NATO didn’t do strategy”.

Strategically speaking, such NATO additions as the Baltic states are tactically indefensible, and by including them the Alliance gained liabilities rather than assets. This is precisely the opposite of the logic that led to the birth of the alliance. Then, states were chosen according to their strategic usefulness in containing the USSR regardless of the regime in place, which allowed for dictatorial allies such as Portugal, Greece, and Turkey. For our own sake, we need to stop fetishizing our foreign policy instruments.

Those who speak of the return of History and the revenge of hard-power, especially those prone to Munich comparisons, would do well to remember how to practically defeat an enemy: do not blindly stick to values, but allow interests to gain primacy. Hitler was defeated with the help of Stalin, and against the sensitivities of Finland, lest we forget.

Miguel Nunes Silva has worked with the International Criminal Court and the European External Action Service, as well as written for such publications as Small Wars Journal and Asia Times. He is currently an analyst for the geostrategy consultancy Wikistrat and lectures at the Portuguese Atlantic Youth Association.