Home/Daniel Larison/A Terrible Time For NATO Expansion

A Terrible Time For NATO Expansion

Institutions should do what they are good at. And the expansion of NATO is one of the few true post-Cold-War foreign-policy success stories. By including some of NATO’s old enemies inside its security umbrella, we ensured, at a minimal cost, the political, economic and ideological “Westernization” of an enormous swath of the continent.

We could continue that process. The stakes are lower – 2010 is not 1990, and the countries outside NATO are poorer and more turbulent than even those that have recently joined. Nevertheless, the very existence of a credible Western military alliance remains – yes, really – an encouragement to others on Europe’s borders. This is a uniquely propitious moment. Right now there is a pro-Western government in Moldova; Ukraine’s geopolitics are up in the air; elections are due to take place in Belarus in December. We in the West might have gone sour on ourselves, but Europeans on our borders still find us magnetically attractive. But we will only remain so if we try. ~Anne Applebaum

Of course, if an institution has long since outlived its purpose, its continued expansion is not a sign of health or proof of success: it is a stubborn refusal to accept its irrelevance. Applebaum is arguing more or less for expansion of the Alliance for expansion’s sake. For that matter, if NATO still has a purpose, it is not to promote “Westernization.” If it has any purpose, it must be as a military alliance that exists to contain Russian power, and there will be no other way for Russia to view NATO if it continues to expand into the former USSR. All of this is harmful to the stability and security of Europe, and especially for the security of those states that border Russia. Western critics of Russian foreign policy often cite the Kremlin’s view that NATO is the major threat to Russia as proof that the Russian government is paranoid, but what is the Russian government to think when defenders of NATO keep agitating for expansion to the east and insist on framing expansion as a process of “Westernization” that is explicitly defined as coming at the expense of Russian influence?

As Dmitri Trenin pointed out in a recent Foreign Policy article on the “reset” and New START, one of the crucial factors in the success of the “reset” has been the administration’s refusal to press the issue of additional NATO expansion:

For Moscow, Obama’s most important — and welcome — decision to date has been to end his predecessor’s efforts to roll back Russian influence in the former Soviet Union. NATO enlargement to Ukraine and Georgia has been put on hold [bold mine-DL]. Arming Georgia has largely stopped. And Obama has scrapped Bush’s Russia-centric missile-defense plans, with their radar and interceptor installations in the Czech Republic and Poland, in favor of a system designed to thwart potential threats from Iran. It was the unilateral and unconditional removal of these three irritants by Obama that gave the new U.S. president credibility in Moscow’s eyes. As long as these issues are not revisited, the new cooperative relationship between Russia and the United States has every chance of continuing, albeit with new, more stringent limits.

Put another way, U.S.-Russian relations are not automatically doomed to deteriorate and worsen if the New START goes down in flames, but they will certainly worsen if Washington reverts to Clinton- and Bush-era provocations in these other areas. If the treaty fails, U.S.-Russian relations will suffer, but if the administration heeded Applebaum’s advice those relations would return to the poor state they were in two years ago. Applebaum’s recommendation of renewed NATO expansion is especially foolish right now. This is not a “uniquely propitious moment” to revisit NATO expansion. On the contrary, this is an exceptionally bad time to bring it up. Coming on the heels of the “reset” and Moscow’s willingness to accommodate Washington on several issues, a new push for NATO expansion would be interpreted as a betrayal of Russian trust and a return to the habits of the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Meanwhile, it’s not much of an argument in favor of renewed NATO expansion that “the countries outside NATO are poorer and more turbulent than even those that have recently joined.” Applebaum might as well say that the likely candidates for new membership are all woefully unqualified and not very valuable as allies. Every one of the countries Applebaum mentions would be a glaring liability to NATO in one way or another. The idea of trying to bring Moldova into NATO is silly enough, given the ongoing Russian presence east of the Dniestr, but talk of bringing Belarus and Ukraine in is preposterous. Ukraine has already committed not to join any alliance, and even if Lukashenko were no longer in power Belarus would be a completely undesirable candidate on account of its poverty, corruption, and energy dependence on Russia.

Proponents of NATO expansion like to say that former Soviet republics should be free to make their own foreign policies and make whatever alliances they believe are appropriate, but what if it is actually the desire of most of the people in all of these countries not to become a pawn in a great power struggle? Are we prepared to accept that these nations do not see an advantage in defining their integration with Europe in terms of a military alliance, but instead regard it as unwelcome or even dangerous? There is every reason for these nations to integrate themselves economically with Europe, and to varying degrees they are doing so. It makes no sense to endanger this and spoil it by revisiting NATO expansion into countries that do not want it and would be unable to afford the expenditures required to improve their militaries. These are developing economies and countries hit hard by the financial crisis and the recession. For interoperability between their militaries and ours, all of them would have to go through an expensive process of military modernization that none of them can actually afford. It is particularly perverse to argue that these states need to devote significantly more of their national resources to military spending, which is what Moldova and Belarus would have to do for Alliance membership. Nothing could be worse for new democratic governments than the creation of an outsized military establishment. Applebaum would have us repeat the terrible mistakes Washington made in Georgia, and she argues for this as if the war in Georgia and the suffering it caused never happened.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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