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NATO Expansion and Our Lack of Serious Foreign Policy Debates

John Allen Gay sees the failure to debate adding new members to NATO as part of a larger problem with U.S. foreign policy:

Critics suggest it is ridiculous to question the idea that defending Montenegro via the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is necessary to keep America safe. They’re wrong. Tiny states like Montenegro have little relevance to basic U.S. national security. Worse, the lack of debate around military commitments to these states is a symptom of a broader collapse in the national security conversation.

NATO expansion is never seriously debated, but then again many things that the U.S. does overseas are not seriously debated anymore. There is now usually no debate or vote before the U.S. initiates or joins foreign wars, and it is only months or years after the U.S. has already made commitments to other governments and local groups that members of Congress start to question the wisdom and legality of the mission. It takes a truly horrific policy, such as support for the war on Yemen, to spur members of Congress to try to end U.S. involvement in a foreign war, and even in that case it has not been successful so far.

NATO expansion receives even less scrutiny and debate than our wars despite the security guarantee that is being granted. The votes in favor of adding new members to the alliance are always as lopsided as can be, which is a good indication that most of the members haven’t given the subject much thought. The idea that the alliance shouldn’t continue to bring in new members isn’t given a real hearing in Washington or any other allied capital, and so the U.S. and NATO keep adding new allies they don’t need to guard against a threat that is also wildly exaggerated.

Each time more unnecessary allies are brought in, the argument for keeping others out gains less and less traction. If critics of expansion point out that these new members add very little and may even end up costing the alliance down the road, proponents just shrug because they see no problem with taking on more dependents. It is striking how much more debate over Montenegro’s membership in the alliance there is now than there was when they were not yet members, but of course now is a year too late. NATO expansion proceeds by ignoring the objections of critics, bringing in new members no matter how little value they add, and then dismissing complaints that the alliance was wrong to bring them in.

Small NATO allies have contributed what they can to U.S. wars over the last seventeen years, but that just calls attention to the downside of joining the alliance for them. The “out of area” wars fought by NATO are an example of what is wrong with the alliance today. Pointing to the contributions European members make to these wars doesn’t strengthen the case for the alliance. It raises the obvious question of why the other members of a Euro-Atlantic defensive alliance are still involved in what has become a U.S. war of choice in Central Asia almost two decades after 9/11. Expanding the alliance creates new commitments for the U.S. that we don’t need, but it also ends up pulling the new allies into wars that have nothing to do with them. That’s a bad arrangement for all concerned, and none of it is making the U.S. or Europe more secure.

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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