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No Gatsby Option For NATO

Following up on my last post: I think it’s important to distinguish between identifying past mistakes and assuming you can simply undo them.

It has been abundantly clear for some time that the United States under President Bill Clinton badly mishandled the immediate post-Cold War period. We took advantage of Russian weakness in multiple ways, from corrupting its transition to democracy to facilitating the rape of its economy to transforming a previously defensive alliance (NATO) into a vehicle for American power projection, and expanding that alliance into former Soviet territory. It is not surprising that, in the wake of that experience, Russia has become deeply distrustful of America.

Russia’s interests are its interests, of course; they would want secure access to the Black Sea and the Baltic and a friendly port on the Mediterranean whether it felt threatened by America or not. Moreover, it is entirely plausible that, even had America handled Russia with greater foresight in the 1990s, an authoritarian populist leader aiming to restore Russia’s lost greatness would still have arisen after the trauma of the post-Soviet collapse. But it is reasonable to wonder whether the relationship between our countries would be on a better footing than it is now notwithstanding if we had handled things better then.

We confront the world as it is, though, not as we wish it had been or how it might have been had we acted with greater foresight. In the world as it is, Russia is a revisionist power looking to improve its security position in its local area and to disrupt security arrangements that it views as potential threats. We don’t have to exaggerate Russia’s ambitions or the nature of Russia’s challenge to European security to recognize that it has ambitions or that a challenge exists.

And in the world as it is, we have extended security guarantees to the Baltic states. We can regret having done so, but simply withdrawing those guarantees because we’ve thought better of the matter has broader implications for how America’s word is perceived. Once again, the fact that advocates of an aggressive foreign policy routinely exaggerate the both the importance and the fragility of credibility does not make the concept meaningless, and if it has any meaning at all then surely it means most when we are talking about formal treaty alliances.

It’s possible that the only practical way to rebalance our international commitments and get Europe to take more responsibility for its security (which they are fully capable of doing) is the blustery, obnoxious Trump way. But if that is the case, then that rebalancing is going to involve more violence, and more damage to America’s world position, then advocates seem to be willing to recognize. I’d like to think that it is not the only practical way. But then again, I think President Obama’s overall foreign policy approach is going to be more respected, not less, in light of what I suspect is to come, so I guess I would say that.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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