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NATO Can Have Ukraine or the USA—Not Both

A treaty commitment to Ukraine is a dangerous liability with no upside.


Marking the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg proclaimed that “Ukraine will join NATO…. It is not a question of if, but when.” Fortunately for the United States, the admission of Ukraine into NATO cannot be forced upon us by the unilateral dicta of global elites. Nevertheless, Stoltenberg’s shocking display of hubris and blatant disregard for sovereignty reminds us exactly why a nation should not be added to the NATO alliance without weighing the risks.  

Historically, decisions to expand the alliance in the backyard of a nuclear-armed adversary is a dangerous game of chicken. Despite what the Biden administration and the foreign policy establishment would claim, Russia’s decision to pursue military objectives in Ukraine was due in large part to the prospect of further NATO expansion for both Ukraine and Georgia, a redline that Vladimir Putin drew as far back as 2008. Rather than taking such warnings seriously, the U.S. and European capitals continued to beat the drum of expansion by touting the foolish desires of the “rules-based international order” above realism. Western allies have gone so far as to keep the option of allied troops deploying into Ukraine on the table. Believing the Kremlin will simply accept such provocations is folly.


Although its recent behavior would suggest otherwise, NATO is not a social club. At its inception, NATO is a military alliance rooted in shared security interests in the transatlantic area of responsibility. NATO is not a catch-all, feel-good get-together of democratically inclined nations. Admittance is not a stamp of global approval or a reward for good behavior—a framework antithetical to a military alliance. In fact, at this point, the alliance neither needs nor should seek additional members to achieve its stated “defensive” aims. We should consider new members only when they bring demonstrable and credible hard power, promote greater burden sharing across existing member states, and conceivably reduce the chances of sending allied troops into war. This is the only standard by which collective defense may work. 

Ukraine is incompatible as a member on all fronts. What strategic value would Ukraine bring to the alliance? But for the goodwill of international donors, Ukraine would still be operating with Soviet-era weaponry and bygone military doctrine. 

So much for credible hard power or meaningful burden sharing. 

The entire premise undergirding NATO is that when you are under attack and your resources and capacity run low, your allies come to your aid. An ally wholly dependent on others for training, equipment, and financing is hardly an ally. As for lowering the specter of conflict, admitting Ukraine—a country of historical and strategic significance to its nuclear superpower neighbor—seems nothing less than a gamble with the lives and treasures of the alliance’s members. 

Somewhere along the way, our leaders talked themselves into thinking of Ukraine as a de facto member of the alliance, despite no vote being held or change in treaty ratified. Our leaders looked Russia’s red line in the face and stepped right over it, gambling with our own security against a nuclear-capable adversary. This mistake has drained American taxpayers of $113 billion to date, with war hawks in Congress currently fighting to send another $60 billion.


Putin continues to warn us that Ukraine in NATO could be the match that sparks WWIII. As a constitutional realist, it seems to me that when the enemy gives us a clear warning, we should act with a degree of prudence, not double down without a second thought simply to anger the bad guy.

If Ukraine is in NATO, the United States should be out, plain and simple. 

A decision that could trigger the next world war cannot be made by transnational elites, unaccountable to any country or its citizens. As the body tasked with providing advice and consent on additions to the North Atlantic Treaty, the road to Ukraine’s NATO membership runs through the U.S. Senate. If we are serious about preserving U.S. hegemony, at no point can our nation be forced by a dependent Europe to accept the risk of nuclear escalation. We must draw a redline with NATO: You can have Ukraine or the United States. If allied boots hit the ground in Ukraine, we should walk away from NATO entirely.

In the meantime, perhaps someone should remind Jens Stoltenberg that his job is to be a steward of the strategic interests of NATO’s dues-paying members, not a shill for Ukraine. As the largest financial backer of the alliance, it is time the U.S. prioritizes participation in NATO according to our core strategic interests. WWIII is not on the agenda, and it is far past time for the United States to close NATO’s open door. 

This op-ed has been updated to reflect the current debate over NATO troops entering Ukraine.