Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Yes, NATO Expansion Was a Mistake

NATO expansion has been a mistake for the U.S. because the U.S. didn't need to add any more security commitments in Europe or anywhere else after the end of the Cold War.
NATO flag

Hal Brands complains about critics of NATO expansion:

As for the critique that it was NATO expansion that provoked Russian revisionism, this argument has always been flimsy. Yes, the expansion angered Russian officials, during Yeltsin’s time as well as Putin’s. It was undoubtedly humiliating for the fallen superpower. But the idea that NATO expansion caused Russian aggression rests on an implicit counterfactual argument that, absent NATO expansion, Russia would not have behaved in a domineering fashion toward countries on its border. There is simply nothing in Russian history — and nothing in Vladimir Putin’s personality — that supports this argument.

NATO expansion has been a mistake for the U.S. because the U.S. didn’t need to add any more security commitments in Europe or anywhere else after the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the USSR meant that the threat to European peace and security had substantially diminished. There was arguably no need for NATO at all, much less a larger one. The larger alliance has not found “new purpose” through expansion, but continues to cast about looking for some reason to exist now that its only real reason for being, the Soviet Union, has been dead for almost three decades. That first took the form of “humanitarian” intervention in Kosovo, an illegal war that set a precedent that Russia would subsequently exploit, and then it morphed into supporting the unending war in Afghanistan. In 2011, “humanitarian” intervention was once again back on the menu as the alliance was dragged into backing a U.S.-led attack on the Libyan government that destabilized the country and the surrounding region until today. The last twenty years have seen the continued growth of the alliance at the same time that the alliance has become increasingly divorced from its original purpose of defending Europe from attack. NATO’s expansion during that time has been a mistake, and so has NATO’s attempt to reinvent itself for a world where it is no longer needed.

There is no question that NATO expansion has antagonized Russia and strained U.S.-Russian relations for the last two decades. Not every round of NATO expansion has been equally provocative to Russia, but all of it has been unwelcome to them. Bringing in the Baltic states was a bad idea primarily because it overextended the alliance and because the U.S. was extending security guarantees to states that it could not actually defend. The alliance has been fortunate that it has never had to back up these commitments. The U.S. and NATO were able to “get away” with the earlier rounds because Russia was weakened enough during the 1990s that it wasn’t in a position to do anything about them. That doesn’t mean that NATO expansion up until that point was a good idea. All that it means is that it hasn’t blown up in our faces yet.

It was the subsequent attempts to push for bringing Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance that proved to be truly unacceptable to Russia, and it was the 2008 Bucharest meeting when the alliance promised both states that they would eventually become members that paved the way for the conflict between Russia and Georgia later that year. NATO expansion was not the cause of the current conflict in Ukraine, but it created the context for Russia’s reaction to the overthrow of Yanukovych and the establishment of a pro-Western government in Kiev. Had there been no NATO expansion after the end of the Cold War, or even if there had been no NATO expansion after 2004, it is unlikely that the August 2008 war and the current war in Ukraine would have ever happened. Sold as something that promotes European stability and peace, continued NATO expansion has in fact undermined both in the last decade and a half.

It’s true that Russia has not invaded any countries since they became NATO members, but many of the alliance’s new members don’t even share a border with Russia, so it would be surprising if Russia could have posed a serious military threat to most of them. Then again, Russia hasn’t invaded its other neighbors that have never contemplated joining the alliance. If Russia were really the aggressive “revisionist” power that Brands and other hawks make them out to be, surely they should have done some of their “revisionism” somewhere else along their extensive borders. The fact that Russia hasn’t done anything like that except in Georgia and Ukraine suggests that NATO expansion is at the very least an important factor in explaining their behavior.

What would have happened in eastern Europe in the absence of NATO expansion? We can’t know that for certain, but we can see how Russia handled relations with its other neighbors that weren’t considered as possible members of the alliance. Moscow has maintained close ties with the other former Soviet republics since the dissolution of the USSR, and it hasn’t had armed conflicts with any of the others in all that time. One reason for this is that the other states have no aspirations to join a hostile military alliance. Georgia and Ukraine have been recent flashpoints because Moscow views a pro-Western orientation in these countries as a threat, and it views that orientation as a threat in no small part because NATO’s borders have been been steadily moving eastwards. Russia is responsible for its own actions, but continued NATO expansion has been a provocation that would sooner or later cause Russia to react badly.