The bitter conflict in Ukraine drags on. Russia appears to have decided against trying to conquer its neighbor. However, Moscow continues to destabilize Kiev by supporting Russian separatists. NATO remains divided on how to respond.
Most Europeans have little stomach for confronting Russia. Economic ties with Moscow are profitable, there is no treaty obligation to Ukraine, and no alliance member desires war. So Washington has taken the lead against Moscow even though America has little at stake in Russia’s misbehavior.
In fact, the crisis has generated a spate of U.S. proposals for military action. Some analysts and politicians advocate direct support for Ukraine and other potentially embattled states. Also popular are proposals to expand NATO.
For instance, ever belligerent Sen. John McCain urged adding Ukraine to the “transatlantic” alliance. Former UN ambassador John Bolton suggested putting “both Georgia and Ukraine on a clear path to NATO membership.” Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates similarly called for making NATO association agreements with Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Other proposed candidates for the alliance include Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Finland, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Sweden.
Efforts to expand NATO are strikingly misguided. Traditional military alliances were created to advance a nation’s security. They were not intended to act as clubs for international business, associations for shared values, or tools for political integration. Military alliances were supposed to prevent and win wars. During the Cold War the U.S. established the alliance to protect the war-ravaged European states from America’s hegemonic adversary, the Soviet Union, and its satellite-allies.
The end of the Cold War eliminated the reason for creating NATO. America’s dangerous global enemy had disappeared while Washington’s prosperous and populous allies had recovered economically and developed internationally. The U.S. no longer needed to protect Europe.
However, alliance advocates acted like nothing had changed and proposed new justifications for the old organization, such as promoting student exchanges, fighting the drug trade, and encouraging environmental protection. None of these dubious suggestions won much support, however, so member governments turned NATO into a mechanism to integrate Central and Eastern European states. This task should have been left to the European Union, but Washington wanted to “lead” even when America was not directly concerned. The alliance expanded up to the borders of Russia, the shrunken successor state to the Soviet Union.
Efforts to expand NATO are strikingly misguided.
Included as new members were countries in the Baltic region, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans, areas that never had been and almost certainly never will be important for U.S. security. Prior to the collapse of the U.S.S.R. no one would have imagined America offering security guarantees to nations which did not matter for America’s defense.
In fact, alliance officials acted as if the organization was an international gentleman’s club. Expansion advocates downplayed the fact that the U.S. would be putting its full military faith and credit on the line. No one explained why America, finding peace within its grasp after decades of dangerous Cold War uncertainties, should toss away the fruits of victory by adding anew to its military responsibilities.
NATO turned into a dole for indolent rich countries. Wealthy European nations could have become partners with America in promoting global security; instead, they became U.S. welfare clients. After Moscow’s collapse the Europeans steadily reduced their military outlays. Even the newer members closest to Russia put little effort into augmenting their armed forces. Today the continent’s biggest military players, France and Great Britain, also are cutting back. When intervening against military pipsqueak Libya European governments ran out of missiles and had to beg Washington for resupply
None of this might seem to matter when NATO is bombing nations with little ability fight back, such as Serbia and Libya. However, the Ukraine crisis reminded everyone that the alliance might be called upon to fulfill its responsibilities against Russia, with a recovering conventional capability and significant nuclear force. Several of the newest members now are screaming for America to “reassure” them by establishing bases and deploying troops.
This ludicrous situation demonstrates the folly of NATO expansion. How did promising to go to war with Russia over Estonia and Latvia make Americans safer? How would moving America’s overstretched armed forces to countries such as Lithuania and Poland make the U.S. more secure?
Today all these countries are members of the alliance, the result of a foolish decision that cannot be easily undone. This mistake should not be compounded by bringing in additional members with even less strategic value—at the very moment that there is talk of augmenting U.S. forces in Asia, confronting China over its aggressive territorial claims, returning to Iraq to fight Islamic extremists, ousting the Syrian regime, remaining in Afghanistan to protect the embattled government, and bombing a recalcitrant Iran.
The list of potential members suggests strategic madness in Washington. For instance, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro are tiny states in the Balkans. They never have mattered and never will matter for U.S. security. A willingness to provide handfuls of soldiers for America’s wars of choice—Macedonians manned the gate at Camp Eggers in Kabul when I visited a couple years ago—does not justify guaranteeing their defense against Russia, which, in fact, has never threatened them.
Kosovo is even worse. This disputed state is the product of NATO’s first aggressive war, the 1989 campaign to dismember Serbia, which had neither attacked nor threatened a member of the alliance. On the West’s watch the newly victorious ethnic Albanian guerrillas proceeded to ethnically cleanse a couple hundred thousand Serbs, Roma, Jews, and non-Albanian Muslims and set up what even some Europeans characterized as a gangster state. Tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs remain trapped in Kosovo, denied the right to self-determination granted Kosovars, Slovenes, Macedonians, Croats, Montenegrins, and Bosnians. Defending Pristina never has been and never will be a good use of U.S. troops.
Finland and Sweden are perfectly pleasant nations which followed independent, neutralist policies during the Cold War and face no significant threats today. Their security policy succeeded during the depths of the Cold War. Why should America attempt to fix what ain’t broken by taking on their defense? Isn’t there at least one nation Washington need not protect?
Armenia, a former republic in the Soviet Union, is the most distant country now proposed for NATO membership. It’s impossible to concoct even a vaguely plausible argument that this nation, locked in a bitter territorial dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan, has the slightest relevance to the security of America or any other member of the alliance. Moscow hasn’t been threatening to invade and if it did it isn’t obvious how America—since no one seriously believes that German, Italian, Dutch, or Latvian troops would jet off to the Caucasus in the event of a crisis—would actually defend Armenia. Drop in the 82nd Airborne? Bomb St. Petersburg? Threaten nuclear Armageddon?
Then there are Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine. They are the worst of the potential new members. Attempting to defend them would dramatically degrade U.S. defense since all three have territorial disputes with nuclear-armed Russia that have triggered or could trigger war.
Moldova is a small nation nestled between Romania and Ukraine. A piece of Moldova, Transnistria, broke away with Moscow’s support. Chisinau is in difficult circumstances, but not one warranting American military involvement. The U.S. simply has nothing at stake in this ongoing confrontation involving Moscow.
Georgia long has wanted to join NATO. And no wonder. After escaping the Soviet Union the Georgian people suffered from political instability and international irrationality. Georgia’s independence triggered another round of secession, of Abkhazia and South Ossetia backed by Russia. Tbilisi sacrificed the lives of its soldiers in America’s Afghan and Iraqi misadventures hoping that providing cannon fodder for Washington would convince U.S. politicians to risk the lives of American military personnel in any Georgian war against Russia.
The Bush administration, with notoriously bad judgment, was willing to do so, and therefore advocated admission of Tbilisi to NATO. However, the Europeans were not so foolish and blocked the move. For which we can all be thankful. Tbilisi’s volatile president, Mikhail Saakashvili, foolishly started the 2008 Russo-Georgian war by bombarding Russian military forces located in South Ossetia, apparently in the expectation of U.S. military support. That was a step too far even for the myopic Bush administration.
Georgia illustrated how alliances risk passing decisions for war and peace to small, unstable client states. Whatever America’s modest economic and energy interests in the region, none warrant confronting Russia on its border, a region treated as a vital interest by Moscow. Certainly nothing justifies backing a state which recklessly provoked Moscow to arms and attempted to drag Washington into war.
The only less appropriate NATO member would be Ukraine. Until recently, at least, most Ukrainians thought the same. While inclined toward the West economically, Ukrainians saw no reason to treat as a military enemy Russia, with which cultural, economic, and historical ties remained strong. While Ukraine’s status is largely of theoretical interest to America and economic value to Europe, Russia views its connection to the former Soviet republic to be of critical security importance.
With Kiev consumed by internal conflict aided and abetted by Moscow, bringing the former into the transatlantic alliance would create a dangerous game of military chicken with nuclear-armed Russia. Since Moscow’s interests are far greater, Russia is unlikely to back down whether under Vladimir Putin or a future president. After preserving the peace with the Soviet Union throughout the entire Cold War, Washington should not risk conflict with Russia today over far lesser stakes.
Allies are good for America if they advance U.S. security. All of the countries proposed for NATO membership today would be defense liabilities. The organization’s raison d’etre was to block Soviet domination of Eurasia. That possibility no longer exists. Washington should turn Europe’s security back to Europe. There’s no reason for Americans to threaten war over such tiny irrelevancies as Montenegro and Kosovo, distant obscurities as Armenia, and conflict magnets as Georgia and Ukraine.
The ongoing strife in Ukraine is a crime by Moscow and tragedy for Kiev. It’s also a warning for America. NATO is a military alliance, not a social club. Sometimes countries are called to make good their promises to go to war. Governments shouldn’t make security guarantees if they aren’t prepared to back up their word.
Expanding NATO would make the U.S. less safe. Instead, America should be shrinking its alliance commitments.