If the Bush administration gets its way, NATO will this time offer these nations Membership Action Plans, one of the last steps towards full membership that generally lasts one to two years. Although the interests of the United States — and its NATO allies — militate against expanding the alliance, both U.S. presidential candidates support the misguided position, meaning that it will very likely outlast the Bush administration.
To justify another round of NATO expansion, U.S. foreign policy analysts portray a Russia — fueled by energy wealth and Vladimir Putin — that has reinvigorated its economy, cast off pretenses of democracy and repaired its military. According to this scenario, Moscow is now poised to overrun its democratic neighbors and reclaim the Soviet empire, all the while gathering energy supplies to use to blackmail Western clients. Hitler and Stalin taught us that aggressors must be stopped early, so it follows that we must now contain Russia by extending security guarantees to its neighbors.
This narrative is devoid of strategic logic. Leaving aside nuclear weapons, which deterrence renders unusable, Russia is not a great power, and is incapable of threatening Western Europe, let alone the United States. Even fattened by oil revenues, which have fallen by roughly 40 percent since the war in Georgia, Russia still only has a GDP roughly equivalent to that of Italy and Portugal combined. Its stock market is down by more than half since August. Its defense spending totals about $70 billion annually (less than what the U.S. spends on defense research and investment alone), for what remains a second‐rate military. That might be enough to pummel weak neighbors like Georgia, but shouldn’t worry Europe, which spends roughly four times more. Balance of power theory tells us that if Russia grows more threatening, the European Union — now richer than the U.S. — will respond by investing more on defense than its current average of 2 percent of GDP, and by further integrating its military capacity.
No longer driven by a revolutionary ideology, Russia also lacks the Soviet Union’s ambitions. True, Russia does not like the democratic governments on its flanks in Ukraine and Georgia. But that is because these governments are pursuing policies that anger Russia, not because they are democratic per se. What Russia wants is pliant neighbors. That desire is typical of powerful states: The long U.S. history of violent interventions in Latin America undermines whatever lectures we might direct at Moscow.