First, NATO membership for Georgia was not feasible at the time that Moscow launched its military operations. Even if Washington had been able to overcome the opposition of France, Germany, and other key allies at the Bucharest summit earlier this year, the most Georgia would have received was a Membership Action Plan. Tbilisi would still have had to meet a host of requirements before gaining admission to the alliance — a process that would have taken at least four or five years, probably longer.
Second, even if someone had waved a magic wand at Bucharest and made Georgia a full‐fledged member, there is no guarantee that Russia would have been deterred. Hawks blithely assume that if NATO (in reality, the United States) gives an explicit security guarantee to an ally, no country will ever challenge that guarantee. Since Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty proclaims that an attack on one member is an attack on all, so the logic goes, Moscow would never dare molest even a small NATO country. That is a dangerously simplistic lesson drawn almost entirely from America’s success in deterring the Soviet Union during the cold war.
Despite the cold‐war experience, extended deterrence (protecting allies or client states) is hardly infallible. Indeed, history is littered with the wreckage of deterrence failures. Most Europeans in the early years of the 20th century assumed that the Continent’s elaborate system of alliances would make war unthinkable. The tragic events of 1914 demonstrated how wrong they were. A generation later, the explicit British and French security guarantees to Poland did not deter Germany from invading that country.
The United States is certainly more powerful militarily than Russia, but the balance of military power is not the only consideration. Another crucial factor is the importance of the issues at stake to the protector compared to their importance to the challenging power — what might be termed the balance of fervor. That factor worked in America’s favor in its confrontation with the Soviet Union. It does not do so today with respect to Russia.
America’s principal Cold War security guarantee was to Western Europe. The United States was prepared to put the safety — indeed the very existence — of its own country at risk. Policymakers considered that region crucial to America’s own security and economic well‐being, and they were determined to prevent the rival military superpower from gaining control. It was reasonably credible to the Kremlin that the United States would be willing to incur significant risks — even the possibility of a nuclear war — to thwart a Soviet conquest.
Conversely, while Western Europe would have been a worthwhile strategic and economic prize for the Soviet Union, it was not essential to Moscow. Nor did Soviet leaders or the Soviet population have an emotional attachment to the region. There was, therefore, a definite limit to the risks the Kremlin was willing to take to gain dominion.