Commentary

NATO Isn’t a Social Club: Montenegro, Georgia, and Ukraine Don’t Belong

Members of NATO, the quintessential Cold War alliance, are meeting in Warsaw. They are dragging the U.S. back into its traditional role of guaranteeing the security of Europe, even though the continent is well able to defend itself. Worse, Georgia and Ukraine continue to lobby to join, which would make America less secure.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was a necessary part of Containment, preventing the Soviet Union, especially when ruled by Joseph Stalin, from dominating or conquering Western Europe. But the necessity for NATO, at least run as North America and The Others, ebbed once Europe recovered from World War II. Alas, later U.S. policymakers ignored President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s admonition against permanent troop deployments. Instead of taking over responsibility for their own defense, the Europeans remained dependent on America.

NATO lost its raison d’etre once the Warsaw Pact disbanded and Soviet Union collapsed. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there was no there there. Alliance officials debated a host of possible new duties, such as promoting student exchanges and battling the drug trade. NATO chose to engage in “out of area” activities, that is, wars of choice irrelevant to Europe’s defense (Balkans, Libya, Mideast, Afghanistan). Such conflicts have wasted lives and resources with no benefit to Europe and America.

Still, enabling ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and spawning chaos in Libya were better than returning to a quasi-Cold War with Russia. Vladimir Putin is a nasty character, but upon taking office he appeared to bear the West little animus. However, the allies did their best to change that. Absorbing former Warsaw Pact members and Soviet republics, expanding the alliance up to Russia’s borders, lawlessly dismembering historic Russian friend Serbia, backing Georgia in 2008 after it started the shooting, and supporting a street putsch against an elected Ukrainian president friendly to Moscow suggested to Russia that the U.S. and Europe were indifferent if not hostile to Russian security interests.

NATO is not, or at least should not be, a charity.

None of that justified the Putin government’s response, but Moscow’s ambitions have been limited despite Putin’s ruthlessness. He shows no interest in conquering the NATO countries which so fear him; rather, he unsettled them by treating non-members Georgia and Ukraine rather like NATO treated Russia’s Belgrade friends.

In Georgia Moscow backed separatist-minded territories whose estrangement predated Tbilisi’s independence, but he did not attempt to swallow the country. In Ukraine he focused his ill attention on heavily ethnic-Russian areas, with no effort to rule over non-Russian areas. He’s done nothing to the Baltic States: the fact that Moscow could overrun them doesn’t mean it has any rational reason to do so. Noted my Cato Institute colleague Emma Ashford, “Russia’s force posture simply doesn’t indicate that it has any intentions on the Baltics.” Putin is no Hitler or Stalin, just a garden variety thug.

Which makes Europe’s behavior all the more pitiful. For decades the allies have been cutting military outlays. Even in the midst of caterwauling about the Russian threat, collective defense spending by NATO’s European members continued to fall, including last year, when they devoted an anemic 1.45 percent of GDP to the military. If all goes to plan, a big if, the latter will climb to …1.46 percent this year. Yet they claim to fear death and destruction from the east.

The Europeans enjoy around eight times the total GDP, devote more than three times as much to military spending, and have about three times the population of Russia. Yet they are running scared, demanding that America, with a smaller economy and population, defend them. The Kremlin probably resounds with laughter over how its smallest maneuver sets off renewed European pleading for bases, deployments, and reassurances from Washington.

Many of today’s difficulties stem from NATO expansion, which treated the alliance like an international social club, bringing in countries of little strategic interest and no military value to America. They also are the nations which today most fervently demand an increased U.S. military commitment. Of course, the alliance was happy to find another new role, spreading Western values. But the European Union, not NATO, was the appropriate vehicle for incorporating the newly liberated Europeans in the West. It’s impossible to reverse the past, but Washington could at least stop adding members.

For instance, Montenegro has been invited to join. With a military of precisely 2080 personnel, Podgorica resembles the Duchy of Grand Fenwick in the book The Mouse That Roared. The best that can be said of Montenegro is that it is irrelevant to most everything geopolitically. It neither threatens nor is threatened by anyone. It simply is an international nullity. Which means it is silly to include it in what purports to be a serious military organization, where it will have a say on whether the U.S. and Europe go to war.

At least Montenegro is harmless, and its participation merely a waste of money (likely to be provided in part by America). But Beke Kiria of Georgia’s Ministry of Defense recently asked, if Podgorica, why not Tbilisi? After all, Montenegro “is a highly corrupt country with weak rule of law, poor governance, increasing pressure on the media and lower support for NATO membership among its population.” (Uh, exactly why is Montenegro being invited to join?)

Fans of Ukrainian membership reach well beyond Kiev. For instance, Luke Coffey of the Heritage Foundation and Daniel Kochis of the Davis Institute acknowledged that Kiev’s road to NATO remains long, but called on the alliance to “deepen its partnership with Ukraine” and keep the door open “for potential future Ukrainian membership.”

Bringing in Montenegro is merely foolish and wasteful. Including Georgia and Ukraine would be reckless and dangerous. In fact, doing so would stand the purpose of the military alliance on its head. Rather than make America safer, adding these states would greatly increase the risk of confrontation with a nuclear-armed power over minimal stakes.

NATO is not, or at least should not be, a charity. That is, Washington should extend defense guarantees in order to better defend America, not other nations. However, U.S. security has never depended upon the territorial integrity and independence of Montenegro or Georgia and Ukraine. Washington should seek good relations with all three and Americans should wish them well, but in military terms they don’t matter much to the U.S. Their status certainly is not worth war with Russia.

They undoubtedly disagree. Indeed, their partisans believe that anyone who doesn’t view them as vital, indeed, the most vital, interest of America is a Putin tool. How could anyone of even minimal intelligence not realize that if Podgorica, Tbilisi, or Kiev was occupied Western civilization itself would be at risk? Of course, lots of other countries have similarly devoted advocates in the U.S. who routinely distort policymaking by creating precisely the sort of “inveterate antipathies,” “passionate attachments” and “permanent alliances” that George Washington warned against.

Georgia and Russia are not merely irrelevant to U.S. security, like Montenegro. Absent a dramatic change in geopolitics, it is hard to imagine anything Podgorica could do that would affect America in any significant way. In contrast, adding Georgia and Ukraine to NATO would bring their conflicts with Russia into the alliance as well.

Of course, NATO’s security guarantee is supposed to deter Moscow. However, deterrence often has failed in Europe—in both World Wars I and II the respective alliances acted more as transmission belts of rather than firebreaks to conflict. Russia’s interest in securing its borders approaches vital while America’s and Europe’s interest in protecting Georgia’s and Ukraine’ borders nears minor. Thus, in any crisis Moscow would spend and risk far more than the allies. If deterrence failed, which NATO members would support war far from home and be prepared to escalate to nuclear weapons in order to safeguard … Georgia and Ukraine? Which leaders would want to explain that decision to their peoples?

The only rational choice is to say no new members in NATO. And especially no new members with ongoing conflicts to spread. But that should merely be the starting point at the meeting in Warsaw for a spirited debate about the alliance’s future.

U.S. officials should ask: why, seven decades after the end of World War II, is Europe still helplessly dependent on America? With the U.S. busy all over the world, isn’t it time for the Europeans to finally take over responsibility for their own security? Then Washington should announce that starting today it planned to begin making the latter a reality.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.