The NATO Alliance: Dangerous Anachronism

The impact of the Russia-Georgia war continues to reverberate. Gen. James Craddock, NATO’s Supreme Commander, has requested authority to develop contingency plans to defend the Eastern European countries. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski recently told an American audience that "We need to make NATO’s traditional security guarantees credible again" and that "NATO needs to recover its role, not just as an alliance but as a military organization." Kim Holmes of the Heritage Foundation advocates doing "more military contingency planning and military exercises with not only Poland, but the Baltic states." Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman recently proclaimed the importance of "reinvigorating NATO as a military alliance," with "contingency planning for the defense of all member states against conventional and unconventional attack."

Until recently, NATO was treated like a social club, with invitations extended pro forma to anyone within geographic reach that exhibited proper manners. But the conflict in the Caucasus brought home to NATO’s 26 members the unpleasant prospect of war with Russia. Moscow is truculent and the Europeans are nervous, yet US officials are pushing to bring both Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. This step would directly bring conflict and war into the alliance.

Why is the US still in NATO?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating Western Europe. Europe had been devastated by World War II. The USSR emerged from that conflict as the most powerful continental state. Having fought to prevent Nazi Germany from dominating Eurasia, the US understandably sought to prevent the Soviet Union from achieving the same result.

This was an important but limited objective. Washington made no effort to liberate Eastern or even Central Europe from Soviet control. The US government commemorated the subjugation of the Baltic States, but made no pretense that their captivity threatened American security. And no one shed any tears over the status of the more distant Soviet "republics" which had been part of imperial Russia. NATO was for self-protection, nothing more.

Even so, the alliance barely fulfilled that role. NATO always was America and the others. The US spent far more money on the military, devoted a much larger percentage of its GDP to defense, and treated Moscow as a far more serious threat. The Europeans, in contrast, often promised to hike military outlays but rarely delivered on their pledges. They accepted Washington’s aid but ignored Washington’s priorities – building a natural gas pipeline to the Soviet Union, supporting Nicaragua’s Marxist government, and more.

During the early years of the Cold War, the US may have believed it had no choice but to protect the Europeans, however feckless they might be. But once the Western European states had recovered from World War II, America could and should have reduced its military role and troop levels. The Europeans conceivably could have chosen not to defend themselves, but the prospect of military catastrophe has a way of concentrating the mind.

The point is not that there should have been no continuing alliance. Rather, it should have become the European Treaty Organization, not remained the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Then Europe could have decided how to defend itself without hectoring from Washington.

The end of the USSR and Warsaw Pact destroyed any rationale for the US to continue defending Europe. The great hegemonic enemy and its ideological satellites were all gone. The threat, never very strong, of a single power dominating both Asia and Europe had disappeared. To ease Soviet concerns over the reunification of Germany, Washington even agreed not to expand NATO up to Russia’s borders.

But then the West seemed to stop looking at NATO as a military organization. Alliance advocates argued that NATO could promote student exchanges, encourage environmental protection, and combat the drug war – odd tasks for the quintessential military organization. More seriously, the Europeans, at least, saw NATO as a means to help draw the former Soviet satellites into the Western orbit. And the Clinton administration saw NATO expansion as a way to win the votes of ethnic Americans who were promoting their home countries. So the alliance expanded through Central Europe into Eastern Europe, ending up 60 miles from St. Petersburg. NATO now is looking to the Balkans, Ukraine, and Caucasus for new members.

The alliance has invited Albania and Croatia to begin membership talks. Macedonia is next on the list, pending resolution of an esoteric dispute over its name with Greece. Washington is pushing Georgia and Ukraine as members; the Europeans have delayed any decision, while officially professing their support in principle. Bosnia and Montenegro are more likely to be next, with Serbia – involved in a contentious dispute with the US and much of the EU over the status of Kosovo – lagging behind. Other countries with NATO "Individual Partnership Action Plans," which offer a possible prelude to membership, include Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova.

While the original NATO was seen as bolstering US security, the new, expanded version, with nearly twice as many countries as the early alliance, hampers US security. Most of the new members have brought along bilateral border disputes and historical antagonisms with Russia and each other. None had robust militaries; none had any intention of creating robust militaries. Rather, all wanted to be defended on the cheap by someone else, namely America.

Washington seemed pleased to have more client states to order about, but it found the limits of gratitude when it came to winning troops for Iraq and Poland’s and the Czech Republic’s agreement to host missile defense systems. The few score soldiers sent to Iraq by Albania and Estonia, for instance, demonstrated how little the newest members had to offer militarily. Hungary’s donation of a contingent of truck drivers without trucks illustrated that even a former Warsaw Pact member once invaded by the Soviet Union could not be bothered to develop serious military capabilities. Poland demanded that US officials promise an extra helping of bilateral defense guarantees on top of NATO’s Article 5 before they would participate in Washington’s proposed missile defense system.

Moreover, what conceivable interest is served by incorporating Croatia or Albania or Macedonia or Serbia into NATO? The allied social club has degenerated into social work. It’s not clear against whom these countries need to be defended. It’s even less clear why America should do the defending. A quick glance at any map demonstrates that Europe should be more concerned about the Balkans, assuming anyone outside of the Balkans should be concerned about the Balkans.

Finally, there are Georgia and Ukraine. The US has continued its seeming efforts to encircle Russia by advocating that both be brought into NATO, but here, at least, the Europeans finally remembered that the alliance had something to do with war and said no at the April alliance summit. What is the purpose of bringing either into the "North Atlantic" Treaty Organization? How would doing so advance US or European security?

It obviously wouldn’t.

Indeed, no one who advocates expanding NATO to the Caucasus has made the slightest pretense that doing so adds military value to the alliance. Some US officials appear to be focused on personal pique. For instance, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says that "We will not permit Russia to veto the future of NATO, neither the countries offered membership nor their decision to accept it." She added: "The United States and Europe strongly support the independence and the territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbors," without explaining what justifies making that support military in nature.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer recently argued that the purpose of NATO enlargement is "to help create a stable, undivided Europe" and that "Georgia has a rightful place in this Europe." Actually, that sounds more like the purpose of the European Union. You don’t need a military alliance, originally intended to protect its members from a country which has dissolved, to make countries feel good about themselves and where they are located.

Rather more melodramatic were Senators Graham and Lieberman, who wrote: the conflict in the Caucasus "is a struggle about whether a new dividing line is drawn across Europe: between nations that are free to determine their own destinies, and nations that are consigned to the Kremlin’s autocratic orbit." Even if this is an end worth war, Europe rather than America should be the potential combatant.

In fact, Georgia and Ukraine – meaning President Viktor Yushchenko and only about a fifth of the Ukrainian people – want into NATO because they want the US to defend them, not because they want to have warm and fuzzy feelings about their metaphorical geographical location. No surprise there. But Washington’s positive response is the surprise, since Kiev would do nothing to defend the US or the other allies. Expansion adds large obligations but only minimal capabilities to NATO. True, both countries contributed small contingents to Iraq. However, that action was a political rather than a military gesture, and was inadequate payment for a willingness to confront a nuclear-armed power over esoteric border disputes, such as the status of the Crimea and Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Why are Washington policymakers willing to make such potential conflicts America’s own? NATO advocates appear to view the alliance as a talisman to be waved at friend and enemy alike, to magically cement American dominance in regions of little concern far from home. Never mind that Moscow has historic interests in the Balkans, is a long-time friend of Serbia, has a legitimate historic claim to the Crimea, has traditional ties to Abkhazia and South Ossetia – which have spent centuries struggling against Georgian domination – and just demonstrated its willingness to go to war to sustain what it perceives to be important security interests. The ritualistic incantation of NATO is expected to cause Russia to turn tail.

Both Senators Barack Obama and John McCain advocate bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance, but neither candidate has offered any evidence that expanding NATO would reduce the chance of a confrontation with Russia, and especially that either country is worth fighting for. These two presidential wannabes just assume away all complications. Particularly striking is the naiveté of Sen. John McCain, who justifies risking war for Tbilisi based on his friendship with Georgian President Mikheil "Misha" Saakashvili, a demagogic authoritarian nationalist who triggered the August war by launching an attack on South Ossetia.

But McCain doesn’t stop there. In the first presidential debate he declared: "watch Ukraine, and let’s make sure that we – that the Ukrainians understand that we are their friend and ally." Apparently McCain’s definition of an ally is a politically unstable country of no conceivable security interest to America bordering an increasingly assertive nuclear-armed Russia. Now that’s a mature, levelheaded strategy.

Other justifications for expanding NATO are even more frivolous. Gary Schmitt and Mauro De Lorenzo of the American Enterprise Institute argued that at stake in Georgia’s membership application "are international law, energy security, NATO’s future, and American credibility when it comes to supporting new democracies." The specter of neoconservatives worrying about international law offers genuine comic relief. Energy deposits in the Caspian Basin are but a tiny share of the world’s reserves and access is not likely to be impaired irrespective of Tbilisi’s geopolitical orientation. NATO is irrelevant to America’s future. And US credibility in promoting democracy already has been wrecked by the catastrophe in Iraq, decades of blundering in Pakistan, a century worth of ineffective intervention in Haiti, continued support for autocracies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and much, much more.

The Heritage Foundation’s Holmes appears to want to go to war in order to make and keep friends. He calls for becoming "more imaginative in cultivating special friends, finding new ones and integrating these new relationships into a new global strategy." Which apparently means offering to defend them from a nuclear-armed power, because, well, we like having friends all over the world, irrespective of who they are, what they represent, and whether they can aid American security. He suggests that the US "may need to give special security guarantees to Poland and the Baltic and other NATO states in the region," as well as to Georgia "if Russia succeeds in blocking its membership in NATO." He doesn’t explain why, other than claiming that "We need a new global network of special relationships." Well, yes, let’s just offer to defend every country every where. That should gain America lots of new, really special friends.

Perhaps most melodramatic is Jeffrey T. Kuhner, a columnist for the Washington Times. He calls Ukraine "the strategic bulwark against Russian expansionism – the eastern ramparts of Western civilization." Moreover, "The battle over Ukraine is more than a regional test of wills. It is a clash over the future of Europe."

Even if such hysterical claims were true, the battle should be fought by Europe rather than America. After all, the European Union countries have a combined GDP about 12 times that of Russia’s, and spend about eight times as much on the military. Let Europe defend Europe.

But there is no evidence that Moscow has designs on Eastern Europe, let alone Central or Western Europe. The Europeans certainly don’t seem to be worried; on Wednesday the EU summit debated restarting talks with Moscow over a partnership treaty, with Germany and Italy in the lead pressing for a renewed dialogue. Russia has returned to Great Power mode, which means it is interested in securing border security and contesting disputed territory. For instance, Crimea was part of Russia until it was taken from Russia and given to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev, the Ukrainian-born General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. The transaction then was meaningless, and does not settle which nation should control the territory, with a majority Russian population.

In fact, there is no right answer to the Crimea, or South Ossetia, or Abkhazia, just like there was no right answer to Kosovo. Even if there was, America has no reason to be involved. The 27 members of the European Union have a larger population and GDP than America and are well capable of asserting their own interests. Since they can rely on Washington, they spend only about half as much on the military as does the US, and have created forces with just a fraction of the combat capabilities of America’s military. Moreover, they are talking about cutting outlays in the midst of the ongoing economic crisis. However, if they could no longer free ride on the US, they would have to honestly assess the risk of Russian aggression and take whatever steps they deemed necessary to prevent such a possibility. And they could decide whether Georgia, Ukraine, or any other country truly was a "bulwark against Russian expansionism."

Sen. John McCain has inadvertently offered America the basis for a new foreign policy: "country first." Unfortunately, Sen. McCain believes that putting the US first requires promiscuous economic intervention at home and endless military intervention abroad. But as normal people understand the phrase, it means risking American lives, treasure, and freedoms only to defend this nation, not to attempt to micromanage the globe.

"Country first" should apply to America’s commitments around the globe – protecting Europe and beyond from Russia, defending Japan and South Korea, nation-building in Iraq and Kosovo, and meddling most everywhere else. Let NATO come up with contingency plans for war with Russia, to strengthen its military credibility, and whatever else it would like. But leave NATO to the Europeans and pull America’s forces out of Europe. After decades of wasting American lives and treasure promoting the interests of other nations, it truly is time to put "country first."