Opposing war is a lonely task in Washington, D.C. Possessing the world’s largest and most powerful military encourages US administrations to use it. And use it they do – often.
This attitude was captured by Madeleine Albright, then America’s UN ambassador, when she accosted Gen. Colin Powell: "What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?" Casualties obviously don’t matter much to ivory tower warriors as long as someone else is doing the dying. (The amazing Albright was responsible for multiple idiotic aphorisms illustrating the defects of US foreign policy.)
The problem is not just the willingness of American policymakers to go to war for no good reason, which is why "endless wars" entered the political lexicon. It is officials’ willingness to risk war without thinking. Especially by expanding military alliances.
Security cooperation is an important means for nations to advance their security. However, such arrangements risk becoming transmission belts of conflict. World War I is the classic case. As Germany’s famed "Iron Chancellor" Otto von Bismarck warned, "One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans." An assassination in Sarajevo, Bosnia eventually sent Germany, Austria-Hungary, Serbia, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom careening off to war. They ultimately were joined by several other states, including America. In this case, alliances proved to be dangerous, undermining the very security they promised to protect.
The greatest allied mistake at the end of the Cold War was violating the promise to Moscow that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would not advance – expanding to just 100 miles from St. Petersburg, Russia. Of late NATO expansion has become a joke, an automatic exercise without security purpose: North Macedonia and Montenegro have been the most recent additions. Neither adds serious military capabilities; the latter has just 2,350 personnel under arms. Nevertheless, the alliance’s steady advance irritated Russia, the obvious target of the NATO’s ill attention.
Far worse, however, would be bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the transatlantic organization. Historically part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, their inclusion would dramatically extend the West’s military reach along the Russian Federation’s border. Although anyone who studies the alliance cannot imagine it invading Russia – many Europeans don’t want to defend themselves, or even deploy real militaries, let alone attack someone else – Moscow’s paranoia is understandable.
The country has been invaded by European powers multiple times. Its brutal foray westward in World War II was part of its campaign to defeat Nazi Germany after the latter’s June 1941 invasion. Russia was denigrated and humiliated in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse: Western officials lied about NATO expansion, steadily marched the alliance eastward, dismantled Serbia, a historic friend of Moscow, sought to deny Russia any role in the aftermath, and promoted revolutions against friendly governments in its neighbors. Moreover, the Yeltsin and Putin governments watched the US flaunt its power, bombing, invading, and occupying smaller nations at will without even the patina of international authority. Whether these policies could be otherwise justified matters less than their predictably negative impact on Russian attitudes.
Nevertheless, the Blob, as Obama official Ben Rhodes termed the Washington foreign policy establishment, refuses to acknowledge that its conduct might have contributed to Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Georgia and aggressive assault on Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea. US officials are pure as the driven snow, innocents forever trapped in a sinful land, Vestal Virgins seeking to purify a world suffused with immorality, decadence, and debauchery. As wondrous humanitarians determined to cleanse the world of evil, surely nothing they ever did or will do could contribute to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. To even make the argument is proof that one is a Russian toady, a Putin stalwart, an enemy of democracy, Europe, and all that is good and right in the world.
One result of this attitude is near-unanimous support to expand NATO to both Georgia and Ukraine. Every webinar presentation and op-ed mentioning Moscow that emanates from Washington seems to include the demand that these victims of Russian aggression be brought into the alliance. Of course, including them would also add their conflicts to NATO. The assumption is that Moscow then would have no choice but to abandon its aggressive policy and docilely accept its fate as a submissive factotum of Washington. However, Russia has made clear through word and deed that it views both countries as fundamental security concerns. Adding Georgia and Ukraine would be a prescription for another great conflict, only this one started by some damn foolish thing in Eastern Europe/Central Asia.
The standard justification for expanding the transatlantic alliance is that every nation has the right to make its own decisions and chart its own future. NATO groupies are particularly emphatic in insisting that membership is a choice for others to make and Moscow should not have a veto. Thus, if Georgia and Ukraine come knocking – actually, they have been doing so for more than a decade – the door should be opened.
Frankly, this is a nonsensical position that even most European powers reject. Of course, Tbilisi and Kiev are free to desire and request anything. They could even propose a Western-led war of liberation against Russia, with China included for extra fun. That would not, however, obligate America, however. Washington is under no obligation to act like a genie, freely granting other nations’ wishes.
Alliances are a means to an end, not an end itself. In this case, NATO is supposed to advance members’ security. Those who created the transatlantic alliance did not intend for it to become a defense dole for the benefit of others. If so, why stop with Georgia and Ukraine? Allow any country anywhere that feels threatened by anyone anywhere to join, expanding America’s and other members’ military obligations exponentially.
No nation has a right to join NATO. Any state has the right to apply for membership. But no one should be automatically admitted just for asking. It would not be a serious alliance if it allowed anyone to enter. Especially nations like Georgia and Ukraine.
Neither matters, or has ever mattered, to American security. Not during the Cold War, when both were considered "captive nations" of the communist regime headquartered in Moscow. And certainly not today.
The U.S., and even more so NATO members collectively, far outrange Russia. Georgia and Ukraine don’t matter to the military balance. Indeed, adding them as allies would be a significant net negative because America would become responsible for their conflicts with Russia. Providing the two with a security guarantee would also aggravate Moscow’s security concerns.
Thus, NATO would risk acting like the 1914 alliances which triggered global conflict. And no one should have any doubt which power would be called upon to confront Russia in any future fight. Not Portugal. Not Italy. Not Slovenia. Not Montenegro. Not Iceland. Not Lithuania. And not Germany, which perhaps best illustrates the problem with the alliance as constituted. The US would bear the burden of potentially nuclear war.
Of course, Americans should wish both countries well. (Ethnic Ukrainian-Americans have played a significant role in Kiev’s post-Soviet development; a number returned to serve in Ukraine’s government.) Russia’s behavior has been wrong. However, Western officials are deluding themselves if they believe they had nothing to do with creating today’s crisis. Rather like an ancient Greek tragedy, Western hubris is being punished.
It long has been said that the State Department needs an America desk to represent this nation’s interests. Although ostentatiously snide, this jibe has some truth: sometimes US diplomats seemed to conflate the perspectives of other nations with those of America, when in fact their respective interests often are very different.
Many members of the Blob suffer from the same affliction. Their reasoning seems to run: I like Ukraine. I don’t like Russia. Ukraine wants to be in NATO. Russia doesn’t want Ukraine in NATO. Therefore, NATO should admit Ukraine. That must be in America’s interest too.
Yet adding Georgia and Ukraine to the transatlantic alliance would turn these countries into dangerous tripwires to war. Already playing that role is Taiwan, which is protected by an ambiguous, possible, maybe, sort of security guarantee by the US While treaty guarantees deter, they also encourage those protected to behave irresponsibly and provocatively. Worse, alliances make war involving America far more likely if a crisis nevertheless develops. So would be with Georgia and Ukraine.
The War Party dominates Washington. The US has been the most militaristic and interventionist power since the end of the Cold War. The strength of institutional support for war is evident from the fact that the US remains in every conflict which candidate Donald Trump denounced in the 2016 campaign: his election changed nothing. To the contrary, his anemic efforts to withdraw were overwhelmed by widespread institutional support for endless wars. Similar is the political backing for endless alliances, which create endless risks.
President Joe Biden is an outspoken fan of such commitments. However, he at least should insist that defense pacts advance America’s security. Issuing military guarantees out of pity endangers America and Americans.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.