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NATO’s Pathway to Hell Was Paved With Good Intentions

by John Jefferson
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As NATO leaders descend upon Washington, D.C. for the 75th anniversary summit of the alliance, the question of Ukraine’s prospective membership amid a brutal war with Russia looms large. Supporters of Ukraine joining the alliance, such as the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, reportedly push for a commitment to the country’s “irreversible path” to the alliance. 

Not everybody is convinced, however: a group of sixty U.S. national security experts warned against Ukraine’s NATO membership in a letter spearheaded by Carnegie Endowment’s senior fellow Stephen Wertheim. The letter says that Ukraine’s inclusion would probably not deter future aggression from Russia. It would commit the U.S. and allies to fight Russia directly, which would reduce the security of the alliance members, the authors argue. 

The seeds of our current predicament were sowed in the late 1990s, when decisions were made on the first waves of NATO enlargement. At the time, I served as a mid-ranking diplomat in the Latvian embassy in Washington, D.C. and witnessed the policy debates surrounding the process first-hand.

The Clinton administration was the primary driver of the enlargement, supported by a large consensus within the Republican party of the day (albeit for different reasons). Yet that drive was not accompanied by a strategic clarity on the enlargement’s scope and purpose. Clinton’s officials tried to balance the NATO “open doors” policy—meaning expansion without clearly defined geographical limits—with engagement with Boris Yeltsin’s Russia. That effort was cloaked in the language of a “Europe whole and free”—NATO enlargement was treated as a means to consolidate democratic gains in the former Soviet satellite countries by anchoring them firmly in the West. 

At the same time, Clinton was aware of the dangers of alienating Russia, and offered inducements to make the NATO enlargement more palatable to Moscow, such as establishing the NATO–Russia Council.

Yet the candidate countries themselves, and particularly the Baltics, were always clear what the NATO expansion was all about: a protective shield against Moscow. They saw NATO for what it fundamentally was: not a club of democracies but a military alliance with the mutual defense clause enshrined in Article 5. Therefore, the Baltic lobbying activities were focused on overcoming the so-called “Russian veto”—the assumption that an inclusion of the Baltic states, as former Soviet republics, would be a step too far in provoking hostile reaction from Moscow.

The Baltics can hardly be blamed for their persistence—there opened a window of opportunity to join the West after the decades of Soviet depredations, with its promise of freedom and security. Even post-Soviet Russia was a chaotic, corrupt and often violent place that fought bloody wars against secessionists in its own North Caucasus, and didn’t inspire much confidence in a democratic, peaceful future. 

Yet, however justified and understandable the Baltic desire to join NATO, it imposed additional security commitments on the United States. Little thought was expended on how to ensure the defensibility of the Baltic states given their geographical proximity to Russia. That is because at the time no proponent of the NATO enlargement seriously considered the possibility that the newly incurred security obligations were actually ever going to be put to test. 

That is certainly not how Russians saw things. For them, NATO expansion meant an inexorable encroachment of a military alliance, led by their Cold War adversary, on their borders. They voiced their concerns. American officials at the time were baffled by Russian reactions as, they insisted, the U.S. harbored no hostile intentions. Whatever objections Moscow had, then, must have been irrational and down to lingering imperial mindset. 

Whatever role imperial nostalgia may have played, it is far more plausible that Moscow’s opposition to NATO enlargement, spread across the political spectrum, was primarily due to the fact that NATO was becoming the centerpiece of the post–Cold War security architecture in Europe. Not only Russia was not part of it, but the logic of NATO expansion explicitly treated Russia as a potential threat to be insured against. That is the reason why Moscow never perceived the NATO–Russia Council as anything more than a second-rate consolation prize rather than a truly meaningful platform for security dialogue. By abandoning George H.W. Bush’s cautious approach in dealing with Moscow and championing the expansion of NATO instead, the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations assumed security commitments towards more countries in Europe even though that fueled growing Russian resentment and hostility towards the U.S. and those countries.

There were at the time American experts who warned about risks inherent in such a course of action. The intellectual author of the Cold War–era containment policy against the Soviet Union George Kennan called the NATO expansion a fateful error. Susan Eisenhower, the granddaughter of President Dwight D.Eisenhower, assembled an impressive group of national security experts in 1997 to warn against an open-ended nature of NATO expansion and how it could call into question the viability of U.S. security guarantees. The CATO Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter was prophetic in saying that NATO expansion would lead to new dividing lines in Europe and “a set of dangerous security obligations for the United States”. 

Those warnings were dismissed in the over-confident, almost hubristic environment of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It is to be hoped that the current generation of Western leaders, as they gather in Washington, will be more judicious as they ponder on what credible security commitments in Europe they can undertake while paying more attention to the growing political tendencies towards foreign policy restraint in their own countries.   

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