More Friends, More War

Expanding NATO doesn’t improve American security. It antagonizes Russia and could lead to war.

NATO expansion is simply a bad idea. Alliances and security guarantees once were viewed as the most serious commitments a nation could make. As the world's dominant power, Great Britain long eschewed making military guarantees to any country. Throughout its early history the United States, too, studiously avoided permanent military attachments. Even during World War I Washington fought as an "associated power," rather than a formal member of the allied Entente.

Today, however, Washington hands out security guarantees the way hotels provide chocolates: one on every pillow, with an extra candy for anyone who asks. The commitments are viewed as costless. Indeed, the common assumption is that alliance guarantees automatically prevent war, and thus never need be implemented. It's a wonder that alliance advocates have not suggested that the United States promise to defend every nation against attack by every other nation, since, given the prevailing theory, doing so should inaugurate an era of perpetual peace.

NATO expansion is promoted with the greatest enthusiasm. It also is one of the most critical disputes between America and Russia. Moscow held war games in the Caucasus shortly after NATO's military exercises in Georgia. During President Barack Obama's summit visit to Moscow the two governments reached agreement over reductions in nuclear armaments, not Georgia's entry into NATO.

The argument for incorporating Tbilisi into the alliance reflects fear of Russian domination of the region, yet it is striking how ineffective Moscow has been in intimidating members of the "near abroad." If anything, the war with Georgia appears to have reduced Russia's clout. Observes Ellen Barry in the New York Times: "Rather than being cowed into obedience, as most Western observers feared, the former republics seem to have grown even more protective of their sovereignty."

In any case, expanding NATO into the Caucasus is no solution. Washington has nothing to gain from antagonizing Russia and much to lose. Moscow has agreed to open its airspace for the United States to supply the latter's forces in Afghanistan. America is seeking Russian cooperation against Iran and North Korea. Arms control and energy supplies also are on the agenda. Most important, the United States wants to forge a stable relationship with the world's second biggest nuclear power to reduce the potential for war. Further expanding NATO would make all of these objectives harder to achieve.

The North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, now more than sixty years old, was created with a specific purpose: to protect Western Europe from Soviet aggression. Although it played a political role, its core mission was military. Having just fought Nazi Germany to liberate Europe, the United States was not prepared to accept Soviet domination of the continent.

NATO's mission disappeared two decades ago when the Berlin wall fell, the Warsaw Pact dissolved and the Soviet Union collapsed. For a time policy makers actually questioned the alliance's future. What, pray tell, would the anti-Soviet alliance do without a Soviet Union?

But NATO quickly found new tasks. First, it became a parallel European Union, serving as an organization to unite the old Soviet empire with "old" Europe. Second, it became a tool to conduct "out of area" military actions.

Neither role makes much sense from America's standpoint. The EU always was far better equipped to promote the development of democratic capitalism in the former communist countries. "Out of area" operations in Europe, such as Kosovo, served European rather than American interests. Moreover, most alliance members have proved unwilling to provide meaningful backing for U.S. operations elsewhere, such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

In short, whatever the continuing value of NATO for Europe, it has ceased to serve a serious security role for the United States.

Yet rather than reduce America's continental military commitments, Washington has been promising to go to war for ever more countries. Albania and Croatia have just joined NATO-Americans are now on the hook to defend these two from threats unknown. So, too, with the Baltic nations, formerly part of both the Soviet Union and imperial Russia. The Bush administration vigorously pushed NATO to move even further east, advocating the addition of Georgia and Ukraine. How are Georgia and Ukraine related to American security? Not at all. There's an obvious reason to wish them well as independent states. Neither lives up to the images cultivated in the West; moreover, evidence abounds that Tbilisi shares the blame for the war last August. But even if these two countries were paragons of democratic virtue, Washington should not threaten to go to war on their behalf.

Don't worry, say NATO expansion advocates. The United States would never have to make good on its promises. After all, Russia would never dare challenge America.

More specifically, if only in April 2008 NATO had moved Tbilisi closer to membership, Russia would never have risked going to war. Sally McNamara of the Heritage Foundation writes: "Although it is completely un-testable, it is worth pondering whether Russia would've invaded Georgia if Germany and France hadn't colluded with Moscow to deny Georgia NATO's Membership Action Plan at the Bucharest Summit in April 2008."

Even more so, if NATO invited Georgia to join, runs the argument, Moscow would never consider challenging the alliance. Issue the Article V guarantee, and all opponents-in this case Russia-would shrink back in fear and horror. Faced with the threat of allied-in this case really meaning American-intervention, Moscow would never act against Georgia, irrespective of circumstance.

Neither argument withstands scrutiny.