Playing with Fire

Now that war has broken out between Georgia and Russia, some are saying that granting NATO membership to Tbilisi would have averted the crisis. How wrong they are.

As war rages between Georgia and Russia, some NATO advocates argue that peace would reign had the Western alliance offered Georgia a Membership Action Plan last spring. Actually, Georgian and Russian perceptions of potential NATO support for Georgia almost certainly radicalized both sides, making war all but certain. In practice, alliances can be destabilizing as well as stabilizing.

When the cold war ended, many people understandably expected a radical rethinking of America's global security commitments. Without the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, there seemed little need for NATO, at least an American led and dominated NATO. Without a Soviet Union and Maoist China to back North Korea, there seemed little reason for America's promise to defend South Korea. With no red navy, from either the USSR or China, circling the Pacific, there seemed little cause for American forces on station to defend Japan.

However, instead of dismantling or even shrinking its cold-war alliance structure, the United States has expanded its defense commitments. Former Warsaw Pact and even Soviet republics have now been inducted into the "North Atlantic" Treaty Organization. The bilateral security guarantees to Japan and the Republic of Korea remain in place. Early in his term President George W. Bush made explicit-until reined in by his aides-America's promise to defend Taiwan. Iraq has joined Israel as a Middle Eastern country on the Pentagon's "to defend" list. The number of such nations is more likely to increase than contract under either President John McCain or President Barack Obama.

The common argument for expanding America's alliances all over the world, irrespective of America's actual security interests, is stability through deterrence. If Poland, Estonia, Georgia and other Eastern European states become members of NATO, the theory runs, Russia won't dare attack them. (Washington might claim that expanding the alliance has nothing to do with Moscow, but the Russians are not stupid. Nor are the countries seeking membership in what originated as the quintessential anti-Soviet alliance.)

The same claim is used for making formal such informal commitments as U.S. support for Taiwan. Tell China that the United States would intervene in any conflict and Beijing would have no choice but to back off.

Oddly, proponents of this strategy do not take it to its logical conclusion. If the argument is right, then America should ally with every nation. Offer a security guarantee to any country threatened or potentially threatened by another, thereby ensuring that the world's superpower will come to its defense. The result will be an era of world peace. The lion will lie down with the lamb. People will circle the globe holding hands and singing kumbaya.

Unfortunately, alliances can promote war as well as peace. Perhaps the best example is the pre-World War I lineup of the Entente versus the Central Powers. Competing alliances created for the purpose of ensuring security turned into transmission belts of war, transforming the assassination of Austria-Hungary's heir apparent into a global conflagration that killed upwards of 20 million people.

First, the military connections ensured that the dominant empires would go to war when the minor partners quarreled. Germany and Russia (and France and Great Britain, less directly) lost the flexibility to say no to war. Second, by offering military backing the German and Russian empires encouraged their allies to take irresponsible gambles, presuming that their bigger partners would bail them out of any resulting difficulties. The Russian Empire backed the terrorist state of Serbia to maintain the former's Balkans influence; the German Empire offered Austria-Hungary the famous "blank check" for use in confronting Russia. As a result, both empires unintentionally encouraged allied irresponsibility, world war, and their own destruction.

The expansion of NATO up to Russia's borders risks having a similar impact. The original NATO had a clear purpose: to protect Western Europe from Soviet aggression, which could result in a hostile power controlling much of the Eurasian land mass. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, that threat disappeared. There was no longer any necessity for an American security guarantee for the Western Europeans; there was no conceivable reason to expand American defense commitments up to Russia's border.

Doing so has proved to make the world more rather than less dangerous-at least for the United States. The former Eastern Europeans possess subpar militaries which do nothing to help defend America and which actually cost the United States money to train and equip. Manpower contributions to Afghanistan and Iraq range from a score or two of soldiers from countries like Albania and Estonia, to a few hundred from Poland, to two thousand from Georgia-more symbolic than real.

Worse, all these nations bring their bilateral and regional quarrels with them into NATO. And America's security guarantee only encourages irresponsibility. The previous government of Poland did its best to offend everyone, starting with NATO ally Germany. Estonia created a bitter quarrel with Russia by moving a World War II memorial. Georgia has sparked a war by misplaying a geopolitical game of chicken with Moscow over two insignificant territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The issue is not whether all these governments had the legal right to act as they did. The question is whether it was prudent for them to do so. Living next to the Russian bear might not be pleasant, but it is a reality for numerous countries. Common sense dictates dampening rather than inflaming conflict.