The Buzz

To Save NATO, Don't Enlarge It

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter embarked on a weeklong European tour on June 21 to reaffirm America’s commitment to the NATO alliance. The critical transatlantic security relationship currently faces strains from within and without, ranging from increased Russian military activity in Eastern Europe to intra-alliance disputes over burden sharing and debates over arming non-member Ukraine. Secretary Carter’s visit confirmed Washington’s support for its European treaty allies, including increasing support to the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and pre-positioning equipment in Eastern Europe. It also highlighted the need to revitalize NATO and adapt the organization to the present transatlantic security alliance.

In order to further cement this relationship, the United States must make a clear statement about the future of the alliance, and resist the temptation to overextend its legal obligations to the North Atlantic Treaty.

The Ukraine crisis revived significant criticism over NATO expansion in the 1990s and 2000s. Critics allege that NATO’s growth violated a promise made by President George H.W. Bush to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev not to expand NATO after the Cold War. This is a rumor that refuses to die. President Bush made no such commitment, but the myth has consistently reappeared since the 1990s, despite Gorbachev himself denouncing it. Russian officials are now giving this fabrication new life because it converges with their narrative of Western aggression in the ongoing Ukraine conflict.

Granting new NATO members like Poland and the Baltics states anything short of the same mutual defense commitment older allies enjoy would undermine European stability and damage the transatlantic relationship. This being said, reasonable people may debate the wisdom of NATO enlargement as a matter of history, and these discussions can inform future alliance policy.

NATO has limits, and officials must recognize these constraints. In particular, the United States and its allies should take a measured approach to post-Soviet states in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus that aspire to NATO membership. As the organization’s de facto leader, Washington must articulate that, in the present security environment, countries like Ukraine and Georgia should continue to participate in affiliate programs like the Partnership for Peace. However, the United States should be equally clear that while it supports international norms on territorial integrity and national sovereignty, full alliance membership for these countries is not currently conducive to regional stability. This message is critical to NATO’s long-term viability.

Such a statement will confirm what is already tacitly accepted in Western capitals. At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, France and Germany promised to veto membership for Georgia and Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that Tbilisi could not be an appropriate candidate for alliance membership so long as its territorial disputes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia persisted. In other words, Georgia would be a liability for the alliance. If Tbilisi were admitted and attacked, a non-response by the organization would undermine the North Atlantic Treaty in the same way failing to protect any other member would, even though Georgia is far less defensible than existing allies. Because NATO operates by consensus and requires unanimity for action, these concerns shaped organization-wide policy despite then-President George W. Bush’s support for NATO enlargement. In any case, the August 2008 Russo-Georgia War vindicated the position Paris and Berlin advanced at the Bucharest summit.

Georgia’s internal (and external) conflicts effectively eliminated that country’s potential for NATO entry. The ongoing insurgency in Eastern Ukraine similarly disqualifies Kiev, whose candidacy was already blocked in 2008. Accordingly, Washington should stress that limiting alliance participation for post-Soviet states (excluding the Baltics) to structures like the Partnership for Peace is consistent with existing (albeit unstated) NATO policy. The United States can deflect Kremlin paranoia over Western encroachment in its so-called “near abroad,” which Russia uses to justify military action in the former U.S.S.R. At the same time, the United States and its partners need not simply acknowledge Russian invasions and occupation of non-NATO member territory.