Time to Rethink Collective Defense within NATO?

Recent challenges on the alliance's doorstep may have exposed a major problem...

In spring 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry said: “…together we have to make it absolutely clear to the Kremlin that NATO territory is inviolable. We will defend every single piece of it….Article V of the NATO treaty must mean something, and our allies on the frontline need and deserve no less.” And last week Graham Allison and Dimitri Simes asked whether the ongoing crisis with Russia could lead to war with the United States, observing that:  “…the United States has an unambiguous and undeniable responsibility to deter and defend attacks on the Baltic states.”

Would America go to war with Russia over the three small Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, risking escalation that could turn into a nuclear confrontation?            

Since the Ukraine crisis heated up late last winter, there has been considerable debate about what NATO should be doing to bolster collective defense of its new member states. The nature of this fear was explained by the Polish prime minister during the 2008 Russian war against Georgia. He said: “Poland and the Poles do not want to be in alliances in which assistance comes at some point later—it is no good when assistance comes to dead people.”  A number of specific dilemmas affirm the nature of this fear. Yet, tragically, the solution to the fears risks exacerbating the conflict with Russia and dividing NATO, thus lessening allied security.

First, there is the actual NATO treaty, which is rarely mentioned when assessments of what commitment among the allies in NATO have to each other are articulated. This is what the allies are committed to in terms of mutual defense:

“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

The allies who negotiated the NATO treaty were keenly aware of that the American Congress had powers under the Constitution that allowed it to prevent American participation in the League of Nations. They also understood the need for flexibility in a crisis. Dean Acheson described NATO’s collective defense role at the founding that the alliance as being a “pre-integration organization, aimed to produce general plans for uncoordinated and separate action in the hope that in the event of trouble, a plan and forces to meet it would exist and would be adopted by a sort of spontaneous combustion.” At the time when it faced the greatest threat, when the alliance was founded, NATO had no headquarters, no integrated defense structure, no Secretary General—but the political cohesion of the West signaled a strong political commitment to contain Soviet expansionism. The credibility of this commitment was, nevertheless, eventually manifested by several hundred thousand U.S. troops deployed in Europe and nuclear weapons. Even then, however, doubts persisted as to whether the United States would really risk its survival to defend its European allies in NATO.

Second, the NATO allies are obligated to take care of their individual national security concerns and their populations first and foremost. Consequently, the allies appear to have concluded the best way to secure the Baltics is to see the conflict in Ukraine de-escalate.  Political scientist John J. Mearsheimer summarizes the core issue in this regard by advising against arming Ukraine:  “Such a step is especially dangerous because Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons and is seeking to defend a vital strategic interest.” Likewise, Henry Kissinger cautions: “I’m uneasy about beginning a process of military engagement without knowing where it will lead us and what we’ll do to sustain it…I believe we should avoid taking incremental steps before we know how far we are willing to go…This is a territory 300 miles from Moscow, and therefore has special security implications.”