Understanding—and Misunderstanding—NATO’s Role in the Ukraine Crisis

Was NATO's open door policy a mistake?

When the process of enlarging the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began in the mid-1990s there was considerable discussion at the elite level in Washington, D.C. However, the American public was not broadly engaged and the process was framed before the U.S. Senate as a benign spreading of democracy and stability building. Hard discussions of security guarantees, costs, and potential risks were not generally aired or were downplayed by advocates. Yet recently, Secretary of State John Kerry said that, in the context of the Russia-Ukraine crisis: “NATO territory is inviolable. We will defend every piece of it.” Interestingly, that is a greater commitment than even the NATO treaty makes—as it obliges allies to consider an attack on one as if it were an attack on all, and to consult on appropriate responses with “such actions as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” Consequently, Americans might reasonably be wondering just how all this came about.

Today, early opponents of NATO enlargement understandably claim vindication as they have long predicted an eventual backlash from Russia. Supporters of NATO enlargement also feel vindicated, because they have long seen the process as an idealist vision of a new Europe—at least for those countries that joined the alliance. Some advocates even argue that Russia should understand its interests as having benefited from the policy.