This Is Why NATO Is Stumbling Towards a Crisis

Paratroopers from 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), U.S. Army Europe conduct joint training with Estonian army partners during Exercise Steadfast Jazz. Flickr/U.S. Army Europe

NATO’s current posture of retrenchment is a withdrawal from the Alliance’s founding raison d’etre.

NATO is slouching towards crisis. Beneath a facade of solidarity in the face of Russian revanchism, the Atlantic alliance is facing potentially its stiffest existential test since the end of the Cold War as questions emerge over the kind of organization it claims to be—versus what it does in practice. Controversy is nothing new to the twenty-eight-member club; the NATO mission in Afghanistan, for example, underscored sharp divisions between member states’ willingness and ability to participate in faraway stabilization missions. NATO today, however, is confronted with far more fundamental internal fissures that raise questions about the alliance’s long-term durability. In particular, two issues stand out: the yawning disconnect between NATO’s open door ethos and its increasingly protectionist mood, and the hotly contested matter of deterring Russia in Eastern Europe.

During a visit to Tbilisi on September 7, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg hailed Georgia’s domestic and security reforms in a meeting of the NATO-Georgia commission. In his remarks, Stoltenberg referred to Georgia’s integration package issued at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales—reiterated this past July in Warsaw—as a means to “support and accelerate the political decision of Georgia's accession to NATO.”

But despite the lofty rhetoric, there is little evidence that the pace or depth of reforms by Georgia—or Ukraine, or Moldova, or any other NATO aspirant unlucky enough to subsist in Russia’s so-called “near abroad”—is a reasonable barometer of its membership prospects.

For NATO aspirants, periodic statements of support from NATO brass and government officials of member states may play well for domestic political purposes, but they rarely offer an accurate sense of momentum. If anything, the increased risk perception posed by Russia to Europe and Eurasia have only further undermined and interrupted NATO Eastern expansion plans, such as they were.

As things stand, the notion that the main barrier to NATO membership for aspirants are well-crafted reforms is an oft-repeated falsehood.

In plainer terms, no amount of reform can overcome the reality that NATO membership depends on a unanimous political consensus between its twenty-eight members. Corralling twenty-eight variations in national interest, risk perception, and vision for the alliance is difficult during the best of times. Today, it appears virtually impossible with Russian armies bearing down on Europe’s doorstep.

With expansion on indefinite hold and NATO’s increased focus on territorial defense and retrenchment, the practical outcome is a Europe rent between the “haves,” blessed by geography, the NATO umbrella, or both, and the “have-nots”—who have neither. In effect, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, despite European aspirations and some impressive reforms (particularly in Georgia), have been stranded on the wrong side of fortress NATO, condemned to subsist in Russia’s shadow because of the scars Russia itself inflicted: Crimea, Donbas, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria.

The Alliance’s allergy to expansion may have its own logic, but it is also dealing blows to its credibility as a guarantor of the peace. NATO’s embrace of retrenchment in the face of Russian militarism in Eastern Europe may adhere to a kind of political and military rationale—in contrast to Afghanistan, it provides a certain clarity of purpose and intent—but it also diminishes the very values the organization was originally created to protect. Skeptics in Europe and the United States who scoff at the contributions of smaller member states or dismiss aspirants in the purely transactional calculus of hard power ignore NATO’s founding purpose: a common military effort by the Euro-Atlantic West to shield Europe from Russian aggression and malign influence.

From the very beginning, NATO represented a conscious decision by the major Atlantic powers—the United Kingdom, France, and especially the United States—to pool their might in the defense of the broader West. This adherence to values is reflected in the first two articles of the founding North Atlantic Treaty itself, and in the Alliance’s growing membership—invited for the sake of preserving and expanding the frontiers of a liberal order, and not perceived military utility.

Far from a burden, the credible possibility of expansion is the lifeblood of NATO, and the rock upon which generations of broader Euro-Atlantic peace and prosperity was built. In this context, NATO’s current posture of retrenchment, at least in the way that it undermined expansion, is arguably a kind of withdrawal from the Alliance’s founding raison d’etre. And as a result, NATO’s expansion impasse has contributed to a widely perceived suspension, if not outright slow death, of Euro-Atlantic conditionality, a largely successful policy linking liberal reforms with integration.