The Three Faces of NATO

The Three Faces of NATO

Mini Teaser: One must wonder why, with the end of the cold war, NATO did not dissolve. How do we explain the organization's transformation and vitality at the end of the twentieth century?

by Author(s): Richard K. Betts


THUS, AS NATO expanded, the tension between the alliance's goal of extending the transatlantic union to form a more inclusive liberalizing club and the unintended effect of reinforcing the original anti-Russia stance of the organization became all too clear. In traditional strategic terms, NATO expansion was a threat to Russia, but the West's leaders considered traditional strategic terms passé, antiquated concerns of outmoded realpolitik. Liberal governments, and especially Americans, tend to assume that their benign intentions are obvious to all and that their right to shape world order in a virtuous direction should be unobjectionable. To the Western establishment, post-cold-war Europe might not quite represent the end of history, but would at least not be unduly constrained by its lessons. NATO would make Europe whole and free.

Washington and NATO governments elected these initiatives out of post-cold-war triumphalism pure and simple, and were buoyed by the shocking ease with which the victory over communism had been accomplished.

One need not be an apologist for the regime in Moscow or its behavior, or sympathetic to Russia's national interests, to empathize with its resentment of this revolutionary overturning of the balance of power.

In a two-year whirlwind, one revolution after another strengthened NATO: the Berlin wall fell, the Warsaw Pact collapsed, Germany unified, the Soviet Communist Party was deposed and the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist. Stunned and crippled, Russia tumbled into decline.

Washington, and with its prodding other NATO governments, succumbed to victory disease and kept kicking Russia while it was down. NATO's ambitions escalated because it was spoiled and emboldened by the huge benefits attained at negligible cost in the denouement of the cold war. In no time at all the American political leadership took U.S. global primacy for granted as the natural order of things, a status to be used to set the world right wherever possible at a low cost in blood and treasure. The price of intervention in the Balkans may have been heavier than expected, but extending American dominance in Europe by moving NATO eastward continued to be accomplished at little expense. For twenty years Americans got all too accustomed to having Russians roll over belly-up for whatever they insisted on doing. For twenty years Moscow got no respect.

NATO blithely took in former Warsaw Pact allies of the Soviet Union and, with the Baltic states, even parts of the Soviet Union itself-without ever seriously considering inviting Moscow in. And while NATO's original members assumed that the end of the cold war was the end of deterrence, containment and opposition to Russia, new entrants like Poland or would-be members like Georgia did not. The anti-Russia personality of the alliance was becoming all too clear-at least, that is, to the Russians.


THERE WERE alternatives to the course taken over the past two decades-alternatives with their own risks, but still better bets than the ambitious projects that have so complicated NATO's identity. There were the collective-security (include Russia) and balance-of-power (do not expand) solutions for NATO. Either of these would have required restraint and respect rather than isolation of the West's former adversary. The regional collective-security option would have transmuted NATO from the alliance it was originally designed to be by making Russia a member of the club. This would have made the organization a primarily symbolic and toothless institution more than anything else. Perhaps it would have resembled a glorified Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an institution built for talk more than action. But in a peaceful Europe that might well have been quite enough. Over the long run, it could have been a better solution for the United States, facing a rising China with Russia on our side rather than on Beijing's. This symbolic collective-security option would have been a long shot, but there was a window in the early 1990s when diplomatic magnanimity might have buttressed Russian liberalization and cooperation, helping make the country a fit partner. It certainly wouldn't have poked Russia in the eye the way hegemonic extension to its front door did.

If including Russia was unpalatable, there was the balance-of-power option, which would have kept the old NATO intact but more or less on ice, unexpanded, an alliance effectively in reserve in case things went bad again. Newly liberated Eastern Europe would have been left without the military embrace of the West of course, but separated from Russia by a buffer zone of new, formerly Soviet states fallen away from the old union's carcass. That buffer zone, in turn, would have been tacitly considered a Russian sphere of influence, in which the newly independent states would abuse the Near Abroad or Russian economic interests at their peril. In this scenario, we surely wouldn't have been fighting over Georgia. Yet at the time, the first alternative may have been too idealistic and the second too cynical for twenty-first-century democratic sensibilities.

Remember, in the post-cold-war euphoria, many did not realize the potential consequences of NATO expansion. From a security perspective, exploiting American primacy and NATO expansion to encircle Russia could have made clear that the former superpower simply had to accept that it could not play in the big leagues anymore and needed to accept indefinitely its status as a lesser state. Most adherents of realpolitik do consider balance of power more stable than hegemony, but there are other realists who believe the reverse, that an unambiguous pecking order precludes miscalculation and adventurism.1 Leaving Russia a sphere of influence seemed to some to be a dangerous concession because the buffer zone would have been a power vacuum, and continuing to respect Russia's status as a great power would have left its strategic prerogatives uncertain-all in all, an invitation to inadvertent conflict. Keeping Russia permanently debased and isolated seemed to be strategically sensible. In the tragic world of international politics, where completely safe solutions are usually unavailable, there was something to be said for this logic. But the problem with that rationale, we have learned, is that it is difficult to sustain as Russia recovers. And the humiliation imposed during the triumphal period has only given the country's reentry to power politics a harder edge.

The liberals too had it wrong. Seeing economic and ideological enlightenment as a higher priority for stability than the distribution of power, they assumed a drastic reduction in Russia's military strength wouldn't be a problem for Moscow because liberalization and the "democratic peace" would make military balances irrelevant. In other words, we would all be one big, happy, liberal-democratic family. The problem with that rationale was (and still is) that its credibility depends on universalizing the Western political club-that is, bringing not just Russia's former allies into the NATO fold, but Russia too. Otherwise, nothing can negate the perception that NATO must remain implicitly an anti-Russia alliance.

But this was never possible because, simply put, Russian membership in NATO was never a serious option. If it didn't happen in the period after the cold war when the country seemed to be on the road to democracy, it is unlikely it will ever come to pass.

So, friendly rhetoric notwithstanding, and despite consensus that the cold war was and remains over, NATO is an implicitly anti-Russia alliance along with its other two conflicting functions. This was not a conscious choice by many of the original members. Indeed, most still believe that it is not true, that Moscow is being thin-skinned or obstreperous for no good reason. But the residual anti-Russia quality is the inevitable result of including all of Europe except Russia, and is made worse by the more forthright unfriendliness of the newer Eastern members of the organization toward Russia.


NONE BUT the most ethnocentric idealists should have been surprised when Moscow had the temerity to start acting like a great power again. No one should be surprised when the Russians still act like they have a sphere of influence, a right to impose discipline in unstable border areas. No one should be surprised when Moscow asserts the same protective prerogative toward secessionists in South Ossetia that NATO had toward Albanians in Kosovo (an analogy that Western officials denied but is essentially correct). The chickens had come home to roost. After years of poking Moscow in the eye at the price of only feeble protests, the West had to notice that Russia was back and that NATO's tide had crested. Russia's resurgence should have been expected, but should not be alarming and may not last.

Resurgence should have been expected because, in their own eyes, the Russians were down but not out after the cold war. With the economic recovery under Putin, it was natural to get back in the game and demand respect once more. Defeated great powers usually become competitive again as soon as they can. Two decades of humiliation were a potent incentive for Russian pushback. Indeed, this is why many realists opposed NATO expansion in the first place.

But resurgence should not be alarming because there is as yet no evidence that Russia's use of force points toward dangerous aggression, any more than NATO's actions in the Balkans did. Support for separation of two regions from Georgia is objectionable, but no more an indicator of Napoleonic ambitions than American support for Kosovo's independence. (The two actions need not be judged morally equivalent to be seen as equivalent in practical political terms.) Even if Russian motives are malign and tension with the West rises, the imbalance of power in NATO's favor is overwhelming, a radical difference from cold-war bipolarity. For forty years, NATO doubted its capacity to defend against Soviet attack without escalating to nuclear strikes, because it faced more than 175 Soviet divisions, their vanguard ensconced in the middle of Germany and a third of Europe in the Soviet camp. Today the tables are turned, and Russia faces a united Europe, its old allies of the Warsaw Pact and nearly half of the old Soviet Union itself on the other side of the fence.

Essay Types: Essay