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

Also, the Russian resurgence may not last because the fragile economic recovery flowed from temporarily high oil prices, and the country faces demographic implosion even if the economy holds up. Renewed internal turmoil could once more divert Russian government efforts to shoring up the domestic social and political order.

The gross imbalance of power makes NATO's military ability to prevent Moscow from conquering Western Europe (the concern that animated it throughout the cold war) a nonissue. That does not mean, however, that political conflict between Russia and the West poses no risks. What should NATO now do to keep Europe stable?


IT IS too late to pursue either of the alternatives that might have been considered at the end of the cold war, but at this point a truncated version of the balance-of-power approach where NATO ceases its expansion presents a better option than continuing the course of admitting more former-Soviet republics. Thus, Georgia and Ukraine should understand that they will not be getting into NATO, will not be protected militarily by the West and, in their own interest, should avoid provoking Moscow. They would be, to use a cold-war term, "Finlandized"-allowed to remain sovereign but forced to be neutral by a more powerful state. That status was considered awful by hawks back then, but compared to the fate of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other Warsaw Pact members, it was not a bad deal. The prospect of Ukraine's, Georgia's or for that matter any other candidate's admission to NATO should be yoked to a more radical change in conditions that would make a symbolic collective-security organization, and specifically Russia's membership as well, possible.

Of course there will be no small risk in this. There was always something to be said for having all countries except Russia inside the NATO perimeter. It might prevent inadvertent conflict by making clear that Russian military action would mean war. NATO could thus let Moscow fume and accept its alienation from the West and bad political relations as the price of military stability. And if we leave potential flashpoints outside the perimeter it risks repetition of miscalculations like those of 1950 and 1990, when the United States excluded South Korea and Kuwait from its promise of protection, which encouraged their enemies to pounce. Then when faced with the shock of North Korean and Iraqi attacks, the United States decided to reverse itself and wound up in combat with the invaders to whom it had essentially given the green light.

But for all these risks, admitting the two controversial candidates to NATO would be worse. We have already seen the costs of provoking a resurgent Russia. This expansion would be extraordinarily messy and provocative, given the secession of two regions in Georgia and severe internal disagreements in Ukraine about being in NATO. Debates about the implications of Article V would grow in volume, as current members were forcibly reminded that the organization remains more than an ideological club or fighter of humanitarian wars against small enemies far from home. Membership in NATO could even embolden opportunistic leaders in the Eastern regions most at odds with Moscow to ratchet up anti-Russia actions. It is not in the interest of most of the countries of the alliance to be dragged into confrontation with Moscow, even a relatively weak Moscow, over disputes between a country and former parts of itself.


BY HISTORICAL standards NATO is still a resounding success, but we are still stuck with the problems caused by each of the organization's personalities. We cannot do history over, but we might be able to inch back toward a less complicated set of identities.

As pacifier of the Balkans or partner in the American war on terror in Afghanistan, NATO stretched the consensus of its members on its proper functions and actually degenerated into a coalition of the willing; many members elected not to participate materially in those ventures. The survival of this new out-of-area personality may depend on whether NATO can get out of Afghanistan on respectable terms, which depends on finding a new strategy for crippling the Taliban. This remains to be done in the face of huge obstacles: the country's corrupt political culture; sanctuaries for the enemy in Pakistan; and the strategically counterproductive effects from U.S. and allied combat tactics that have sometimes mobilized more opposition than they eliminate. Even if NATO exits the Afghan War with honor, the out-of-area mission is likely to look increasingly dispensable-despite the price of making the organization appear idle and aimless. This out-of-area personality might still be suppressed.

But no one wants to suppress the club-of-liberal-governments personality, even though it has overreached itself. NATO's leaders naively thought the age of power politics was over and took in new members without due regard for the strategic implications for relations with Russia. This brought the third personality, the dormant anti-Russia orientation of the organization, back to the surface-an unfortunate ebbing of the high tide of peace that looked so promising in the early 1990s. This personality cannot be eliminated because the expansion cannot be undone.

The sad irony is that the urge to broaden the political community of old and new democracies undermined the peace that broke out in the early 1990s. It is unlikely that NATO can resolve this paradox well enough to make the future like that brief euphoric period of amity from the Atlantic to the Urals right after the cold war. In the meantime, we should keep antagonism of our former-cold-war rival to a minimum. It is not impossible, however, to reach a more benign kind of stability. For this, Russia would have to democratize fully and be invited to join the NATO fraternity. Neither change is likely, but then if very unlikely things never happened, the cold war would not have ended.


Richard K. Betts, an adjunct senior fellow for national-security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is director of the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.


1 Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, 3rd ed. (New York: Free Press, 1988), ch. 8; William Wohlforth, "The Stability of a Unipolar World," International Security 24, no. 1 (Summer 1999). 

Essay Types: Essay