No one near the levers of power in Washington suggested that Ukraine’s territorial integrity was worth risking a war with Russia. That stark reality offers an opportunity to evaluate U.S. alliances. Which European countries should the United States be willing to go to war with Russia over?
It’s an important question, given that Washington has a formal treaty commitment to a number of countries that are less strategically important than Ukraine. Since no one in Washington favored fighting for Ukrainian sovereignty, would they really threaten it over, say, Estonia, just because the latter is a NATO member? Does the existence of an alliance commitment create an interest worth going to war over?
Over the second half of the twentieth century, the United States steadily accumulated allies. During the Cold War, we gathered allies in the name of containing the Soviet Union. After the Cold War, Washington parlayed its winnings, expanding its sphere of influence. In Europe, two rounds of NATO expansion brought the anti-Russian alliance up to the Russian border, accompanied by promises that NATO was no longer about Russia. Globally, more than a quarter of the world’s countries are now allies of the United States.
The early Cold War rationale was strong. Leaving Germany vulnerable to the Soviet Union risked allowing Moscow to dominate Europe. But that’s not going to happen today, with or without NATO. If Russia annexed all of Ukraine and seamlessly integrated it into the Russian Federation without a hitch—something that’s not going to happen—the Russian economy would be about 14 percent larger, equivalent roughly to that of Italy and Turkey combined.
Given that Russia could not threaten Western Europe, or even most of Central Europe, it’s hard to argue that the United States has a similar interest in threatening wars to defend most of its modern-day NATO protectorates. War with Russia would be devastating for the United States, for the country on whose territory such a war would be fought, and for Russia. Allowing a state to be pulled into the Russian sphere of influence would be less costly to U.S. taxpayers and servicemembers—and likely even to citizens of the targeted state itself—than fighting over it.
It’s thus tempting to judge that NATO expansion was one giant bluff, but it’s probably more accurate to say that Washington rammed through two rounds of NATO expansion without serious consideration of the costs of defending the new allies. As Columbia’s Richard Betts wrote, “NATO’s ostensible purpose, collective defense, appears to have been barely in the minds of the sponsors of the organization’s enlargement.” During the NATO expansion debates, to question whether the prospective member-states would really be worth fighting a war with Russia over was considered impolite and retrograde. It was Old Thinking.
The foreign-policy establishment wants two things from NATO: the ability to retain outsized influence on European defense and foreign policy, and cheap deterrence of Russia. For decades, Washington’s NATO policy seems to have worked, or at least hasn’t failed. EU security cooperation has floundered, and Russia hasn’t militarily threatened any NATO member-state. But the Ukraine crisis raises questions about U.S. interests and the Russian perception of them.
The unanimity in Washington that there was no interest in fighting Russia over Ukraine could cause deterrence to fail where Washington has even smaller interests, such as the Baltic states. Putin could easily see that the U.S. interests in one of those countries are smaller than they were in Ukraine and decide to violate their sovereignty in spite of the NATO commitment. Given that no American political leader favored fighting for Ukraine, the only argument for fighting for a NATO member that is even less strategically important would be a sheet of paper.
For his part, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s hawkish secretary-general, hasn’t batted an eye. In an interview with Foreign Affairs, he insisted that Georgia is still on track to NATO membership, despite two of its provinces being occupied by Russian troops, and claimed he is “100 percent sure” that NATO would invoke Article 5 if Estonia were attacked. As to what it would do after invoking Article 5, though, Rasmussen demurred:
Actually, it’s part of our deterrence that you never know which decision we will take. Our potential adversary doesn’t know exactly how NATO will react… ambiguity strengthens the deterrence…
One wonders. In particular, it is difficult to see how, absent any alliance commitments, American elites would favor fighting for Talinn but not for Kyiv. If anything, Crimea by itself is at least as strategically valuable as any of the Baltic states. So the argument that the same Washington in which no one suggested fighting Russia over Ukraine would fight it over Estonia seems to rely on the idea that the alliance commitment itself creates an interest worth fighting over.
If deterrence were to fail, one could imagine two scenarios that would pull in the United States. The first is via concern over international credibility. A president, or a Congress, may worry about the impact of abandoning an ally on other U.S. commitments from Germany to Japan. This argument wonders, “Who will ever believe us again if we reneged on a commitment to a formal treaty ally?” While intuitively plausible, this theory has been tested and found wanting. Countries tend to evaluate credibility on the basis of power and interests, not past promises. But the fact that Washington would not have to fight for its credibility might not prevent it from doing so anyway.
The second way the alliance commitment could entrap Washington also involves credibility, but includes domestic politics. It’s not difficult to imagine that if a White House abandoned its commitment to a particular ally, members of Congress, lobby groups for the threatened state, and pundits up and down the I-95 corridor would be rending their garments and howling about appeasement, to the detriment of the president. In this context, a president could feel pressures on both the international front (from allies worried about the U.S. commitment to them) as well as on the domestic political front.
The lesson is not that Washington should have started World War III over Ukraine, but rather that there is danger in littering the globe with alliance commitments in places where there is no interest that warrants war. This is particularly true when those countries seem to have been emboldened by the alliance commitment, and have politics that reflect the NATO commitment better than they reflect the nation’s geography or power position. Eventually one or more of NATO’s bluffs could be called, and a U.S. president could find himself—or herself—threatening war in a context where it has no vital interest, and war was never intended or even seriously considered.
Justin Logan is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.
Image: Flickr/Yuriy Lapitskiy. CC BY-SA 2.0.