Is NATO fundamentally a military alliance or a social club? Michael Cecire would have us believe the latter as he makes the case for membership for the nation of Georgia.
Since its formation, NATO really has stood for North America and The Others rather than the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The United States always was the dominant member with the largest and most capable military. This was to be expected initially, but the gap closed little even after the Western Europeans recovered from the devastation of World War II.
Throughout the Cold War, European NATO members with the most at stake in deterring the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact routinely welshed on their promises to increase military outlays. They knew they could rely on Washington and saw no reason to spend more than the bare minimum. Nothing has changed even though the European Union possesses a larger collective GDP and population than America. Financial and economic crises have reinforced the Europeans’ unwillingness to maintain sizable and capable militaries. Even France and Great Britain are cutting back. Who needs “defense” when there is a welfare state to fund?
America had cause to give Europe a cheap, if not quite free, ride when confronting the Evil Empire, as Ronald Reagan once called Moscow and its dominions. But there’s no there there any more, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland. Russia is nasty if not exactly evil. But it’s not an empire and has little ability to become one. The European Union, with ten times Russia’s economic strength and three times Russia’s population, doesn’t need defending by the United States. Thus, in the aftermath of Communism’s collapse the world’s most powerful military alliance touted its nonmilitary virtues when inducting former Warsaw Pact members, emerging Balkan states, and even former pieces of the Soviet Union. True, as Cecire observed, NATO served a “sociopolitical” purpose during the Cold War. But that was always ancillary. Had there been no Soviet threat, there would have been no alliance.
Today the Russian threat doesn’t measure up, and the European Union more than compensates. “Humbly encouraging international freedom” is a worthy objective, but need not be done with tanks and defense guarantees. Instead, the EU, with its extensive and complex membership requirements, is most able to push the “eastward expansion of a liberal, rules-based system” which Cecire desires. No one would create NATO for such a purpose, and to suggest that as justification for the alliance demonstrates yet another triumph of public-choice economics. No matter how much the threat environment changes and original purposes disappear, the alliance will look for new justifications to survive. This wouldn’t much matter if all NATO did for new members was the international equivalent of putting chocolates on a hotel guest’s pillow. However,membership comes with a security guarantee—which, in practice, means America. Spanish, Dutch, Estonian, and Croatian legions are unlikely to mass for the decisive battle against Russia, the only conceivable aggressor. The United States would be the nation expected to defend any new members in the unlikely event of war.
For most alliance members and potential members, war is unlikely. However, for Georgia it is plausible, if not exactly likely. This is why Tbilisi desperately wants to join. Not for “sociopolitical” reasons, entering a “liberal, rules-based system,” or advancing “international freedom.” The Georgian government wants American protection from Russia. No one should blame Georgians for this desire. After all, they live in a bad neighborhood. However, America’s interests in the region are minimal.
The alternative energy routes cited by Cecire are convenient but not vital, and certainly not worth the possibility of war. Indeed, the region never factored into American strategy: Georgia was part of the Russian Empire before the Soviet Union. Washington appears to be applying its own extreme variant of the infamous Brezhnev Doctrine: Everything up to your border is mine. No surprise that this angers Moscow.
While many examples of engagement do not mean entanglement, as Cecire claims, alliance membership does mean entanglement. That is the very purpose of a military alliance. One or more countries promise to back one or more other countries. Members become hostages to other members’ disputes, controversies, problems, prejudices, misjudgments and dreams.
The U.S. government’s test for any new NATO member should be: would it enhance American security? To ask the question of Georgia is to answer it. Should Washington extend a military guarantee that might require going to war against a nuclear-armed power over issues of minimal interest to America? Should the United States risk conflict to back another nation’s claim over disputed territory along the nuclear-armed power’s border? Should Washington promise to defend a country that irresponsibly started a war just five years ago with the same nuclear-armed power in the expectation of American support? No improvement in the Georgian military and its possible use elsewhere would justify the United States taking such a risk.
Of course, saying no to Tbilisi means repudiating NATO’s 2008 promise to Georgia. But it is better to retract a foolish commitment than to reflexively implement a policy that would harm American security.
The proper lesson of international affairs is not to live up to every promise, no matter how dumb, but to avoid making dumb promises in the first place. Washington’s first responsibility is to protect the American people, not fulfill the expectation of the Georgian people. The United States should firmly close the alliance door to Tbilisi.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
Image: Flickr/Vladimir Shioshvili. CC BY-SA 2.0.