war on the rocks

NATO Expansion Got Some Big Things Right

March 7, 2019

An article recently published in these pages on NATO expansion suffers from common, but flawed, strategic reasoning regarding what the expansion of the alliance has accomplished and why. It also contains some errors and misleading statements that need to be corrected. While the authors’ ultimate recommendation about the wisdom of future NATO expansion is worth considering, how Mark and Matthew Cancian arrive at their conclusion reveals fundamental misunderstandings about the history of the alliance and the nature of the enlargement process.

Getting the History Right

Let’s start with the nit-picky stuff. The authors say of the alliance, “Its stable membership reflected its clear military purpose, the 14 original members all being on board by 1955.” NATO had 12 original members: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Greece and Turkey joined in 1952 and then, finally, West Germany (not “Germany”) was admitted in 1955. So, however, you count it, there were 15 members by 1955, not 14.

Second, the authors assert that the end of the Cold War obviated the traditional rationale for NATO: to keep America in, Germany down, and Russia out. While one can argue about the first and last reasons, the middle one was still salient – even essential – after the Berlin Wall fell because of fears over reunification between East and West Germany. Many European policymakers at the time still had living memories of World War II and some, including Margaret Thatcher, harbored deep concerns over Germany’s future role in Europe. Simply put, Germany was not considered “a stable and trustworthy democracy” as the authors assert. West Germany might’ve been those things in some people’s eyes, but there still were serious doubts – both in NATO and the former Warsaw Pact – about what direction a powerful, unified Germany was going to take. That reunification occurred within the constraining structure of NATO was an important ameliorating factor. Neither Moscow nor London was looking at an unfettered Germany, but one still embedded in the European Union and NATO, constrained politically by Brussels and militarily by Washington. This is an important point about NATO’s post-Cold War role that is now all but forgotten.

Third, the authors state that after 1991, “NATO reached out to the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, initially offering them a kind of associate membership (the Partnership for Peace) and then permanent membership.” This is backwards causality. NATO didn’t “reach out” to these countries. Rather, those countries came knocking on the alliance’s door. Partnership for Peace wasn’t an associate membership. It was an ad hoc policy stalling tactic (that included formal participation by Russia, at least initially). Essentially, most of the former Warsaw Pact wanted treaty-guaranteed protection from their former overlord and occupier. Not knowing whether Washington wanted to do this, whether it was politically feasible, or even a good idea, Partnership for Peace was proffered as a “halfway house,” while the various extant alliance members sorted out their strategic and policy options. Sen. Richard Lugar once quipped that “PfP” – the acronym for the program – really stood for “Policy for Postponement.”

There are legitimate criticisms and concerns about NATO expansion and its effects – which I’ll get to in a moment – but they should be addressed in the context of a realistic understanding of what actually happened. The Cancians aren’t alone in making this mistake, almost everyone involved in U.S. foreign policy discussion ultimately commits it: Americans tend to forget other actors (even the smallest states) have agency and can force policy options to arise that Washington didn’t anticipate.

Misreading the Baltic States

The authors also offer some outdated comments about Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. They argue that “The Baltic states have large Russian minorities that might be turned against the government in a showdown with Russia.” The loyalties of the Russophone communities in Estonia and Latvia (it’s not really an issue in the far more homogeneous Lithuania) might’ve been a concern in, say, 1994, but the Baltic states have had almost three decades to integrate these communities. While this remains an ongoing process, it’s worth noting that both the Estonian and Latvian Russophone communities have representative parties, Centre and Harmony, respectively, that actively participate in their countries’ politics. They are normalized within their respective countries and provide a structured outlet for grievances. Beyond this, the greater economic opportunities available in Estonia and Latvia – including access to the European Union – has consistently trumped external efforts by Russia to co-opt these communities.

Labeling ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking communities in the Baltics (or elsewhere in the post-Soviet space for that matter) as an inherent fifth column, is simplistic and, more importantly, wrong. Even in Crimea, it’s hard to argue that the ethnic Russian population “rose up” against Kyiv en masse. Yes, they had an historic affinity for Russia and acquiesced to – maybe even welcomed – annexation, but it was something that was handed to them as a fait accompli. And Crimea was a singularly unique case. (Gerard Toal is always worth reading, but he’s especially good on the unique complexities of the Russophone and ethnic Russian communities in Ukraine and why it’s simply not reality to regard them as monolithic partisans-in-waiting.)

Stability Is Its Own Reward

Moving on from errors of facts and history, there are other problems with the Cancians’ strategic reasoning. Implicit in their approach is an unfortunate “bean-counting” mentality about what constitutes a useful NATO member and what doesn’t. Europe isn’t a game of Risk. NATO members aren’t only worthy if they bring significant quantities of forces (e.g., “Poland and Romania brought large militaries with real capability”). For example, Iceland’s primary contribution for 70 years has simply been its geography and the role it would play as a base for NATO forces tasked with protecting re-supply convoys in the North Atlantic. In the case of some of the newer members (and prospective members), their inclusion is about increasing regional stability and preventing conflicts, rather than their specific military capabilities. And while some may argue that we are therefore adding consumers of security instead of providers, the membership of these states do contribute to our collective security if it inhibits aggression and prevents NATO (and the United States) from becoming entangled in another war. When looking at the true cost of expansion that needs to be weighed carefully. If admitting Montenegro and Northern Macedonia deters another conflict with Serbia, doesn’t that “contribute” to security?

Simply put, drawing lines enhances stability. What’s something no one talks about anymore? The Polish question. Yet for over a century and a half Poland’s status and loyalties were at the heart of multiple dangerous and costly wars. NATO membership settled that. Likewise, while there are legitimate questions about the defensibility of the Baltic states, from a strategic standpoint, knowing that NATO is committed to their defense enhances stability between them and Russia. The Baltic-Russian relationship isn’t perfect, but it is nowhere near as fraught as that between Russia and Ukraine. Some of this is due to the far better levels of governance and economic performance in the Baltic states than in Ukraine. But the fact that the security situation is settled and plain for all to see also encourages normalcy and makes clear the strategic consequences if Russia wants to be aggressive. Take away NATO membership, and the situation in the Baltic states is far more destabilizing and (as in the current case of Ukraine) retains greater potential for an unintended escalation of tensions between Russia and the West. NATO membership for the Baltic states enhances European security and is a direct element of stability in relations between Washington and Moscow, full stop. That is the definition of a contribution to our security.


While some argue that Baltic NATO membership engenders a sense of encirclement on Russia’s part (thereby working against stability), it’s in the nature of alliances that those “inside the line” may feel safe only at the cost of heightened anxiety on the part of those “outside the line.” That Russia is anxious about Baltic membership can’t be avoided to some extent, but it also doesn’t mean the danger is real. So long as the United States doesn’t make the mistake of permanently basing forces in the Baltics, it’s hard to argue that these three tiny states constitute a genuine threat to their larger neighbor. And it doesn’t change the fact that with or without NATO membership, Baltic-Russian relations were always going to be tense. NATO membership helps moderate that tension and set it within the clear boundaries of a security relationship all parties understand.  Rather, it’s when the situation is left ambiguous – as in the case of Georgia and Ukraine – that miscalculations can occur leading to actual conflict.

Finally, some point to Russia’s more stable relationships with its neighbors who have no interest in alliance membership, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, as being indicative of NATO’s destabilizing role. However, it’s more likely that Moscow simply has more agreeable ties with those states because they are fellow autocracies. If either was to undergo a dramatic change toward greater democracy, Russia’s relations with them would likely deteriorate.

An Admittedly Mixed Record

So was NATO expansion perfect? The answer is, of course, no. First, enlarging the alliance has produced inconsistent results in the area of democracy building, one of its primary rationales in the halcyon days of the 1990s, when hard questions about defensibility were, admittedly, often soft-pedalled. While there have been some successes, including the Baltic states, there also have been some serious disappointments, notably Viktor Orban’s Hungary and a concerning level of backsliding in Poland under the Law and Justice Party. At the same time, long-time member Turkey has regressed badly under Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This shouldn’t be taken lightly and, if some members (Turkey and Hungary again being the prime candidates) don’t rebound, NATO might have to look at the difficult prospect of someday becoming smaller. The alliance often had to tolerate less than democratic ideals during the Cold War (including in Turkey), but it’s worth emphasizing that the current tensions with Russia should not be seen as the same type of zero-sum struggle. Putin’s Russia isn’t the Soviet Union 2.0. NATO can now afford to hold members more closely to its ideals, especially considering the role democratization played in the justification for expansion.

Second, the ad hoc nature of the way enlargement proceeded at times increased strategic ambiguity (and Russian paranoia). NATO was wrong not to make it plain early on that it had no intention of accepting states such as Georgia and Ukraine, moves it was obvious Moscow couldn’t abide. President George W. Bush’s support for their membership at the Bucharest Summit was a clear strategic mistake that eventually fed into the 2008 August War and the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia. This shouldn’t be understated. And there is a growing body of evidence that promises were made to Russia at the end of the Cold War about NATO that weren’t kept.

All of these reasons are why I believe we need to start thinking boldly about how to re-engage with Russia on the question of force deployments and stability in Central and Eastern Europe, but that’s a matter for another article.

The argument that NATO expansion alone (or even partially), however, is to blame for the current state of relations between the West and Russia is incomplete at best. First, there were innumerable structural, political, and economic challenges facing Russia as it emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union. These had nothing to do with NATO and we over exaggerate our own importance if America blames itself wholly for the failing of Russian democracy. Second, while Russian concerns and humiliation should be an important strategic consideration, it can never be the only one. Should NATO have not intervened to stop the carnage in Bosnia out of deference to fraternity between Moscow and Belgrade? Would European security really have been better served by a series of unabated Srbrenica’s? Do all the states formerly under Moscow’s dominion during the Cold War really have no say in their own security arrangements simply out of deference to Russian insecurity? Once again, other states have agency and other factors beyond NATO must be taken into account in assessing why Russia is where it is today.

The Future of NATO Expansion

So, should NATO expansion stop? Ironically, in the end, I am inclined to mostly agree with the authors of the article I’ve spent so much time criticizing. NATO can’t – and shouldn’t – seek more members from the former Soviet space. It is unlikely any of the existing neutral countries of Europe would now seek formal membership in the alliance as, again, the move – on balance – is likely to be more destabilizing than not with regard to Russia. Though this won’t stop states like Sweden and Finland from working very closely with alliance forces as seen in the upcoming multinational Northern Wind exercise.

NATO should admit Northern Macedonia for the reasons discussed above regarding stability/deterrence toward Serbia. Further, adding Northern Macedonia to the alliance deepens the geographic depth and unity of NATO’s southern tier. Less certain is Bosnia’s fate, given the resistance of many Bosnian Serbs to the idea of their country joining an alliance that once waged war against them. Pushing for NATO membership over these objections could further strain the already fragile internal balance among Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs, while actually provoking (rather than hindering) external conflict with Serbia itself. The recent election of Serb nationalist Milorad Dodik as a member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency has only heightened these concerns.

Perhaps, then, Northern Macedonia should be the final NATO member. But if the alliance does stand pat “at 30,” it should do so because it has reached the limit of viable candidates that enhance its security, not because of an incomplete and simplistic reading of what the process of enlarging the Atlantic alliance has and has not achieved.



Mike Sweeney is a disillusioned former think tanker. He currently lives and writes in New Jersey.

Image: Günter Hentschel