NATO at 70: Will Continued Expansion Endanger Americans?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

Foreign policy is front and center this week in Washington as NATO celebrates its 70th anniversary. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is a man about town, chairing a meeting of foreign ministers, addressing a joint meeting of Congress, and meeting with President Donald Trump. Media outlets and think tanks are singing the praises of one of the most successful military alliances in history.

NATO’s longevity is remarkable when one considers that its main purpose – collective defense against the threat represented by the communist Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact – vanished practically overnight when the Cold War ended three decades ago. At that point, like the March of Dimes after polio was eradicated, NATO became an institution in search of a mission.

Rather than going “out of business,” NATO proceeded to take on missions “out of area” like the Balkan wars of the 1990’s and Libya in 2011. It also quickly moved to enlarge the alliance by taking in new members in central and eastern Europe. This expansion, which went ahead despite an informal agreement with Russia not to expand east, included adding difficult-to-defend allies in the Baltics who on net detract from our safety and security.

Left with these security dependents, NATO is left with a wicked problem: What does it do if extended deterrence doesn’t work and the Russians call its bluff directly or indirectly? But rather than figure out a solution to somehow get out of this pickle, NATO threatens to double-down on the problem with more additions that threaten the security of NATO’s core members — and erode the credibility of the alliance.

Georgia and Ukraine are the most dangerous countries itching to huddle under America’s security umbrella. Geography and their own weakness mean they are hard to defend. Plus, they matter more to Russia than to the United States and have active territorial disputes with Moscow. Realism, an approach to foreign policy that focuses on America’s vital interests and counsels prudence in how we secure them, would direct the United States and its allies in NATO to gently wish these countries well, open our markets to their trade, but firmly shut the door to future membership.

But realism isn’t part of the basic operating system of the Western foreign policy establishment. Instead, leaders continue to tease these countries with potential membership and may even believe their own rhetoric. On Mar. 25, Stoltenberg visited Georgia for meetings and to observe joint military exercises. There, he strongly noted that “NATO Allies have clearly stated that Georgia will become a member of the Alliance.” And he added, “we are not accepting that Russia or any other power can decide what neighbours can do.”

Similarly, during a visit in 2017, Vice President Mike Pence explained that, “President Trump and the United States stand firmly behind the 2008 NATO Bucharest statement which made it clear that Georgia will, someday, become a member.” Pence went even further than leaving the door open, pointing out that “The joint military operations that are taking place today we hope are a visible sign of our commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty and to her internationally recognized borders.”



This type of language isn’t helpful. Neither is a regular military footprint. Gen. (ret.) Ben Hodges, former commander of the U.S. Army Europe, noted recently that “We have American soldiers that are [in Georgia] almost nonstop.” Not only do such talk and actions inch us into a tighter and tighter relationship with a country that isn’t geostrategically important to the United States, it creates friction and further stimulates a security dilemma with a nuclear power that is: Russia.

Last fall, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that Georgia’s entry into NATO, “could provoke a terrible conflict. I don’t understand what they are doing this for.” He went on: “As for the recent NATO decision reaffirming its commitment to eventually admit Georgia, what can I say to this? It is an absolutely irresponsible position and a threat to peace.” While we shouldn’t take every complaint of our adversaries seriously, neither should we ignore them when they seem rooted in their own fundamental national interests.

Of course, neither America’s national interest nor anything in the NATO treaty requires the United States to keep an open door despite what its advocates claim. NATO won the Cold War with Georgia and Ukraine behind the Iron Curtain. Russian relative strength today pales in comparison to the Soviet Union, offering little threat to the much wealthier, more populous, and stronger European countries, the Baltics aside. And that doesn’t even count the military and economic power of the United States, which spends more than ten times what Russia does on its military and has more than ten times the GDP. New allies in Russia’s front yard would be difficult and costly to defend while offering little in the way of additional strength to the alliance.

What about public opinion? Americans and our European allies are generally unsure about whether NATO should admit countries like Georgia and Ukraine. In recent polling conducted by the Charles Koch Institute and RealClear, about half of Americans didn’t know whether these states and others should be brought into NATO. But admittedly, few were opposed and about 40 percent supported Ukrainian membership. Germans and the French, on the other hand, who are closer to these countries and the problems they represent, were much less sanguine. More than a third of Germans outright opposed adding these countries while only about a quarter favored it. The French were evenly divided. This suggests that elite cue-givers in the United States and in Europe will have a lot of room to shape public opinion – and to politely ignore it either way.

Unfortunately, if a shooting war were to result from NATO’s inclusion of countries that are difficult to defend and already at odds with Russia, the human and financial cost would fall largely on the public’s shoulders rather than the elites who push these plans. Of course, it is possible that adding such states will break the NATO alliance instead since it is one thing to expand an alliance and another to actually be willing to pay the tab for it should the bill ever come due. But it isn’t difficult to imagine that tripwire troops or a perception that we must defend the commitment itself could set off a conflict that Americans might be otherwise hard-pressed to justify.

Expanding NATO any further is dangerous to Americans and a threat to the alliance. Rather than help avoid war, as it did during the Cold War, today, it makes war more likely. The best thing for both Americans and the alliance as a whole would be a more realistic vision in which NATO, in its 70th year, acknowledges that further enlargement is not only unnecessary for the safety of its members, but would undermine it and add dangerous liabilities. It is time to shut the door before NATO, and its credibility, is weakened further.


William Ruger is the Vice President of Policy and Research at the Charles Koch Institute.


Image: NATO photo