The impact of the Russia-Georgia war continues
to reverberate. Gen. James Craddock, NATO's Supreme Commander, has requested
authority to develop contingency plans to defend the Eastern European countries.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski recently told an American audience
that "We need to make NATO's traditional security guarantees credible again"
and that "NATO needs to recover its role, not just as an alliance but as
a military organization." Kim Holmes of the Heritage Foundation advocates
doing "more military contingency planning and military exercises with not
only Poland, but the Baltic states." Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman
recently proclaimed the importance of "reinvigorating NATO as a military
alliance," with "contingency planning for the defense of all member
states against conventional and unconventional attack."
Until recently, NATO was treated like a social club, with invitations extended
pro forma to anyone within geographic reach that exhibited proper manners. But
the conflict in the Caucasus brought home to NATO's 26 members the unpleasant
prospect of war with Russia. Moscow is truculent and the Europeans are nervous,
yet US officials are pushing to bring both Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. This
step would directly bring conflict and war into the alliance.
Why is the US still in NATO?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created to prevent the Soviet Union
from dominating Western Europe. Europe had been devastated by World War II.
The USSR emerged from that conflict as the most powerful continental state.
Having fought to prevent Nazi Germany from dominating Eurasia, the US understandably
sought to prevent the Soviet Union from achieving the same result.
This was an important but limited objective. Washington made no effort to liberate
Eastern or even Central Europe from Soviet control. The US government commemorated
the subjugation of the Baltic States, but made no pretense that their captivity
threatened American security. And no one shed any tears over the status of the
more distant Soviet "republics" which had been part of imperial Russia.
NATO was for self-protection, nothing more.
Even so, the alliance barely fulfilled that role. NATO always was America and
the others. The US spent far more money on the military, devoted a much larger
percentage of its GDP to defense, and treated Moscow as a far more serious threat.
The Europeans, in contrast, often promised to hike military outlays but rarely
delivered on their pledges. They accepted Washington's aid but ignored Washington's
priorities – building a natural gas pipeline to the Soviet Union, supporting
Nicaragua's Marxist government, and more.
During the early years of the Cold War, the US may have believed it had no
choice but to protect the Europeans, however feckless they might be. But once
the Western European states had recovered from World War II, America could and
should have reduced its military role and troop levels. The Europeans conceivably
could have chosen not to defend themselves, but the prospect of military catastrophe
has a way of concentrating the mind.
The point is not that there should have been no continuing alliance. Rather,
it should have become the European Treaty Organization, not remained the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization. Then Europe could have decided how to defend itself
without hectoring from Washington.
The end of the USSR and Warsaw Pact destroyed any rationale for the US to continue
defending Europe. The great hegemonic enemy and its ideological satellites were
all gone. The threat, never very strong, of a single power dominating both Asia
and Europe had disappeared. To ease Soviet concerns over the reunification of
Germany, Washington even agreed not to expand NATO up to Russia's borders.
But then the West seemed to stop looking at NATO as a military organization.
Alliance advocates argued that NATO could promote student exchanges, encourage
environmental protection, and combat the drug war – odd tasks for the quintessential
military organization. More seriously, the Europeans, at least, saw NATO as
a means to help draw the former Soviet satellites into the Western orbit. And
the Clinton administration saw NATO expansion as a way to win the votes of ethnic
Americans who were promoting their home countries. So the alliance expanded
through Central Europe into Eastern Europe, ending up 60 miles from St. Petersburg.
NATO now is looking to the Balkans, Ukraine, and Caucasus for new members.
The alliance has invited Albania and Croatia to begin membership talks. Macedonia
is next on the list, pending resolution of an esoteric dispute over its name
with Greece. Washington is pushing Georgia and Ukraine as members; the Europeans
have delayed any decision, while officially professing their support in principle.
Bosnia and Montenegro are more likely to be next, with Serbia – involved in
a contentious dispute with the US and much of the EU over the status of Kosovo
– lagging behind. Other countries with NATO "Individual Partnership Action
Plans," which offer a possible prelude to membership, include Armenia,
Azerbaijan, and Moldova.
While the original NATO was seen as bolstering US security, the new, expanded
version, with nearly twice as many countries as the early alliance, hampers
US security. Most of the new members have brought along bilateral border disputes
and historical antagonisms with Russia and each other. None had robust militaries;
none had any intention of creating robust militaries. Rather, all wanted to
be defended on the cheap by someone else, namely America.
Washington seemed pleased to have more client states to order about, but it
found the limits of gratitude when it came to winning troops for Iraq and Poland's
and the Czech Republic's agreement to host missile defense systems. The few
score soldiers sent to Iraq by Albania and Estonia, for instance, demonstrated
how little the newest members had to offer militarily. Hungary's donation of
a contingent of truck drivers without trucks illustrated that even a former
Warsaw Pact member once invaded by the Soviet Union could not be bothered to
develop serious military capabilities. Poland demanded that US officials promise
an extra helping of bilateral defense guarantees on top of NATO's Article 5
before they would participate in Washington's proposed missile defense system.
Moreover, what conceivable interest is served by incorporating Croatia or Albania
or Macedonia or Serbia into NATO? The allied social club has degenerated into
social work. It's not clear against whom these countries need to be defended.
It's even less clear why America should do the defending. A quick glance at
any map demonstrates that Europe should be more concerned about the Balkans,
assuming anyone outside of the Balkans should be concerned about the Balkans.
Finally, there are Georgia and Ukraine. The US has continued its seeming efforts
to encircle Russia by advocating that both be brought into NATO, but here, at
least, the Europeans finally remembered that the alliance had something to do
with war and said no at the April alliance summit. What is the purpose of bringing
either into the "North Atlantic" Treaty Organization? How would doing
so advance US or European security?
It obviously wouldn't.
Indeed, no one who advocates expanding NATO to the Caucasus has made the slightest
pretense that doing so adds military value to the alliance. Some US officials
appear to be focused on personal pique. For instance, Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice says that "We will not permit Russia to veto the future of NATO, neither
the countries offered membership nor their decision to accept it." She
added: "The United States and Europe strongly support the independence
and the territorial integrity of Russia's neighbors," without explaining
what justifies making that support military in nature.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer recently argued that the purpose
of NATO enlargement is "to help create a stable, undivided Europe"
and that "Georgia has a rightful place in this Europe." Actually,
that sounds more like the purpose of the European Union. You don't need a military
alliance, originally intended to protect its members from a country which has
dissolved, to make countries feel good about themselves and where they are located.
Rather more melodramatic were Senators Graham and Lieberman, who wrote: the
conflict in the Caucasus "is a struggle about whether a new dividing line
is drawn across Europe: between nations that are free to determine their own
destinies, and nations that are consigned to the Kremlin's autocratic orbit."
Even if this is an end worth war, Europe rather than America should be the potential
In fact, Georgia and Ukraine – meaning President Viktor Yushchenko and only
about a fifth of the Ukrainian people – want into NATO because they want the
US to defend them, not because they want to have warm and fuzzy feelings about
their metaphorical geographical location. No surprise there. But Washington's
positive response is the surprise, since Kiev would do nothing to defend the
US or the other allies. Expansion adds large obligations but only minimal capabilities
to NATO. True, both countries contributed small contingents to Iraq. However,
that action was a political rather than a military gesture, and was inadequate
payment for a willingness to confront a nuclear-armed power over esoteric border
disputes, such as the status of the Crimea and Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Why are Washington policymakers willing to make such potential conflicts America's
own? NATO advocates appear to view the alliance as a talisman to be waved at
friend and enemy alike, to magically cement American dominance in regions of
little concern far from home. Never mind that Moscow has historic interests
in the Balkans, is a long-time friend of Serbia, has a legitimate historic claim
to the Crimea, has traditional ties to Abkhazia and South Ossetia – which have
spent centuries struggling against Georgian domination – and just demonstrated
its willingness to go to war to sustain what it perceives to be important security
interests. The ritualistic incantation of NATO is expected to cause Russia to
Both Senators Barack Obama and John McCain advocate bringing Georgia and Ukraine
into the alliance, but neither candidate has offered any evidence that expanding
NATO would reduce the chance of a confrontation with Russia, and especially
that either country is worth fighting for. These two presidential wannabes just
assume away all complications. Particularly striking is the naiveté of
Sen. John McCain, who justifies risking war for Tbilisi based on his friendship
with Georgian President Mikheil "Misha" Saakashvili, a demagogic authoritarian
nationalist who triggered the August war by launching an attack on South Ossetia.
But McCain doesn't stop there. In the first presidential debate he declared:
"watch Ukraine, and let's make sure that we – that the Ukrainians understand
that we are their friend and ally." Apparently McCain's definition of an
ally is a politically unstable country of no conceivable security interest to
America bordering an increasingly assertive nuclear-armed Russia. Now that's
a mature, levelheaded strategy.
Other justifications for expanding NATO are even more frivolous. Gary Schmitt
and Mauro De Lorenzo of the American Enterprise Institute argued that at stake
in Georgia's membership application "are international law, energy security,
NATO's future, and American credibility when it comes to supporting new democracies."
The specter of neoconservatives worrying about international law offers genuine
comic relief. Energy deposits in the Caspian Basin are but a tiny share of the
world's reserves and access is not likely to be impaired irrespective of Tbilisi's
geopolitical orientation. NATO is irrelevant to America's future. And US credibility
in promoting democracy already has been wrecked by the catastrophe in Iraq,
decades of blundering in Pakistan, a century worth of ineffective intervention
in Haiti, continued support for autocracies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and much,
The Heritage Foundation's Holmes appears to want to go to war in order to make
and keep friends. He calls for becoming "more imaginative in cultivating
special friends, finding new ones and integrating these new relationships into
a new global strategy." Which apparently means offering to defend them
from a nuclear-armed power, because, well, we like having friends all over the
world, irrespective of who they are, what they represent, and whether they can
aid American security. He suggests that the US "may need to give special
security guarantees to Poland and the Baltic and other NATO states in the region,"
as well as to Georgia "if Russia succeeds in blocking its membership in
NATO." He doesn't explain why, other than claiming that "We need a
new global network of special relationships." Well, yes, let's just offer
to defend every country every where. That should gain America lots of new, really
Perhaps most melodramatic is Jeffrey T. Kuhner, a columnist for the Washington
Times. He calls Ukraine "the strategic bulwark against Russian expansionism
– the eastern ramparts of Western civilization." Moreover, "The battle
over Ukraine is more than a regional test of wills. It is a clash over the future
Even if such hysterical claims were true, the battle should be fought by Europe
rather than America. After all, the European Union countries have a combined
GDP about 12 times that of Russia's, and spend about eight times as much on
the military. Let Europe defend Europe.
But there is no evidence that Moscow has designs on Eastern Europe, let alone
Central or Western Europe. The Europeans certainly don't seem to be worried;
on Wednesday the EU summit debated restarting talks with Moscow over a partnership
treaty, with Germany and Italy in the lead pressing for a renewed dialogue.
Russia has returned to Great Power mode, which means it is interested in securing
border security and contesting disputed territory. For instance, Crimea was
part of Russia until it was taken from Russia and given to Ukraine by Nikita
Khrushchev, the Ukrainian-born General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
The transaction then was meaningless, and does not settle which nation should
control the territory, with a majority Russian population.
In fact, there is no right answer to the Crimea, or South Ossetia, or Abkhazia,
just like there was no right answer to Kosovo. Even if there was, America has
no reason to be involved. The 27 members of the European Union have a larger
population and GDP than America and are well capable of asserting their own
interests. Since they can rely on Washington, they spend only about half as
much on the military as does the US, and have created forces with just a fraction
of the combat capabilities of America's military. Moreover, they are talking
about cutting outlays in the midst of the ongoing economic crisis. However,
if they could no longer free ride on the US, they would have to honestly assess
the risk of Russian aggression and take whatever steps they deemed necessary
to prevent such a possibility. And they could decide whether Georgia, Ukraine,
or any other country truly was a "bulwark against Russian expansionism."
Sen. John McCain has inadvertently offered America the basis for a new foreign
policy: "country first." Unfortunately, Sen. McCain believes that
putting the US first requires promiscuous economic intervention at home and
endless military intervention abroad. But as normal people understand the phrase,
it means risking American lives, treasure, and freedoms only to defend this
nation, not to attempt to micromanage the globe.
"Country first" should apply to America's commitments around the
globe – protecting Europe and beyond from Russia, defending Japan and South
Korea, nation-building in Iraq and Kosovo, and meddling most everywhere else.
Let NATO come up with contingency plans for war with Russia, to strengthen its
military credibility, and whatever else it would like. But leave NATO to the
Europeans and pull America's forces out of Europe. After decades of wasting
American lives and treasure promoting the interests of other nations, it truly
is time to put "country first."