Editor’s Note: This is part of Law & Liberty‘s series of Faultline Essays, in which we publish different perspectives on a given topic, allowing authors an opportunity to read and respond to each other’s work before publishing them together.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is, arguably, the most enduring defensive alliance in history. NATO has succeeded—well beyond the guarded expectations of its founders—in its core tasks of deterrence and defense, crisis prevention and management, and collective security for more than 70 years. That success has proven attractive to other European nations and over the decades since its founding in 1949, NATO has grown from an initial 12 members to 30 nation members through eight rounds of enlargement. Enlargement of NATO, then, is neither new nor unprecedented. Today those nations are active participants in their collective security. It would be a mistake, however, to view enlargement of NATO as merely an attempt to grow military capabilities and capacity—more troops, more tanks, more planes.
In the wake of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, NATO is emerging as a robust multilateral partnership prepared to use diplomatic, informational, and economic means—as well as its combined military strength—to secure and promote peace. NATO has evolved, not mutated as Dr. Maitra claims, and the alliance continues to grow to embrace a role that is now strategic and ideological. NATO defends the sovereignty of nations large and small, enhances collective and cooperative security, promotes stability inside and outside the Euro-Atlantic region, fosters internal development and economic growth, and stands for democracy and the rule of law in the face of the aggression of autocratic regimes.
Defense of Sovereignty
No state can exist as a nation without sovereign borders and those borders must be defended for a nation to survive as an independent polity. Neutrality—even a resolute armed neutrality—is no guarantee of national sovereignty and immunity from attack. Ukraine declared itself a neutral state after it separated from the Soviet Union in 1991. Kyiv dismantled its nuclear arsenal with economic support and security assurances from the United States and Russia. The assurances proved chimerical, and the nation’s neutral status proved meaningless when Russia invaded Crimea and the Donbas in 2014.
Dr. Maitra argues Kyiv could have averted the 2022 Russian invasion and enjoyed its sovereign rights as an independent nation had it only adopted “an Austrian-style constitutional neutrality that would place Ukraine equidistance (sic) from NATO and Russia.” Ukraine did just that in 1996 and only abandoned neutrality after Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea. Ukraine then learned the lessons learned by Luxemburg and Belgium in World War I, and by Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway in World War II: neutrality cannot protect democracies from aggressor states and especially authoritarian states where leaders cannot be held accountable by an aggrieved electorate.
Today, NATO’s Open Door Policy provides access “to all European democracies that share the values of (the) Alliance, which are willing and able to assume the responsibilities and obligations of membership, and whose membership contributes to our common security.” Finland and Sweden, armed neutral states of long-standing, were given an object lesson in the limits of neutrality when Russia invaded Ukraine this year. Helsinki and Stockholm have now come to grips with the risks of armed neutrality outside of the alliance and submitted NATO Accession Protocols that were accepted at the NATO Madrid Summit in July. Both nations are now on a path to membership.
New accessions to the alliance enhance solidarity among democratic states determined to protect their national sovereignty and respect the sovereignty of other nations. When coupled with membership in the European Union and other multilateral organizations, NATO members on the continent are bound by political, economic and security interests—and mutual interests provide common ground for the arbitration and peaceful resolutions of disputes.
Collective and Cooperative Security
The security agreement among NATO members has shielded Western Europe from the catastrophic conflicts that exhausted the continent twice in the last century. The principle of collective defense is at the heart of the Washington Treaty: collective defense under Article 5 means that an attack on one NATO ally is an attack on all allies. Admittedly, the 78 years since the end of World War II have not seen a perfect peace in Europe, but no NATO nation has been forced to mount a full-scale defense against an invader or suffer occupation, oppression, and rapine by a foreign power.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, newly independent states in Europe—former members of the Warsaw Pact or Soviet satellites—aspired to meet NATO membership requirements and shelter under the alliance’s security umbrella. It proved to be an historic, unprecedented, and hugely successful enlargement of NATO. In 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia joined in 2004 and Albania joined in 2009. The record speaks for itself: the collective security afforded these NATO members has been an effective deterrent to aggression and these newly free nations rejected the authoritarian government they knew as Soviet satellites and embraced democracy, western norms of international behavior, and free market economies.
Dr. Maitra has stated further expansion of NATO—ostensibly with the admission of Sweden and Finland—is “a historic mistake,” and that both countries want a “free ride on the American security umbrella.” This argument ignores the fact neutral Sweden and Finland already have capable military forces; built, and funded their security outside of the alliance; and both nations have announced plans to increase defense spending. The two Nordic nations also bring enhanced naval capabilities into the alliance; Sweden’s navy is ranked fifth in the world and Finland’s navy ranks eleventh. Moreover, the argument ignores the fact that the Alliance has a purpose in fostering greater cooperation beyond the Euro-Atlantic region and outside the American security umbrella.
Cooperative security arrangements have emerged over the last two decades to improve dialog and coordination with non-NATO nations. NATO’s Partnerships and Cooperative Security Committee (PCSC) and Partnership for Peace (PfP) focus on political and military programs of outreach to non-member countries. The PCSC coordinates activities with nations outside the alliance—notably in the wider Mediterranean region and with Mid-East partners—on transnational issues including combating terrorism, border security, arms proliferation, civil defense, disaster preparedness, and civil-military air traffic control. The PfP pairs NATO nations with partners who select their own priorities for cooperative engagements.
The enlargement of NATO, then, in its broader role of promoting cooperative security in Europe and neighboring regions, extends beyond just the accession of new NATO members to encompass bilateral and multilateral security and stability initiatives with non-member partner nations.
Development and Growth
Membership in NATO provides the security, stability, and cooperation that are pre-requisites for sustained economic growth. Nations that aspire to join the alliance must demonstrate not only that they are committed to collective security, but that they are further committed to a functioning democratic political system based on a free market economy.
Alliance members who have made free market reforms attract foreign direct investment that fuels economic development. These stable and secure states offer risk-averse investors attractive opportunities for investment without the downstream risks of either expropriation or nationalization. Economists have cited this “NATO effect” as a driving factor—alongside lower cost skilled labor, existing infrastructure, and political stability—in real growth in gross domestic product (GDP). This has been especially true among former Soviet-bloc nations that joined the alliance. Poland, for example, with an economy stultified by years of Soviet-style wage and price controls has grown its GDP from US $168B in 1999 to US $674B in 2021—more than four-fold growth in two decades.
Enlargement of NATO through both direct accession and partnering mechanisms grows the free market economies of nations that also enjoy greater cooperation and secure cross-border exchange. The impact of this economic growth is seen in increased social stability, a higher standard of living, a rise in state revenues, and greater access to health care, education, and other social services for millions of citizens of NATO nations.
Democracy and the Rule of Law
If the Soviet Union was the raison d’etre for NATO, then today the alliance would be little more than a relic of Cold War alliances. But NATO has always been more than just a counterweight to the Soviet behemoth in Europe. Fourteen nations joined the alliance after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, five PfP nations—Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Georgia, Sweden, and Ukraine—aspire to become NATO members. In the last month, Finland and Sweden completed accession talks, successfully negotiated a tri-lateral memorandum of understanding with Turkey that erased Istanbul’s objections to their membership, and now await only formal ratification of their Accession Protocols to become alliance members.
Alliance membership for these nations is more than an effort to bolster their security. The founding NATO nations were united not only in their opposition to communism and authoritarianism; they shared an ardent desire for a just and lasting peace. This is more than what Dr. Maitra claims is “smiley-badge . . . crusading elite-driven transnational liberalism.” In the wake of a cataclysmic war that ravaged an entire continent and eroded the moral foundations of society, NATO members found common cause as democratic nations united to defend western values. The preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty captured the new resolve of the trans-Atlantic partners “to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.”
New NATO aspirants must demonstrably share that resolve. In addition to making an ironclad commitment to collective security, maintaining functioning democratic processes, and creating free market economies, aspirants must also show they are prepared to embrace the motive values of the alliance. Membership commits new members to the fair treatment of minority populations in their countries, to the peaceful resolution of conflicts with other states, to democratic civil-military relations, and institutional structures underpinned by the rule of law.
Unity, Comity, and Resolve
The continuing crisis in Ukraine has tested the unity, comity, and resolve of NATO nations and the alliance has not been found wanting. NATO nations are supplying arms and equipment to beleaguered Ukraine and maintaining a long logistics train through their road, rail, and air transport networks. NATO has also united member states and partners as willing participants in enforcing the unprecedented and tough economic sanctions and export controls imposed on Russia. The alliance has also pledged to replace much of Ukraine’s Soviet-era military equipment with NATO-compatible arms.
At the recent Madrid Summit, alliance members renewed their commitment to the Defense Investment Pledge that supports military preparedness in member countries and will boost NATO common funding. That pledge ensures resources will be available to strengthen and modernize the NATO Force structure and ready the alliance for high intensity and multiple-domain operations by growing the NATO Response Force (from 40,000 to 300,000 forces) and creating a rapid response cyber capability.
The Summit declaration also recognizes “distinct threats from all strategic directions” far beyond the borders of the Euro-Atlantic region. Russia “is the most significant and direct threat,” but members also recognize the looming risks of “cyber, space, hybrid, and other asymmetric threats . . . the malicious use of emerging and disruptive technologies . . . and the systemic competition (from) China.” In response, NATO is prepared to take a broader, 360-degree approach to collective security by engaging diplomatic, informational, economic, and military means. It is also an approach that has global reach. Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea—partners from the Asia-Pacific region—attended the summit and signaled their willingness to cooperate and tackle shared security challenges.
In the end, NATO enlargement through the accession of new member nations and through cooperation with partners inside and outside of the Euro-Atlantic region, holds the promise of effective deterrence against aggression and multi-national efforts to meet emerging global challenges. The accession of new nations to the alliance is driven by more than the need for a common defense; it is driven by new members sharing the resolve of the founders of the alliance who were “united in our commitment to democracy, individual liberty, human rights, and the rule of law.”