NATO at Three Score and Ten: An Anticipatory Elegy

In just a few days, delegations from the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will gather in Washington to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the longest-lasting multilateral alliance in modern history.

They shall recall how NATO fostered unity, strength, and will among Western democracies for 40 years and prevailed over the Soviet bloc without a shot being fired. They shall also congratulate themselves on the subsequent 30 years during which the membership expanded from 16 to 29, the mission expanded far beyond collective security, and the area of operations expanded as far afield as Afghanistan. But unchecked inflation is often a symptom of institutional senility rather than vitality.

Perhaps the Americans who steered NATO on its present course were simply anxious to provide new raisons d’être for an alliance whose real target disappeared with the Cold War. Perhaps President Donald Trump had a point when he called NATO obsolete. Perhaps the years of its life are “three score and ten, or by reason of strength fourscore” (Psalm 90:10), in which case, this decennial may be its last.

The threat that gave birth to NATO—the communist bloc—ceased to exist 30 years ago. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed two years after that, reducing Muscovy back to its 17th century boundaries. During the 1990s Russia’s economy contracted by 45 percent and has not grown much since. The Russian defense budget today is 72 percent less than the last Soviet one. And while Vladimir Putin pretends Russia is a world power, even he admitted in his Munich address of 2007 that the Cold War’s bipolarity had been replaced by a hegemony in which the United States is the “one center of authority, one center of force, one center of decision-making,” and has “overstepped its national borders in every way.”[1] Most galling for Putin was the fact that the United States exploited Russian weakness to expand NATO up to and even into the boundaries of the defunct Soviet Union.

Nothing resembling the threat of Josef Stalin’s empire and Red Army exists today and Europeans are well aware of that, which is why only three European governments met the target—2 percent of GNP—for defense spending in 2017. Germans, French, and Italians simply do not feel threatened by Russia. Hence the “free rider” dilemma of a United States that accounts for 71.7 percent of NATO’s defense expenditures in 2017 has only become more acute, not less, since the end of Cold War.[2]

The voracious engulfment by NATO of nearly all countries west of Russia likewise risks its cohesion. The alliance motto, which looms on the wall overlooking the grand conference room in its Brussels headquarters, reads: Animus in consulendo liber (“A mind unfettered in deliberation”). But the fact is that NATO’s deliberations have always been fettered by its unanimity rule. Consensus was hard enough to achieve among the original 12, not to mention the current 29 governments each with own agenda . . . unless, of course, member states just surrender to the will of the United States.

It would appear that NATO today has become both “too big to fail” and “too big to work.” Some day, NATO’s credibility will be put to a test that its constituent states will be unable or unwilling to pass.

Empire by Invitation

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, like so many initiatives identified with the United States, was a British invention.[3] In 1948, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin begged Americans to identify with the Brussels Pact, which Britain, France, and the Benelux countries had just concluded. Bevin’s premises were that Soviet obstruction had crippled the United Nations as an instrument for collective security; that Europe’s postwar democracies were too weak to defend themselves; and that the Marshall Plan could not succeed unless Europeans were assured of a U.S. military commitment.

The Truman administration decided Bevin was right, and persuaded Congress to endorse what historian Geir Lundestad called an “empire by invitation.”[4] In so doing, the U.S. government jettisoned its tradition of peacetime unilateralism dating back to George Washington’s Farewell Address.[5] So great were the diplomatic, military, and even constitutional innovations this new departure required that President Truman and successive Cold War Presidents preached a new American civil religion—in effect a new theology of foreign policy—in order to persuade the Congress and public to make the sacrifices which leadership of the Free World entailed.[6]

Secretary of State Dean Acheson and John Nickerson, chief of the State Department’s European bureau, dominated discussions on how to enlarge the Brussels Pact. They envisioned an alliance including the United States and Canada, a northern tier consisting of Norway, Denmark (hence Greenland) and Iceland, and a southern tier consisting of Portugal, Italy, and French Algeria. (Greece and Turkey, the original beneficiaries of the Truman Doctrine, would be added in 1952.)

But the founders took care to do nothing that Stalin might perceive as threatening. Thus Iceland remained disarmed and only agreed to host U.S. bases after heated debate. Denmark and Norway, which shared a small Arctic frontier with the USSR, joined NATO only on condition that they not host foreign bases in peacetime. Sweden, trusting instead in armed neutrality, did not join at all. Fifty years later, the allies displayed no such prudence.

Acheson called NATO unique insofar as it was committed to defend not only territory but “the moral and spiritual values we hold in common.”[7] In fact, that was compromised early on given the membership of António de Oliveira Salazar’s authoritarian Portugal and a dubious Turkish republic dominated by its military. What is more, the treaty did not really commit member states to do anything except to “encourage economic collaboration” (Article 2) and take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force” (Article 5) in case of an armed attack on a member of the alliance.[8]

The clause that has been most misunderstood, if not de facto repealed, holds that members may “invite any other European state in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.” (Article 10; emphasis added.) Fifty years later, NATO again displayed no such prudence.

Throughout the Cold War, NATO seemed in a permanent state of crisis. But it hung together in the face of Soviet threats and blandishments, intramural quarrels born of European resentment against U.S. domination, U.S. insistence on more equitable burden-sharing, and everyone’s doubts about strategy. Its First Strategic Concept, promulgated in January 1950, called for rapid European rearmament—which was far beyond the means of the war-ravaged Continent—as well as “strategic bombing by all means possible with all types of weapons.”[9] Hence the United States draped its nuclear umbrella over Western Europe from the start.

When the Korean War then distracted U.S. attention to Asia, Washington began to insist that the Europeans find a formula to rearm West Germany (even though that broke NATO’s pledge to France that the Germans would be kept disarmed). Under the Second Strategic Concept (December 1952), a European Defense Community was floated only to be rejected by the French themselves. So NATO instead made West Germany a member in 1955 on condition that its military serve under American or British command and foreswear nuclear weapons. But partnership with the Federal Republic of Germany obliged the alliance to mount a “forward strategy” on the Iron Curtain rather than a defense on the Rhine.

Meanwhile, the Eisenhower administration had adopted the New Look doctrine based on blunt nuclear deterrence. That inspired NATO’s Third Strategic Concept (May 1957), which called for massive retaliation “since in no case is there a concept of limited war with the Soviets.” That, too, aborted because that same year the Soviets developed an intercontinental ballistic missile and rattled their rockets during the Berlin crisis of 1958 to 1961.[10] Could Europeans trust the U.S. umbrella now that their own cities were at risk? NATO marked its 10th anniversary in an anxious mood.

Anxieties and Dark Decades

The Kennedy and Johnson administrations replaced the New Look with Flexible Response, which in Europe implied that NATO should prepare for conventional or tactical nuclear war, while deterring only strategic nuclear war. That made Europeans queasier still. They were frightened by the prospect of a limited nuclear war yet had no desire to pay for the armed forces needed to wage a conventional war.

Charles de Gaulle was especially miffed, so he rushed to completion his own nuclear force de frappe and withdrew French armed forces from NATO command. But the palaver with the other Europeans dragged on for six years until the alliance adopted a Fourth Strategic Concept (December 1967) based on the sanguine notion that the sheer ambiguity of Flexible Response might give the Soviets pause.[11] That, plus the Vietnam War, the student riots of 1968, and Soviet repression of the Prague Spring, meant the allies marked NATO’s 20th anniversary with even more anxiety.

The 1970s were the darkest decade of all. In 1971, the balance-of-payments deficit—partly a function of America’s far-flung foreign deployments—caused the Nixon administration to pull the dollar off the gold standard. In 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries embargoed, then quintupled, the price of oil. Eurocommunism and domestic terrorism spread. Even détente cut both ways: President Nixon’s bargains with Leonid Brezhnev ratified Soviet nuclear equality even as the Red Army still enjoyed conventional superiority. When the Soviets began to deploy theater-range SS-20 missiles in 1979, it seemed they believed a limited war in Europe really could be waged and won. So NATO’s 30th anniversary was another joyless occasion.

Then the weather turned. The governments of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, West Germany’s Helmut Kohl, and France’s François Mitterand came into office and faced down their respective nuclear freeze movements to deploy U.S.-supplied Pershing ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. Ronald Reagan accelerated the military buildup Jimmy Carter had begun following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. NATO adopted aggressive new strategies, such as the Air/Land Battle and New Maritime Strategy based on advanced technologies the USSR could not match. That helped to propel Mikhail Gorbachev to power and inspire the reforms that inadvertently dissolved communism from within.

NATO’s 40th birthday thus came on a cusp of surprises: the liberation of Eastern Europe in 1989; the reunification of Germany in 1990; and the collapse of the USSR itself in 1991. A “Europe Whole and Free”—NATO’s raison d’être—was fulfilled. Why, then, did the alliance not only survive, but balloon like a supernova?

Looking for a Peace Dividend

Many Americans believed that NATO need no longer exist.[12] Others advised against closing the “fire department” just because one conflagration had been extinguished. Still others urged the alliance to shift its focus from security to the promotion of democracy and market economies. A few even imagined NATO going global. But no one in the George H.W. Bush administration spoke of expanding its geographical or functional scope. On the contrary, the Americans and West Germans who engaged in the “Two Plus Four Talks” on the reunification of Germany took it for granted that NATO would not project military power east of the former Iron Curtain.

Secretary of State James Baker explicitly asked Gorbachev whether he preferred “a united Germany outside NATO and completely autonomous” or “a united Germany that maintains its ties with NATO, but with the guarantee that NATO jurisdiction or troops would not extend east of the current line?”[13] Likewise, West Germany’s Foreign Minister announced, “What NATO must do is state unequivocally that whatever happens to the Warsaw Pact there will no expansion of NATO territory eastward, that is to say closer to the borders of the Soviet Union.” Nothing was put in writing, the promise was made to a moribund regime, and anyway Great Powers are not in the habit of keeping promises that no longer serve their perceived interests.[14]

At the same time, a decent respect for the amour propre of potential adversaries was a signal feature of the first President Bush’s statecraft, and it is worth asking how the future might have played out had he won re-election in 1992. Certainly NATO’s irenic Fifth Strategic Concept (November 1991) said nothing about expansion and promised reductions in military forces to the “lowest possible level,” plus partnerships with the former Soviet bloc.

U.S. deployments in Europe fell by two-thirds. European defense budgets cratered. Everyone wanted a peace dividend.

Then Bill Clinton became President, and the theologians he named to his foreign policy team started to brainstorm their way to the “new world order” Bush had only imagined. Their new civil religious orthodoxy would replace the militant but defensive strategy of Containment with an allegedly pacific but offensive strategy of Engagement and Enlargement.

Recall that, four decades before, the Truman administration imagined God was summoning Americans to take up their cross and champion the free peoples resisting atheistic, totalitarian communism. But Truman and his successors also promised the American people that sooner or later communism would perish in fire or ice, whereupon all nations would convert to liberal values and globalized markets—in short, to the American Way. That chiliastic New Jerusalem seemed to have descended in the 1990s, when Francis Fukuyama imagined “The End of History.”[15]

Clinton’s advisers—zealous liberal internationalists, all—rode that thrilling wave. In a series of speeches in 1993 and 1994, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, and Clinton himself sketched out the new order to be fashioned through engagement with recalcitrant regimes such as China and enlargement of democratic clubs such as NATO and the European Union. They expected it would occur naturally as globalization toppled all barriers to the flow of capital, goods, labor, and ideas, spreading democracy, human rights, peace and prosperity.

It might be said Clinton’s grand strategy was to render grand strategy obsolete. In any event, the bibulous Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, and his crippled economy were in no position to resist. So it was that enlargement—which few civilians advocated and which all military leaders opposed—became an inevitability. It was a bad idea whose time had come, almost overnight.

NATO’s Partnership for Peace

The Polish, Czech, and Hungarian leaders Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Arpad Goncz, who formed the Visegrad Group in 1991, are often credited with kick-starting the process. In April 1993, these heads of state personally pleaded with Clinton to expand NATO and end the Stalinist division of Europe. But historian James Goldgeier has shown that enlargement was an American project brought to fruition through the “political entrepreneurialism” of Clinton aides Anthony Lake, Strobe Talbott, Undersecretary of State Lynn E. Davis, and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, with the blessings of Secretary of State Christopher and his successor in that office, Albright.[16]

One might have expected that Talbott, Clinton’s friend and an expert on Russia, might have dissented. He knew very well (as a Russian counterpart put it) that “NATO is a four-letter word in Russian,” hence enlarging it too much or too quickly would likely play into the hands of the nationalists and communists who opposed Yeltsin.[17] But Talbott also, as he makes clear in his 2002 memoir, believed that NATO expansion “was the right thing to do. The challenge was how to do it right.”

So when the Pentagon proposed a Partnership for Peace to promote East-West dialogue and postpone consideration of NATO expansion, Talbott imagined it a palliative that might win Russia’s grudging acceptance of NATO expansion. Clinton’s cabinet approved a Two-Track Policy, which embraced the Partnership but anticipated NATO expansion as well, as early as October 1993. But since the Partnership seemed to invite Russian meddling in NATO’s business, heavyweights ranging from Henry Kissinger and James Baker to Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Zoelleck registered protests.

The Partnership also prompted Foreign Affairs to publish an article strongly in favor of rapid NATO expansion. Its authors, Ronald D. Asmus, Richard L. Kugler, and F. Stephen Larabee, argued that German-Russian nationalist competition was bound to recur unless the former Soviet satellites were incorporated into NATO and the EU. The “new NATO,” the authors concluded, must go “out of area or it will go out of business.”[18]

Clinton traveled to Central Europe in January 1994 to reassure the Visegrad presidents that “the question is no longer whether NATO will take on new members but when and how.”[19] That same month, however, Secretary Christopher told the Russians that NATO’s emphasis had shifted away from enlargement toward the Partnership for Peace. Yeltsin cried, “Terrific! Tell Bill this is a wonderful decision.” Later, at the airport, Talbott tried to inform Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev that NATO expansion might be delayed but was still very much on the table. The desolated Kozyrev pretended not to hear.[20] That contretemps said it all.

Domestic politics briefly intruded, when Newt Gingrich made NATO expansion one of the planks in his Contract with America and, in 1994, Republicans won control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.[21] Sensing this was a moment to exploit, Lake and Holbrooke pulled off a bureaucratic coup that stunned Secretary of Defense William Perry. Perry had come to the White House intending to speak against expansion, only to be informed that a presidential decision had already been made. That was telling, since it proved national security had had little to do with President Clinton’s decision. But Clinton could not act on it until NATO demonstrated its post-Cold War mettle by ending the genocidal war that had erupted in the former Yugoslavia.

A Weak Yeltsin and a Sly Clinton

Holbrooke performed that delicate task by mediating a Bosnian-Serbian truce in the November 1995 Dayton Accords, whereupon NATO troops, joined by a Russian brigade, formed the Implementation Force to police Bosnia.[22] For a moment it seemed the Partnership for Peace was indeed the way forward for the former Cold War enemies, especially when Yeltsin won re-election handily in July 1996.

Over the subsequent winter, however, NATO members decided the time had come to make formal invitations to the Visegrad states to apply to join the alliance. It would be done at the next NATO summit slated for the summer of 1997 in Madrid. So Clinton traveled to Helsinki in March 1997 in hopes of securing Yeltsin’s acquiescence without concessions, except the only concession Clinton thought really mattered: He promised to sponsor Russian membership in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the World Trade Organization, the Paris Club that helped debtor nations, and the Group of Seven industrial democracies. In other words, he expected that a democratic and neoliberal Russia would integrate smoothly into the global economy, whereupon power politics would become atavistic.

But Russian prestige had received a terrible blow, which Yeltsin’s domestic enemies on the right and left meant to exploit. So Yeltsin traveled to Helsinki in hopes of securing some face-saving concession. “Our position has not changed. It remains a mistake for NATO to move eastward,” said Yeltsin. “But I need to take steps to alleviate the negative consequences of this for Russia. I am prepared to enter into an agreement with NATO, not because I want to but because it’s a step I’m compelled to take.”[23]

Then the Russian President asked for a promise that NATO would not embrace any formerly Soviet republics. Clinton slyly asked in return whether Yeltsin agreed that they two must show the world there really is a new NATO and new Russia. When he answered in the affirmative (he could hardly do otherwise), Clinton lowered the boom: Any written agreement that restricted NATO’s freedom of action was bound to be rejected by the U.S. Senate, whereas an unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” would surely leak, would show NATO and Russia were still rivals, and would undermine the Partnership for Peace.

“C’mon, Boris,” said Clinton, “I know what a terrible problem this is for you, but I can’t make the specific commitment you are asking for. It would violate the whole spirit of NATO.” Yeltsin thus had no choice but swallow whatever pill Dr. Clinton prescribed, which turned out to be a vague Founding Act on Mutual Relations which promised consultation with Russia and no military bases in new member states “in the current and foreseeable security environment.”[24]

All that remained was to win the Senate’s advice and consent. The administration left nothing to chance. A special Enlargement Ratification Office in the State Department courted the media, mobilized ethnic groups, and rebutted objections that cited the high cost of expanding NATO and the harm it would do to relations with Russia.

Now that NATO expansion was imminent, influential opponents suddenly found their voices. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called it “a blunder of monumental proportions.” Former Secretary Perry openly denounced it as did former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. So did historians John Lewis Gaddis and Michael Mandelbaum. So did Russianists led by George F. Kennan, who called this “the most fateful error in the entire post-Cold War era.”[25]

The disorganized opponents, however, were peddling fears few others felt in that complacent era, whereas the well-orchestrated proponents were peddling dreams. Thus did Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), collaborating with the White House, pretend to give enlargement “the consideration that a historic treaty of this nature deserves,” but in fact budgeted just six committee hearings in the fall of 1997 and three days of floor debate in April 1998—hardly the sort of “great debate” over deployments to NATO that monopolized the Senate for three months in 1951.[26]

Witnesses in favor included celebrities such as Brzezinski and former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, who both discounted Russian opposition and said enlargement was more about consolidating democracy than security. The only geopolitical argument made was Kissinger’s, about the necessity of inserting American power between Germany and Russia lest those powers resume their old rivalries.

Witnesses in opposition were comparatively unknown, hence few paid attention as the former Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, arms-control specialist Jonathan Dean, and Professors Mandelbaum and Alvin Z. Rubinstein variously argued that NATO expansion would make Europe less secure, not more, sharply increase NATO’s liabilities (“We are undertaking the mother of all unfunded mandates here”), needlessly alienate the Russians, and even be “a prescription for destroying the alliance.”[27]

Senators shrugged—this seemed an easy vote—and on April 30, 1998 gave their advice and consent by 80 to 19.

First Humanitarian War

At its 50th anniversary summit in Brussels, the alliance welcomed new members Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, and approved Membership Action Plans for nine other countries. It also adopted a Sixth Strategic Concept that expanded NATO’s mission to include political, social, economic, and humanitarian goals, crisis management and peace-keeping, and resistance to terrorism, genocide, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Not coincidentally, NATO had already gone to war in order to demonstrate its ability to perform those missions. Violence in the former Yugoslavia, quelled in Bosnia, flared up again in Kosovo where Albanian Muslims rebelled against their Serbian masters and the Belgrade regime of Slobodan Milosevic retaliated with systematic massacres and expulsions. As pressure mounted for NATO intervention, Yeltsin tried forlornly to replicate the Dayton Accords and defend Milosevic.

Once again Holbrooke stepped in to mediate a truce. But since it contained no enforcement mechanism, Secretary Albright hosted more peace talks at Rambouillet early in 1999. Only they were not really peace talks because the Americans appended a “joker clause” obliging Serbia to submit to a NATO occupation comprised of 30,000 troops with full transit rights and immunity.

Such a violation of national sovereignty, calling to mind the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia that triggered World War I, was intolerable to Milosevic. In fact that suited the Clinton administration, which now got the chance to demonstrate NATO’s new agenda and “out of area” operations. The expectation was for the Serbs to wilt quickly as they had in Bosnia. When instead Milosevic remained defiant, the United States had to sustain a ferocious and escalating bombing campaign, lasting from March until June, which neither the Russians nor the U.N. Security Council approved.[28]

The Clinton administration styled the Kosovo campaign the first humanitarian war, the first won solely through air power, and the first to reflect such millennial transformations as globalization, the Information Technology revolution, and the postmodern transcendence of national sovereignty in the name of human rights. What the Russian, Chinese, and various Muslim regimes saw instead was a militant “new NATO” armed with a “Jacobin” doctrine that could conceivably be applied to their own trouble spots such as Chechnya or Tibet.[29]

The reason that Kosovo also vexed the American Army General Wesley Clark was that NATO’s unanimity rule obliged him to steer his decisions through Brussels, an absurd violation of the principle of unity of command. The Kosovo War concerned Kissinger, who now feared that NATO enlargement was changing the alliance from a “defensive military grouping to an institution prepared to impose its values by force . . . [and] undercut repeated American and allied assurances that Russia has nothing to fear from NATO expansion.” Indeed Russians, for whom Serbia had been a Slavic Orthodox client since 1903, were nearly unanimous in condemning the war as a “geopolitical coup d’état.”[30]

Meanwhile their politics had reached a crossroads. On New Year’s Eve 1999, Boris Yeltsin resigned from office and named Vladimir Putin his successor.

A Runaway Train

Then came September 11, 2001, and the first-ever invocation of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. Member states unanimously declared the attack on the United States to be an attack on them all, so the war in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom, was technically NATO’s second war—though this time the Pentagon insisted on its own chain of command.

Unanimity in the face of Al Qaeda was squandered, however, when President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq in a wider war that 70 to 80 percent of French and Germans opposed. It might even be said that the alliance fell into abeyance during the final six years of Bush’s tenure. But NATO enlargement did not, and the War on Terror so distracted Americans that few noticed when, in May 2003, the Senate voted 96 to 0 to approve the admission of Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Thus did NATO expansion, like a runaway train, roar past the last switch.

In retrospect, the addition of the Visegrad states was probably going to happen even without the Clinton ideological agenda. Historically and culturally, the Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians were undeniably part of Mitteleuropa rather than Stalin’s artificial “Eastern Europe.”[31] All three peoples were heirs to Western, Catholic civilization and all three had played heroic roles in the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Finally, the Visegrad states shared no boundaries with Russia save for the quirky exclave of Kaliningrad.

The nations admitted in the second round of NATO enlargement were of another order altogether. They included Balkan countries inside Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, or else heirs to Eastern Orthodox civilization, or else—in the case of the Baltic republics—had been integral and strategic parts of Russia since Peter the Great.[32] But most irresponsible was the willful breach of that language in Article 10 of the Treaty of Washington, to the effect that NATO members may invite only countries “in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.” (Again, emphasis added.)

The Baltic republics, especially, are not contributors to but consumers of the dubious security provided de jure by NATO and de facto by the United States. If ever there were a time to speak inconvenient truths to the peoples in post-Soviet borderlands, it would have been around the turn of the millennium, when there was still time to suggest their security might be better served by choosing a Finnish neutrality and pursuing a “good neighbor policy” toward Russia.

The Push-Back

The rest of the story is quickly told. In 2008, Putin finally pushed back, ordering the Russian army to occupy the Georgian provinces of Ossetia and Abkhazian in support of local rebels. That had its intended chilling effect on the NATO summit in Bucharest, where the Germans and French balked at a U.S. proposal to award Membership Action Plans to Georgia and Ukraine.  On its 60th birthday in 2009, NATO did admit the western Balkan states of Croatia and Albania, and in 2010 it approved its Seventh Strategic Concept, adding cyber defense and crisis-prevention to its proliferating missions.

The following year, the Arab Spring protests tempted the alliance to wage a third war, this time against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. The motive, ostensibly humanitarian, was mostly to preempt refugee flows across the Mediterranean; and the effect, ostensibly regime-change, was mostly to spread anarchy and thus to create new havens for terrorists in North Africa. Finally, following the popular overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, Putin re-annexed the formerly Russian Crimea and dispatched armed infiltrators into the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine.

NATO enlargement completed its descent from the sublime to the ridiculous in 2017, when tiny Montenegro became the 29th member. Membership for Ukraine and Georgia is still on the table, while the European Union, which expanded in tandem with NATO, is still very aggressive. Its Eastern Partnership created in 2009 coordinates economic strategy with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—with an ultimate motive to which the then-Foreign Minister of Poland, Radoslaw Sikorski, admitted: “We all know the EU has enlargement fatigue. We have to use this time to prepare as much as possible so that when the fatigue passes, membership becomes something natural.”[33]

As for the United States, Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has declared that NATO membership is “the only strategy that can realistically secure Georgian and Ukrainian sovereignty,” while Vice President Mike Pence has renewed the promise that “Georgia will one day become a member of NATO.”[34]

How Can NATO Defend Its Far-Flung Frontiers?

In light of those statements, what ought one to make of Trump’s frequently expressed NATO dyspepsia? It could be a rhetorical ploy, reminiscent of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s threat of an “agonizing reappraisal” of U.S. commitments in 1954. Trump is livid (or pretends to be) over the refusal of the Germans, especially, to contribute much of anything to NATO’s defense posture even as the government led by Angela Merkel fills Russia’s coffers by purchasing billions of euros worth of Russian natural gas via the Nordstrom pipeline.[35]

No matter how much abuse they get, the Europeans are not going to relinquish free security so long as Americans remain willing and able to provide it. Indeed, whenever the Europeans talk about a common foreign and security policy—and there have been many mutterings to that effect over the last 50 years—the U.S. administration of the time has poured cold water on the idea. The most recent and emphatic instance was when the second President Bush repeated the mantra of “the three D’s”: no duplication of U.S. forces; no decoupling from NATO; and no discrimination against the United States in arms purchases.

In any event, as historian James J. Sheehan concludes, European states, once made for war, are now made by and for peace: “It seems likely that Europe will continue to depend on some version of the Atlantic partnership, with all of its attendant tensions and conflicts. . . . Nevertheless, as hard as it might be to live in the Atlantic alliance, living without it would be harder still.”[36]

Burden-sharing, a perennial source of transatlantic discord, is really the least of NATO’s worries. The real Damocles sword overhanging the alliance is its own pretense to the effect that Russia has nothing to fear from NATO (or EU) expansion. Even a NATO-sponsored report from 2014 concluded: “Against this background, Western arguments about the benevolence of NATO enlargement never had much traction. Statements by Western politicians that NATO enlargement was also in Russia’s interest appeared both naive and arrogant, for they presupposed that considerations of power, status, and influence were no longer important.” In fact, the open-ended “unification projects” of NATO and the EU “can hardly be perceived by Russia as anything but a permanent assault on its global and regional power and influence.”[37]

It is the soft, not the hard, power of the Western alliance that threatens Russia and that therefore makes its expansion so provocative. By unifying the rest of Europe, these institutions have implicitly redefined Russia as an Asian power, which is an identity that most Russians reject. So it should not be surprising that Putin’s regime “will continue to push westward, using the whole panoply of its capabilities: subversion, corruption, cyberattacks, gas supplies, and old fashioned hard military power are all vectored toward the West.”[38]

Put more precisely, the real Damocles sword overhanging the alliance is this: How can NATO, whose European militaries are hollowed out, hope to defend its far-flung frontiers, especially in its “bridge too far” on the Baltic Sea? The Baltic republics today are the equivalent of West Berlin during the Cold War. Surrounded by Russian-controlled territory, bereft of defenses in depth, and perilous to reinforce from abroad, they probably would not survive 72 hours against a determined Russian attack.[39]

To be sure, NATO has launched a European Deterrence Initiative to provide the Baltics with military equipment, training, and rotating battle groups, but all together they amount to no more than 4,400 troops. Russia, by contrast, could mobilize 25 battalions of armor and mechanized infantry supported by artillery and air power. In the event of an attack, NATO reinforcements would have to arrive by sea in the teeth of Russia’s “anti-access/area denial” submarines, aircraft, and missiles, and mount an amphibious assault in the event the Baltic port cities were already overrun.[40]

Would NATO member governments unanimously declare a war they are manifestly unprepared to wage and which may go nuclear? Or would they stand down, in which case NATO’s Drang Nach Osten would perversely destroy the credibility of the alliance as Germans, Belgians, Portuguese, Montenegrins, and the rest—echoing Marcel Déat’s remark in 1939 about Danzig—asked themselves: “Why Die for Tallinn?”

[1] Remarks of Vladimir Putin at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy, Munich, Germany, February 10, 2007. Transcript is here.

[2] “The US Spent $686 Billion on Defense Last Year—Here’s How the Other NATO Countries Stack Up,” CNBC, July 6, 2018.

[3] Examples include unilateralism, reliance on a European balance of power, the Monroe Doctrine, territorial and commercial expansion, the Anglo-Saxon mission and White Man’s Burden, the Open Door, League of Nations, and Cold War (via Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech). In this connection, I have quoted the wry observation of the late Christopher Hitchens, who said that “whenever the United States has been on the verge of a new diplomatic departure ‘there has been a deceptively languid English adviser at the elbow, urging yes in tones that neither hector nor beseech but are always somehow beguiling’.” Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776 (Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p. 221.

[4] Geir Lundestad, “Empire by Invitation?: The United States and Western Europe, 1945-1952,” Journal of Peace Research 23:3 (1986), 263-77.

[5] I argue in Promised Land, Crusader State that such unilateralism by no means implied “isolationism,” a term not even coined until the 1890s.

[6] Walter A. McDougall, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How American Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest (Yale University Press, 2016) traces the evolution (really devolution) of the civil religion since 1789. NATO was an ideal expression of the Cold War’s civil theology, and I here qualify it as the “Neo-Progressive ACR.”

[7] Lawrence S. Kaplan, NATO 1948: The Birth of the Transatlantic Alliance (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), pp. 195-228; Stanley R. Sloan, Defense of the West: NATO, The European Union, and the Transatlantic Bargain (Manchester University, 2016), pp. 19-36. The Acheson quote is on p. 19 of Sloan.

[8] Stephen M. Walt, in “NATO Isn’t What You Think It Is” (Foreign Policy, July 26, 2018), alerted readers (most notably President Trump) to this language, which is comforting to some NATO countries but deeply unsettling to its new members.

[9] On this and all subsequent NATO Strategic Plans, see Lawrence S. Kaplan, NATO Divided, NATO United: The Evolution of an Alliance (Praeger Press, 2004) as well as the NATO web site. See also an April 2014 three-part series from Stratfor, “Considering NATO.”

[10] Lawrence S. Kaplan, The Long Entanglement: NATO’s First Fifty Years (Praeger Press, 1999), pp. 59-75.

[11] NATO’s definition of Flexible Response was so murky that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara considered it a different concept altogether and that one essential element, “building sufficient conventional capabilities to offset those of the Warsaw Pact—has never been achieved.” Hence raising the nuclear threshold, which was the whole point of the American strategy, was never achieved. See William Park, Defending the West: A History of NATO (Wheatsheaf Books, 1986), pp. 85-93.

[12] For instance David Calleo, Beyond American Hegemony: The Future of the Western Alliance (Basic Books, 1987); Ted Galen Carpenter, A Search for Enemies: American Alliances After the Cold War (Cato Institute, 1992); and Eric A. Nordlinger, Isolationism Reconfigured: American Foreign Policy for a New Century (Princeton University Press, 1995).

[13] Hal Brands, From Berlin to Bagdad: America’s Search for Purpose in the Post-Cold War World (University Press of Kentucky, 2008), p. 29.

[14] Joshua Itzkowitz Shifrinson, in “Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer to Limit NATO Expansion,” International Security 40:4 (Spring 2016), 7-44, concludes on p. 39 that “there is no evidence that the United States was actively planning to expand NATO into Eastern Europe in 1990” but that “available evidence suggests a sharp disjuncture between what the United States told the Soviet Union and what U.S. policymakers privately intended.” Jeffrey A. Engel, When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), reaches a more cautious conclusion: “Here we must of necessity split hairs. The Americans did not lie. But neither could they foresee the future or bind their successors.” (p. 337)

[15] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992).

[16] James M. Goldgeier, Not Whether But When: The U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO (Brookings Institution Press, 1999), pp. 1-13.

[17] Strobe Talbott, The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy (Random House, 2002), pp. 92-101. Talbott would thoroughly convert to NATO expansion by 1997 (when he published an article strongly in favor of it) and to Clinton’s millenarian civil religion by 2001, when he wrote (“America Abroad,” Time, June 24, 2001) that “I’ll bet that within the next hundred years . . .  nationhood will be obsolete; all states will recognized a single, global authority.”

[18] Ronald D. Asmus, Richard L. Kugler, and F. Stephen Larabee, “Building a New NATO,” Foreign Affairs 72 (September/October 1993), 28-40.

[19] “The President’s New Congress with Visegrad Leaders in Prague,” January 12, 1994. Public Papers of the Presidents 1994, Book 1, p. 40; and Goldgeier, Not Whether But When, pp. 50-59.

[20] Talbott, The Russia Hand, pp. 99-101.

[21] Stanley R. Sloan, “U.S. Perspectives on NATO’s Future,” International Affairs 71:2 (1995), 217-31, emphasizes the role of domestic politics, especially among Polish Americans and others of central and eastern European descent.

[22] See Richard Holbrooke, To End a War: The Conflict in Yugoslavia (Random House, 1998).

[23] Talbott, The Russia Hand, pp. 237-240.

[24] Talbott, The Russia Hand, pp. 240-243. NATO would later renege on that promise as well, citing the more dangerous “security environment” created by Vladimir Putin’s regime.

[25] George F. Kennan, “A Fateful Error,” New York Times, February 5, 1997.

[26] Goldgeier, Not Whether But When, pp. 108-51.

[27] The Debate on NATO Enlargement: Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 150th Congress (October 7, 9, 22, 28, 30, and November 5, 1997), U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1998.

[28] Brands, Berlin to Bagdad, pp. 209-16; Talbott, The Russia Hand, pp. 298-307. Holbrooke, knowing the Serbs and Russians were probably eavesdropping, boasted to Talbott on the telephone that “even if Milosevic says ‘yes’ to everything in the Rambouillet agreement, we’ll still bomb the shit out of him if he doesn’t pull back and cease and desist in Kosovo.” (Talbott, p. 305)

[29] James Kurth, “First War of the Global Era: Kosovo and U.S. Grand Strategy,” in War Over Kosovo: Politics and Strategy in a Global Age, edited by Andrew J. Bacevich and Eliot A. Cohen (Columbia University, 2001), pp. 63-96.

[30] See Matthew Dal Santo, “We Must Heed Kissinger’s Prophecy,” The Drum, Australian Broadcasting Corporation web site, August 31, 2014. The phrase “geopolitical coup” is from Michael Rühle, “NATO Enlargement and Russia: Die-Hard Myths and Real Dilemmas,” NATO Defense College Research Report, May 15, 2014.

[31] See James Kurth, “NATO Expansion and the Idea of the West,” Orbis: A Journal of World Affairs (Fall 1997), 555-67. Kurth anticipated the contradictions that would arise as a consequence of any NATO expansion given the clash of civilizations in east central Europe and the postmodern revolt against Western civilization in the West itself.

[32] The Baltic republics, moreover, contain sizeable Russian minorities including (according to Wikipedia) 27.6 percent in Latvia, 23.9 percent in Estonia, and 4.9 percent in Lithuania.

[33] “‘Eastern Partnership’ Could Lead to Enlargement, Poland Says,” European Union Observer, May 27, 2008.

[34] Ted Galen Carpenter, “Poking the Russian Bear With the NATO Umbrella,” The American Conservative, October 23, 2018.

[35] Grzegorz Kucynski, “Germany-USA: A Discrepancy Protocol with Russia in the Background,” Warsaw Institute Review, July 13, 2018.

[36] James J. Sheehan, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), p. 227.

[37] Rühle, “NATO Enlargement and Russia.”

[38] Jakub Grygiel, “How to ‘Normalize’ Relations with Russia,” The American Interest, November 26, 2018. 

[39] The only contact between the Baltic republics and an existing NATO member is the so-called Suwalki Gap. This narrow bottleneck linking Lithuania to Poland is extremely vulnerable to interdiction from Russia and Belarus to its east and Russian Kaliningrad to the west.

[40] Felix K. Chang, “NATO’s Baltic Defense Challenge,” Foreign Policy Research Institute Geopoliticus, June 7, 2017.