We Should Firmly Shut the Open Door

Walter McDougall is a great historian and a superb writer. It is thus hardly surprising that he won a Pulitzer Prize, which he did for his book on the space race. Many foreign policy observers, though, would rate Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter With the World Since 1776 (1997) or The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy (2016) as their favorite in his corpus. Few would disagree that these books and his many shorter works have made McDougall one of our most thoughtful voices on U.S. foreign policy.

McDougall doesn’t disappoint with his Liberty Forum essay, an “anticipatory elegy” for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on its 70th anniversary. Indeed, there is little to disagree with in this pre-mortem of sorts that fingers NATO enlargement, “especially in its ‘bridge too far’ on the Baltic Sea,” as a significant cause of the alliance’s problems. Therefore, I’ll largely use this space to build off McDougall’s elegy and touch on a few issues related to NATO’s future.

The Wisdom of NATO Enlargement

McDougall rightly questions the wisdom of past NATO enlargements that brought the alliance from 16 members in 1989 to 29 today—and a 30th on the way, with North Macedonia having just signed an accession agreement. The architects of expansion erected a signature folly in 2004 by creating a Baltic wing composed of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

These small states added little power to the alliance and a lot of problems. First, they sit right on Russia’s doorstep, bringing NATO into direct contact with the main part of Russia and surrounding the Kaliningrad enclave by land. This only heightened the security dilemma in Russia stimulated by the earlier round of enlargement in 1999 that brought in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

Second, these states are extremely difficult to defend. As James J. Coyle of the Atlantic Council has noted, “There is no strategic depth, and the states are only connected to Europe by the 65-kilometer-wide Suwalki Gap. The entire area is covered by Russian Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. It would be suicide to try to fight a war with the Kremlin on this territory.”

Indeed, Rand analysts who war-gamed the problem of defending the Baltics noted in 2016 that “if Russia were to conduct a short-warning attack against the Baltic States, Moscow’s forces could roll to the outskirts of the Estonian capital of Tallinn and the Latvian capital of Riga in 36 to 60 hours. In such a scenario, the United States and its allies would not only be outranged and outgunned, but also outnumbered.”

While they and others have proffered solutions, it remains a difficult problem to say the least and thus the alliance is putting a lot of weight on the power of extended deterrence.

This brings us to a major third problem: credibility. For deterrence to work, the threat to make good on defending a commitment has to be believable. But as the alliance expands to take in states that are very costly to defend while offering little value in return, it is harder to convince the target of deterrence that you’ll make good on your deterrent threat. While enlargement may not undermine NATO’s ability to deter an attack on Europe’s most important countries, it does threaten the alliance’s credibility to take in those states that raise doubts about our willingness to stand up to direct or indirect challenges from Russia.

McDougall isn’t the first person to wonder whether the Americans or our other allies will want to die for Tallinn.[1] Any doubts the adversaries might entertain about allied commitment gives an opening to those who might want to challenge the status quo. But given the presence of tripwire forces and the feeling in some Western corners that the commitment itself will need to be defended rather than risk the entire future of NATO, the inclusion of the Baltics unnecessarily raised the risks of war between nuclear powers.

We are left with the problem of the dog who caught the car: What do we do with it now?

The answer from “the Blob” seems to be that we ought to double down on risky alliances by keeping an “open door” policy” to try and meet the idealistic goal of “a Europe whole and free.”[2] Georgia and Ukraine are two cases in point: American and NATO officials keep talking about bringing these states into the alliance despite many serious marks against the idea.

During a visit to Georgia in 2017, Vice President Mike Pence declared, “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 then went further: “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.” Likewise, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Georgia recently during joint military exercises between that country and NATO, boldly exclaiming: “NATO Allies have clearly stated that Georgia will become a member of the Alliance.” He added: “we are not accepting that Russia or any other power can decide what neighbours can do.”

As for Ukraine, the United States might be a bit more shy about its addition since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine between separatists and the government. (Despite ceasefires, the conflict is still warm, with two Ukrainians killed in fighting this week, adding to the 13,000 killed since the conflict began.) But the United States and NATO are still rhetorically holding the door open. For example, a joint statement from last fall declared: “The United States welcomed Ukraine’s NATO aspirations, reaffirmed by the 2008 Bucharest Declaration, and looked forward to one day welcoming Ukraine into the Alliance.”

While talk might be cheap and there are admittedly hurdles to ultimate accession (most importantly, active territorial disputes), it isn’t helpful to raise expectations in these countries or stimulate additional fears in Russia that could have unintended consequences for us and those we are ostensibly trying to help. Indeed, one could argue that NATO’s approach to these countries formerly part of the Soviet Union has already contributed to “reckless driving” by the Georgians and more than bad behavior from the Russians.[3]

I have elsewhere made the case (at greater length) for why Georgian entry into NATO would be a bad idea. In short, while we should wish that country well and hope for its liberalization, we certainly ought not allow it to join NATO since it isn’t necessary for U.S. security. As I noted previously, “Georgia is a weak, vulnerable, and strategically inconsequential country. Committing to defend it would unnecessarily risk American lives and even nuclear war with Russia.” And even more so than with the Baltic countries, our deterrent threat would be less than credible. Furthermore, we shouldn’t forget that Georgia too has a territorial conflict with Russia that only increases the risk of the United States’ getting dragged into a conflict over something that doesn’t matter to our safety.

Ukraine, while bigger and stronger than Georgia, would also be a net negative addition to the alliance. Most importantly, it is, as mentioned, involved in a war in eastern Ukraine with separatists supported by Moscow. Even should that end and territorial disputes be settled, the possibility of a flame-up—especially should NATO accession engender moral hazard for the Ukrainians (leading perhaps to future attempts to get back any territory lost)—will not go away. We shouldn’t yearn to step into that situation given what Article V could mean.

Nor is Ukraine any more critical to American safety than is Georgia. It would be hard to defend absent a massive prepositioning of troops and arms, given Russia’s geostrategic advantages. We won the Cold War with Ukraine part of the Soviet Union, so even a renewed cold war with Moscow would mean we don’t need Ukraine.

Of course, as McDougall pointed out, Russia today isn’t even close to the strength of that communist power; it spends on its military less than 10 percent of what the United States alone does. Not to mention that we have wealthy and populous allies in Europe, like Germany and France, who could balance against the Russians and defend themselves ably  if they wanted to. And Russia has other problems, both internal and external (not least that the rise of China threatens not only Japan and Taiwan but Russia).

Future enlargement would be a serious error. The United States and our other NATO allies have no moral obligation to add new entrants (especially those that would be security wards) and no strategic need to bring them into the fold. We should firmly shut the open door. As McDougall notes, Article 10 of the Treaty of Washington alone would seem to demand shutting it tightly in these cases.

Burden-Sharing and Built-In Dependence

If the United States and NATO should stop admitting new entrants, what should we think about its current members? Our allies aren’t sharing enough of the burden of collective defense, something brought to the fore by candidate and then President Trump. McDougall thinks that this is “really the least of NATO’s worries” in comparison to the Damocles sword of defending an overextended alliance. Be that as it may, Americans shouldn’t avert their eyes from this problem just because it isn’t the biggest challenge or because they might disagree with how the President has raised the issue.

The military spending figures of our wealthy and populous allies clearly show the free-rider problem—or more accurately, the “cheap rider” problem, as Professor Barry Posen of MIT has put it—in action.[4] Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe, spends only 1.2 percent of GDP on its military. Very few NATO countries actually do meet their agreed-upon target of 2 percent. NATO reported just last month that only seven out of 29 countries are currently meeting this goal.

Of course, there are also concerns not only about how much these countries are spending but about whether they are spending it well to create effective power. The United States also faces the problem that how Europeans spend their money ensures their dependence since they  build, not full spectrum capabilities, but annexes to our forces. While hectoring from this side of the Atlantic has paid off in the form of some European spending increases, it isn’t nearly enough. McDougall is probably right that “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.”

But this situation shouldn’t be acceptable to us. It places an undue burden on American taxpayers and our troops while freeing Europeans to spend on other priorities, all while we pile up debt and deficits here at home. This imbalance could be justified on the grounds of enlightened self-interest in the aftermath of World War II and in the face of the postwar Soviet threat. But that specific context long ago disappeared. The United States should not be played for a fool here, particularly with little prospect that any one state, even China, could become hegemonic in Eurasia, and given the fact that the nuclear revolution changes how we need to think about overseas commitments.

Another more fraught question raised by recent friction in the alliance and the talk of burden-sharing is whether it would be good for the United States (and Europe itself) for Europe to develop a strong common foreign and defense policy, or even to evolve into a “super-state.” Margaret Thatcher used to employ the term derisively, and more in the context of a stifling Brussels bureaucracy. But others, such as Syracuse University’s Glyn Morgan, have made the case that such an entity would be good for Europe. (See Morgan’s 2007 book, The Idea of a European Superstate: Public Justification and European Integration.)

McDougall brings up the issue of a common foreign security policy; but he quickly shifts away, only noting that the United States has poured “cold water on the idea” whenever it has been brought up and the European states are likely to remain security dependents. But this ought to be a salient issue given the U.S. pivot to Asia—for realists and restrainers in particular, given their vision of shifting responsibility from America to Europeans for peace and security in that neighborhood.

The Advantages of a European Super-State

Some realpolitikers might worry that a European superstate would be just the sort of regional hegemon that Americans have traditionally fought to prevent. They’d instead prefer a continued division of power in this important industrial zone, and they might say that this is (and has been) our most important security goal there. Of course, there are big differences between the Europe of today and the states that, throughout history, have striven to grab the hegemonic ring. But realists aren’t known to trust the intentions of others, focusing instead on power. And here we’d have a power with greater combined wealth and population than the United States—one that would only face , as a balancing force on the Continent, a diminished Russia to the east.

Other realpolitikers might not be so concerned. They’d see the advantages for the United States of being able to safely trust regional and nearby (meaning North African and Middle Eastern) problems to Europe such that we could bring our troops home or pivot them more fully to deal with a rising China. They’d see the key centers of the Eurasian heartland as a whole still divided—between Europe, Russia, and China—and thus not the geopolitical menace that has always concerned us despite our geographical advantages. These countries would, after all, have good reasons to balance each other rather than bandwagon against us.

Perhaps most importantly, they’d acknowledge that the nuclear revolution diminishes, if not eliminates, the geopolitical concerns their American ancestors had about bigness abroad. And if liberals and constructivists are right about the role of shared values and history as well as economic interdependence, a European superstate would be just the exception to the rule about fearing the rise of regional hegemons.[5]

Another alternative for Europe would be for its major powers to take more responsibility for their own defense and the security of the region, but without necessarily developing a common approach or a superstate (which could be undesirable for non-geopolitical reasons). In other words, Europe could return to something more like it was before the great conflagrations of the 20th century. But this time, the security competition would be diminished by the fact that France (not to mention the United Kingdom offshore) and Russia have nuclear weapons that strongly buttress their security against the traditional German threat in the heart of Europe.

As things stand, the United States isn’t going away any time soon as the dominant global power. But a different future for Europe is worth pondering given important changes that are occurring there, in the United States, and in Eurasia more generally—as well as in the international system and its balance of power—that will impact NATO’s future and the future of our overall military engagement abroad. We’d be wise to think creatively rather than rely on a stale status quo that is increasingly disconnected from the world as it is coming to be.

[1] I have a quibble with McDougall’s analogy of Tallinn to Danzig. It was more than reasonable for the great powers to view Nazi Germany as a threat to the balance of power that required the painful choice of asking soldiers to die for the safety of their country. It is absurd given the relative weakness of Russia and the geostrategic strength of the United States, for American leaders to ask young men and women to die for Tallinn unless one stretches the definition of the national interest well beyond our safety, prosperity, and our way of life here at home.

[2] On “the Blob,” see Stephen M. Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018). See here for only the most recent of many examples of this type of thinking.

[3] See Barry Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Cornell University Press, 2014), pp. 35, 44-50.

[4] Posen, p. 35.

[5] Thanks to Professor Josh Shifrinson for helping me think about this last point.