In his recent American Purpose essay “Anatomy of a Blunder,” Michael Mandelbaum argues that NATO expansion was from its beginning a major foreign policy mistake, which provoked Russian hostility to the United States and the West. In this view, even the first wave of NATO expansion—the one that admitted Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic—was “misbegotten and dangerously counterproductive.”
But Mandelbaum’s arguments explain neither the dynamics and merits of NATO expansion nor Russian behavior in the wake of the expansions. The fact is that NATO’s expansion prevented a security vacuum in Europe, promoted regional stability, encouraged the emergence of democratic governance, and, thus, established a foundation for the entry of Central European nations into the European Union.
Mandelbaum argues that post-Cold War European security could have been achieved, without NATO expansion, through the Central Europeans’ membership in either NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PFP) program or the European Union.
The PFP is a worthwhile NATO-auxiliary grouping through which NATO engages in security-related activities with many nations—but the PFP itself provides no security guarantees. Thus, a PFP-only connection between Central European nations and NATO would have resulted in a permanent security vacuum in the middle of Europe. In contrast, NATO membership expansion solidified regional stability: To join the organization, prospective members first had to resolve any outstanding intraregional territorial disputes.
For its part, the EU, in the early post-Cold War period, had no meaningful security role or capabilities. Thus, it was no surprise that gaining EU membership for security purposes was not the focus of Central European countries or, indeed, of the EU itself.
That left the NATO framework as the only realistic route to providing regional security and stability—which, in turn, allowed for the political and economic development needed for eventual EU membership. If the first-wave expansion countries had been left out, they might well have faced, as American University Professor James Goldgeier has put it, the “same insecurities and struggles that Ukraine and Georgia face” today.
Equally important, NATO was instrumental in the emergence of democratic institutions in the region. NATO and U.S. officials, including this writer, made very clear that establishing such institutions was a non-negotiable condition of NATO membership. Mandelbaum does not recognize NATO’s impact but instead even questions whether NATO could—or should—foster democracy. There is a “lack of evidence,” he writes, “that belonging to a military organization assures democracy.” That argument, though, is a straw man: NATO, from its inception, was both broadly political-military and values-oriented. The NATO Treaty’s preamble declares that members are “determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”
Mandelbaum supports his argument by contending that “if joining the Alliance could actually consolidate democracy, the country where membership was most important … was unquestionably the one country denied it from the outset—Russia itself.”
This argument, however, misses the main point: It was not joining NATO that consolidated democracy. Instead, it was meeting the required democratic preconditions for membership that fostered this consolidation. Besides, Russian membership in NATO was not “denied … from the outset.” Mandelbaum himself, when he discusses NATO’s PFP program, notes accurately that participation in it “did not preclude NATO membership … or exclude eventual Russian membership.”
Mandelbaum contends that NATO expansion was, if not the sole cause, at least the primary cause of Russia’s post-Cold War alienation from the West—which, in turn, made “opposition to Western and especially American preferences and initiatives the default mode of Russian foreign policy.”
However, NATO welcomed Russia involvement; and Russia reciprocated. Russia joined the PFP; signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which declares that NATO and Russia are not adversaries; actively participated in the NATO-Russia Council, established in 2002; collaborated on cooperative research projects; and participated with NATO in naval counterterrorism and counter-piracy missions.
Further, Mandelbaum says, Russian leaders would “learn” from NATO expansion “that it was vital to build up their military power.” Yet during the time when NATO was expanding its membership, NATO nations were significantly reducing their military capabilities. And “Putin surely knows,” as Mandelbaum acknowledges, “that NATO is not about to attack Russia.” Thus if Putin determined to build up Russia’s military, NATO expansion was not the motive force behind his decision.
Indeed, Mandelbaum writes, post-Soviet Russia “would have presented difficulties to Europe and the United States under any circumstances.” Moreover, he allows,
NATO expansion did not, by itself, determine the course of Russian domestic affairs. Russia’s historical absence of democratic traditions, experience, and institutions would have made democracy-building difficult whatever the United States did or refrained from doing.
In fact, NATO, at an early point in its existence, invited Russia to become its partner, with “full participation in the security of Europe.” The underlying cause of tensions between Russia and the West has been the parties’ fundamentally different conceptions of what European security means.
For the West, European security includes respect for national sovereignty and for nations’ own policy choices. For Putin, it means acquiescence in Russian suzerainty over neighboring nations and the principle that Russia can be secure only when its neighbors are ether insecure or under Russian domination or control.
Thus, not only was NATO expansion not a blunder; to the contrary, it furthered Western security interests and values by avoiding a security vacuum and fostering political stability, democracy, and market economies in the region.
Putin’s complaints about NATO expansion are in fact a pretext to justify what he would be doing in any event—that is, pursuing, as former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has put it, his underlying goals of “normalizing annexation, denying sovereignty to neighbors, and dissolving NATO.”
All sides of the debate over NATO expansion should be able to agree that, as McFaul reminds us, “Putin will not rule Russia forever;” those who “equate Putinism with all Russians are making a mistake.” It is therefore possible, as Mandelbaum writes, that “a new leadership will wish to repair relations with Russia’s neighbors, the West, and the United States.”
Therefore, the United States and, more generally, the West must remain vigilant until new Russian leaders emerge who do not seek the restoration of empire but rather will accept European security arrangements that respect the national independence of all concerned nations.
Bruce Weinrod was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Affairs under President George H.W. Bush, and the (dual-hatted) defense advisor to the U.S. Mission at NATO and Secretary of Defense Representative for Europe under President George W. Bush.
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