Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen notes that 20 years ago, in 1997, President Bill Clinton made the decision to expand NATO eastward. That same year, in order to placate post-Soviet Russia, then weak and heralded in Washington as America’s “strategic friend and partner,” the Russian-NATO Founding Act was adopted. It promised that expansion would entail no “permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.” Cohen takes the occasion of this anniversary year to ask whether NATO’s eastward expansion has created more insecurity than provide the security it promised. He divides the question into several subjects, which he and Batchelor discuss.
1. The expansion of the US-led military alliance, which began in Germany with 13 member states and now stretches to Russia’s borders with 29, is the largest and fastest growth of a “sphere of influence” (American) in modern peacetime history. Throughout the process, Russia has been repeatedly denounced for seeking any sphere of security, even on its own borders. NATO expansion included two broken promises to Russia that the Kremlin has never forgotten. In 1990, the Bush administration (and the West Germany government) assured Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that, in return for Russia’s agreeing to a united Germany in NATO, the alliance would “not expand one inch to the east.” (Though denied by a number of participants and commentators, the assurance has been confirmed by other participants as well as by archive researchers.) The other broken promise is unfolding today as NATO builds up permanent land, sea, and air forces near Russian territory, along with missile-defense installations. NATO “enlargement,” as it is sometimes benignly termed by its promoters, continues. Montenegro became a member in 2017 and the “door remains open,” officials say repeatedly, to the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine.
2. NATO is more than the world’s most powerful military alliance. With lavishly funded offices, representatives, think tanks, and other advocates not only in Brussels but in many Western capitals, it is also a powerful political-ideological-lobbying institution—perhaps the world’s most powerful corporation, also taking into account its multitude of bureaucratic employees in Brussels and elsewhere. In the United States alone, scarcely a week passes without media “news” and commentary produced by NATO-affiliated authors or based on NATO sources. (See, among other examples, the Atlantic Council and Newsweek.)
3. Asking whether “enlarged” NATO has resulted in more insecurity than security requires considering the consequences of several wars it led or in which several of its member states participated since 1997:
§ The Serbian war in 1999 resulted in the NATO occupation and annexation of Kosovo, a precedent cited by subsequent secessionists and occupiers.
§ The 2003 Iraq War was a catastrophe for all involved and a powerful factor behind expanding organized terrorism, including the Islamic State, and not only in the Middle East. The same was true of the war against Libya in 2011, no lessons having been learned.
§ NATO promises that Georgia might one day become a member state was an underlying cause of the Georgian-Russian war of 2008, in effect a US-Russian proxy war. The result was the near ruination of Georgia. NATO remains active in Georgia today.
§ Similar NATO overtures to Ukraine also underlay the crisis in that country in 2014, which resulted in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the still ongoing Ukrainian civil war in Donbass, and in effect another US-Russian proxy war. Meanwhile, US-backed Kiev remains in profound economic and political crisis, and Ukraine fraught with the possibility of a direct American-Russian military conflict.
§ Meanwhile, of course, there is Afghanistan, initially a NATO war effort but now the longest (and perhaps most un-winnable) war in American history.
Any rational calculation of the outcomes of these wars, Cohen points out, reveals far more military and political insecurity than security, which is mainly pseudo-security or simmering crises.
4. NATO expansion has also bred political-ideological insecurities. NATO’s incessant, ubiquitous media saturation and lobbying in Western capitals, particularly in the United States, has been a major driving force behind the new Cold War and its rampant Russophobia. One perilous result has been the near-end of American diplomacy toward Russia and the almost total militarization of US-Russian relations. This alone is a profound source of insecurity—indeed of possible war with Russia.
5. Meanwhile, the vast resources devoted to NATO expansion have scarcely contributed anything to resolving real international crises, among them economic policies in Europe that have helped inspire secessionist movements; international terrorism in the Middle East and the refugee crisis; the danger of nuclear proliferation, which NATO has abetted by spurring a new nuclear arms race with Russia; and others.
Nor does NATO’s vast expansion resolve its own internal crises, as, for example, the growing alliance between NATO member Turkey and Russia; and undemocratic developments in other member states such as Hungary and Poland. And this leaves aside the far-reaching implications of an emerging anti-NATO alliance centering around Russia, China, and Iran—itself a result of NATO’s 20-year expansion.
6. Cohen ends by considering the counter-arguments made by NATO expansion promoters over the years:
§ They say the small Baltic and other Eastern European countries previously victimized by Soviet Russia still felt threatened by post-Soviet Russia and therefore had to be brought into the alliance. This makes no empirical sense. In the 1990s, Russia was in shambles and weak, a threat only to itself. And if any perceived or future threat existed, there were alternatives: acting on Gorbachev’s proposed “Common European Home”—that is, a security agreement including all of Europe and Russia; bilateral security guarantees to those once-victimized nations, along with diplomacy on their part to resolve any lingering conflicts with Russia, including the endangered status of their own ethnic Russian citizens. This argument makes no historical sense either: The tiny Baltic states near Russia were among the last to be granted NATO membership.
§ It is also said that every qualified nation has a “right” to NATO membership if it wishes to join. This too is illogical. NATO is not a non-selective fraternity or the AARP. It is a security organization whose sole criterion for membership should be whether or not membership enhances the security of its members. From the outset, it was clear, as many Western critics pointed out, it would not.
§ Later, it is belatedly argued, Russia did become a threat under its leader Vladimir Putin. But as the British academic specialist Richard Sakwa has compellingly argued, any threat Russia now poses was created by NATO itself, by Moscow’s reactions to NATO expansion. Cohen puts this somewhat differently: Much of what is today denounced as “Putin’s aggression” abroad has been his responses to US and NATO policies. There is also another negative consequence. Moscow’s perception that it is being increasingly encircled by an “aggressive” US-led NATO has had lamentable, and predictable, influence on Russia’s domestic politics.
For the sake of international security, NATO expansion must end now. But is there a way back from the 20-year folly, Cohen asks. Member states taken in since the late 1990s cannot, of course, be expelled. But NATO expansion could be demilitarized, its forces withdrawn back to Germany, from which they crept to Russia. This may have been possible in the late 1990s or early 2000s, as promised in 1997. Now it is mostly a utopian idea, but one without which the world is in ever graver danger—a world with less and less real security.