At the recently completed NATO summit in Bucharest, the Bush Administration took another step in its seven-year effort to transform the transatlantic alliance into an organization with a more global mission supportive of Washington’s broader foreign policy goals. The Administration was able to win approval for an increase in NATO forces in Afghanistan, for its plan to deploy a missile defense system in Central Europe ostensibly aimed at a future Iranian nuclear threat, and for further enlarging NATO membership with the admission of Albania and Croatia and with promises of future membership for Georgia and Ukraine. In Bucharest Bush described his vision for the alliance in terms that should worry everyone familiar with the neoconservative agenda. “NATO,” he said, “is no longer a static alliance focused on defending Europe from a Soviet tank invasion. It is now an expeditionary alliance that is sending its forces across the world to help secure a future of freedom and peace for millions.”
In fact, the Administration’s mission to transform NATO promises to do great damage to international peace and cooperation. If the true purpose of the old NATO was to “keep the Americans in, the Soviets out and the Germans down,” as the saying went, the Bush Administration’s goal for the alliance is to provide multilateral cover and support for its unilateral crusade while encircling Russia and sidelining the United Nations (a programmatic extension of the Clinton Administration’s use of NATO to sideline the UN during the 1999 Kosovo war). This is a prescription for an even colder peace, if not an outright new cold war, with Russia; continued contentious relations with America’s oldest allies in Europe, who do not share Washington’s global mission; and an even weaker UN at a time when it is needed more urgently than ever.
The main vehicle for transforming NATO into an alliance with a global mission controlled by Washington has been expansion. The Administration pushed for a large NATO expansion in 2001 that incorporated the Baltic states as well as the Central and Eastern European countries not included in the first round of enlargement. It did so in part to dilute (old) European influence within the alliance, since the new members, especially the Baltic and Balkan states, like Poland before them, tend to be more subservient to Washington on military matters.
Expansion has forced the alliance into a looser military and command structure, allowing Washington to pick and choose its allies in any crisis while retaining the appearance of overall NATO support. This strategy did not help win outright support for the invasion of Iraq, but US courtship of Central and Eastern European countries did buy it some semblance of an international coalition and has facilitated its goal of leaning on NATO to support its war in Afghanistan.
The enlargement of NATO has done great damage to the cause of effective international cooperation, including on many of the issues that most affect US security. The main damage has been the increasing alienation of Russia, which has vigorously opposed NATO’s push eastward. Russians of all political persuasions have, justifiably, seen NATO expansion as an unnecessary provocation aimed at weakening Moscow’s influence with its neighbors. Moscow has countered this and other Washington moves by suspending the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement, by stepping up the modernization of its nuclear forces and by tightening its grip on the oil and gas supplies of Eurasia.
Washington’s championing of NATO membership for Georgia, a former Soviet republic that is openly hostile to Moscow, and of Ukraine, a country that is deeply entwined with Russia economically, demographically and culturally, threatens to further damage relations with Russia (it’s also bound to create internal tensions in Ukraine, where a majority of the population opposes NATO membership). This comes at a time when the United States needs Russian cooperation for a wide variety of foreign policy goals, from controlling loose nukes to helping to curb Iran’s nuclear program to containing Islamic extremism. Only the objections of Germany, France and a few other European countries prevented NATO from offering Georgia and Ukraine a Membership Action Plan.
The other casualty of the Bush Administration’s NATO policy has been UN reform. In many respects Administration neoconservatives see a globalized NATO as an alternative to the UN. The Administration has used NATO to push aside the UN even when the latter body, if given the proper resources, would have had a better chance of succeeding in places like Afghanistan. Indeed, many neoconservative and neoliberal hawks, including presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, see Bush’s globalized NATO as the forerunner of a concert of democracies that will replace the UN. In that respect, Bush’s globalized NATO is just one more neocon delusion that must be challenged and set aside by an incoming Democratic administration.