Before Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine in February, the argument that NATO expansion over the previous 30 years had been a policy failure and a provocation was neither new nor partisan. It had been put forward by right-leaning realists in the US foreign policy mainstream, including George Kennan, William Burns, Fiona Hill, and John Mearsheimer, and it was also a common position among doves on the left, including me. Among Russia experts, it’s become conventional wisdom that President George W. Bush erred in 2008 when he insisted on an open-ended commitment to someday bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, likely triggering Russia’s war with Georgia a few months later and eventually its conflict with Ukraine, which began in 2014 and escalated this year. And among left-wing critics of US foreign policy, it’s conventional wisdom that NATO is a Cold War relic—a defense industry boondoggle that sucks up resources that could be invested in the social safety net.
All of the above positions remain defensible. But it’s incumbent on those of us who have criticized NATO to consider the events of 2022 in our assessment of the US-led military alliance. At the very least, we should acknowledge that NATO expansion has never been simply a unilateral exercise of American imperialism. Many of expansion’s most vocal critics have been leading Cold Warriors, while its most committed advocates have been the democratically elected governments of the Eastern European states that have joined NATO since the end of the Cold War. And in the context of Eastern Europe, Russia’s conduct over the past two months indicates that the word “defense” is not always a cynical euphemism for warmongering.
At the risk of banality, it’s worth reiterating: Russia has mounted an unprovoked full-scale invasion of a neighboring country based on the ludicrous pretext of “denazification.” Many critics of NATO expansion failed to predict this up until the moment it happened, and many have since acknowledged this with mea culpas but without any reconsideration of their underlying analysis. We don’t know the scale of the casualties yet, and the war is ongoing, but what we do know is horrific: Cities leveled by shelling, mass atrocities against unarmed civilians, and at least 10 million Ukrainians (a quarter of the population) displaced from their homes.
Meanwhile, however reckless Vladimir Putin’s war has been, he has been careful not to fire on neighboring countries like Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. The reason is straightforward: Those countries are in NATO, and thus under a binding defensive commitment from the US and other Western powers. And given Russia’s atrocities to date in Ukraine—which are not unprecedented, as anyone familiar with the Russian wars in Chechnya and Syria knows—it’s hard to blame the Eastern European countries that successfully sought NATO membership for having done so, or to fault Ukraine or other former Soviet republics for wanting to follow suit.
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In the long run, perhaps NATO should be broken up, and the case for eventually downsizing the US role and increasing Europe’s responsibility for its own security is compelling. But it is an odd moment for the Western left to prioritize its critique of NATO. Far from spreading militarism across Europe, NATO’s function now is to contain a war it did not start. It is no exaggeration to say NATO is why Russia’s assault on civilian populations has yet to spill into a wider regional war.
To be sure, critics of NATO are broadly correct that the alliance’s role must remain defensive in nature. While it’s understandable that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has demanded that NATO establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, such a policy would be dangerously escalatory, effectively licensing direct military engagement between nuclear-armed belligerents that could produce apocalyptic consequences—for Ukrainians above all.
But to fixate on NATO is at best a distraction and at worst a perverse reinforcement of Russian propaganda. In the lead-up to the invasion, Putin repeatedly cited NATO expansion as part of his justification for war, even though NATO had done nothing to indicate it had any imminent plans to bring Ukraine into the alliance in the eight years since Russia annexed Crimea. To treat NATO as having directly provoked this war is to grant Russia a good-faith casus belli where none is warranted.
If the Western left wants to engage constructively on Ukraine, there are many ways it can do so that are consistent with its core values: by urging a shift to green energy and away from the fossil fuels that prop up Putin’s regime; by prioritizing the well-being of refugees from Ukraine as well as other war zones; by demanding that Western critics of Russia’s military occupation hold US-backed abuses in places like Yemen and Palestine to a consistent standard; and by cracking down on the Western financial instruments that oligarchs from Russia and other countries have used to store their pillage. Railing against NATO, meanwhile, is tone-deaf when Russia is committing war crimes against Ukrainian civilians simply because they have the misfortune not to already be under the alliance’s umbrella.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in 1949, and in the words of its first secretary general, Baron Ismay Hastings, it had three goals: Keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down. Nearly three-quarters of a century later, all of these rationales have run out of gas, and it is past time for Washington to exit and thereby dissolve NATO.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine does not change this, even if Moscow’s aggression has breathed new enthusiasm into the alliance. While the invasion has demonstrated Moscow’s bellicosity and recklessness, it has also laid bare the ineptitude of the Russian military. If the shambolic units that just hightailed it out of suburban Kyiv are the greatest threat facing our European allies, then the latter are plainly capable of defending themselves without US troops, subsidies, and micromanagement—in other words, without NATO.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US could have wrapped up the alliance. But instead, the Clinton administration decided that NATO should take on new members from Moscow’s former satellite states. American foreign policy figures from across the political spectrum, from George Kennan to Jack Matlock to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, warned against expanding NATO eastward, predicting it would infuriate and bring out the worst in Russia’s government, many of whose own leaders stated the same in the clearest possible terms. But Washington’s elites have tended to see NATO membership, or at least the application process, as an inalienable legal right, not as a matter of earthly politics amenable to dealmaking and compromise, with the US-led alliance loudly declaring in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia would someday join.
Two months into the Russian invasion, it is now taken for granted that Ukraine will never be a member of NATO. The best Ukraine can hope for is armed neutrality with political autonomy from Moscow, the goal that Washington should have been seeking for the past 20 years. We’ll never know how such a project might have worked out—negotiated Cold War neutrality did give Finland and Austria space to flourish, though they are not perfectly analogous to Ukraine—but we can very well see how things have turned out now, in no small measure thanks to promises to bring a US-led military alliance up to Ukraine’s 1,400-mile border with Russia.
Beyond its expansion from 12 initial members to 30, NATO has also strayed from its defensive mandate. Though its bombardment of Serbia in 1999 over the breakaway region of Kosovo is vaguely remembered as a humanitarian win, it shouldn’t be. Washington, which is to say NATO, lurched into its 78-day bombing of Belgrade without exhausting diplomatic alternatives, and the bombing campaign only accelerated the genocide of ethnic Serbs from Kosovo and the Serbian slaughter of some 10,000 Kosovars.
After Kosovo, the alliance looked outside Europe for its reasons for being. In 2011, NATO imposed a no-fly zone over Libya, and it soon stumbled into a regime-change war against Moammar Gadhafi. Now that nation is in its 11th year of civil war, and the operation is widely regarded as a disaster.
To the degree that this rudderless security pact has made war easier, more salable, and more attractive for Western leaders than diplomacy, the alliance has been a liability to peace and stability.
Bad wars aside, there is the issue of control. Can the defense of Europe be trusted to the Europeans? In 2022, the answer is yes. It is true that given its wealth and population, Germany may eventually wield outsize influence in a European security alliance. But that’s OK. Many Americans might find it painful to admit, but Germany is a more stable and functional democracy than the United States, with a more equitable system of representation, less polarization, and smoother transfers of power.
Far from garrisoning more troops in Europe—the US just added 20,000 troops to the 80,000 already deployed—the Biden administration should hold the new government in Berlin to its post-invasion pledge to increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, up from a lächerlich 1.53 percent. The US should also lean on other member countries to meet the 2 percent threshold. To make this happen, Washington’s first step should be to redeploy its forces out of Europe without formally leaving the alliance, a move outlined by Jasen Castillo, codirector of the Albritton Center for Grand Strategy at Texas A&M, in a 2019 report from the Center for a New American Security. Recent events have not changed Castillo’s mind. “Frankly, it’s time for the UK, France, and Germany to do the heavy lifting in NATO,” Castillo told me, “especially now that the Ukraine war has revealed that Russia is not 10 feet tall.”
Leaving NATO would not, of course, be sufficient to set hubristic Washington on a path of farsighted preventive diplomacy. But the entirety of the war in Ukraine, from the diplomatic missteps leading up to it to the underperformance of the Russian military, should show that the security pact’s liabilities continue to outweigh its benefits.