If NATO Expansion Was a Mistake, Why Hasn’t Putin Invaded?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The 20th anniversary of a landmark U.S. foreign policy initiative has slipped by virtually unnoticed. In 1999, NATO began its post-Cold War expansion into Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, taking on three new members: Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Last month, the alliance rather quietly marked that event — as well as the 70th anniversary of its founding — at a meeting of foreign ministers in Washington, rather than a heads-of-state gathering that the occasion seemed to merit.

This was no accident, given the near-certainty that President Donald Trump would have spoiled any NATO summit he attended. It was also a pity, because NATO expansion ranks as one of the great U.S. foreign policy successes of the post-Cold War era.

This is not the conventional wisdom. Critics of U.S. foreign policy, particularly those who hail from the “realist” school of international relations, consider NATO expansion a fateful, even tragic error. NATO had lost its purpose after the Cold War ended, they claim; it should have been disbanded or, at best, frozen in amber. But instead, it marched steadily eastward, snapping up former Warsaw Pact members and eventually former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This aggressive policy ultimately exhausted Russian patience, triggering Moscow’s wars against Georgia and Ukraine and driving the renewed confrontation between the Kremlin and the West. In 2014, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer put NATO expansion front and center in arguing that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was actually the West’s fault.

Yet the Mearsheimer of 2014 would have done well to acquaint himself with the Mearsheimer of 1990. That year, he wrote a widely read essay predicting that post-Cold War Europe would become an anarchic hellscape. Russia and Germany would compete viciously for influence. Countries would race to arm themselves; nuclear proliferation would run rampant. The Cold War had been a sort of vacation from history, Mearsheimer suggested. With that conflict over, the continent would be thrust back into its violent past.

This didn’t happen, of course. Even accounting for the Balkan civil wars of the 1990s and Russian aggression more recently, Europe made remarkable strides toward democracy and stability, and there was zero nuclear proliferation. Europe moved forward, not backward, and NATO expansion was a critical reason why.

For one thing, NATO expansion kept America in Europe. When the Cold War ended, many observers predicted that the U.S. would withdraw, as it had done after World War I. Yet expanding NATO gave the alliance — and America’s role in it — new purpose. The U.S. did not again retreat across the ocean, leaving turmoil and seething rivalry in its wake. It recommitted to playing its stabilizing role not just in Western Europe but across the continent.

Second, NATO expansion kept the German problem solved. A great fear of the early 1990s was that a reunified and independent Germany, no longer hemmed in by NATO on one side and the Warsaw Pact on the other, would return to its predatory ways. Instead, the U.S. ensured that it remained closely tethered to NATO, surrounded by allied states, and thoroughly pacified. To hear U.S. officials complain today that Germany has become too demilitarized, that it does not behave assertively enough, is to understand just how completely this mission succeeded.

Third, NATO expansion kept the demons at bay in Eastern Europe. It was not foolish to fear trouble there in the early 1990s. Ethnic tensions were on the rise; many former Soviet allies harbored revisionist territorial claims. There was no shortage of underemployed scientists who might have helped Poland or other vulnerable states build the bomb.

But NATO wrapped its security blanket around the former Warsaw Pact nations, committing them to accepting their existing frontiers, giving them the protection that allowed them to forego nuclear weapons, and creating the climate of reassurance in which democratic and economic reforms could occur. A reinvigorated NATO even provided stability beyond its own boundaries, intervening to stop ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.

Finally, NATO expansion was a crucial hedge against the failure of Russian reform and integration. U.S. officials wanted to foster a democratic Russia that would join the West and remain at peace with its neighbors. This is why they bent over backward throughout the 1990s to give President Boris Yeltsin the benefit of the doubt.

Yet Washington also had to reckon with the dangers that might reemerge if liberalization failed and a more aggressive Russia reemerged. This is precisely what eventually happened — but in the intervening years, NATO expansion had moved the dividing line between Moscow and the West much farther to the east, and given many of Russia’s neighbors the security guarantees that still help them keep the Kremlin at bay. Putin’s Russia has invaded and mutilated two countries — Ukraine and Georgia — that are not NATO members. It has coerced and intimidated, but not invaded, any country that belongs to the alliance.

As for the critique that it was NATO expansion that provoked Russian revisionism, this argument has always been flimsy. Yes, the expansion angered Russian officials, during Yeltsin’s time as well as Putin’s. It was undoubtedly humiliating for the fallen superpower. But the idea that NATO expansion caused Russian aggression rests on an implicit counterfactual argument that, absent NATO expansion, Russia would not have behaved in a domineering fashion toward countries on its border. There is simply nothing in Russian history — and nothing in Vladimir Putin’s personality — that supports this argument.

The process of NATO expansion was never perfect. The alliance took on new members without considering, early or seriously enough, how it would actually defend Poland or the Baltic states from a resurgent Russia. There are legitimate debates about whether seeking to include Ukraine and Georgia in the alliance was a step too far; it is surely true that the alliance’s public announcement in 2008 that these countries would someday — but not anytime soon — join NATO was enough to anger Putin, but not to deter him. And currently, certain gains of NATO expansion are in doubt, due to resurgent illiberalism in Eastern Europe and the security challenges Russia once again poses.

On the whole, however, NATO expansion was a remarkable success, one that locked in the gains of the Cold War in Europe and helped free the continent from an ugly past it might otherwise have been doomed to repeat. It’s a shame that the looming threat posed by a president who is himself blind to the alliance’s accomplishments prevents us from more clearly recognizing that result today.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."

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