NATO Must Lead, Not Cave to Russia

Apr 29, 2016

Sally Painter is a board member of the Truman National Security Project and COO of Blue Star Strategies. Views expressed are her own.

Since its establishment in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has grown into the strongest and most successful alliance the world has ever known. NATO consolidated Western democracies in a military alliance following World War II, held strong against the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, and has since served as a vehicle for positive change by helping former Eastern bloc countries become secure democracies and market economies.

Today, however, NATO’s own leaders seem to have forgotten its strength, and an unfortunate timidity has set in. Faced with a resurgent Russia, NATO’s vision has narrowed, its aspirations plummeted. The most troubling symptom of this trend are the recent comments by U.S. ambassador to NATO, Douglas Lute, who declared that, for fear of destabilizing Russia, there was no chance of NATO expanding in the next several years.

This message sends all the wrong signals and sets a dangerous precedent for NATO. For years, the alliance’s strength has been undergirded by its open door policy: membership was open to any European country ready to meet NATO commitments and adhere to the treaty. According to Article 10, the decision to invite a country should be between NATO and the aspiring country. No third party should ever have any say in these deliberations—let alone an aggressive Russia.

Lute’s comments, however, suggest a disturbing reversal. Now, it would seem, Moscow holds a de facto veto on NATO membership, and Russian leaders will surely celebrate the implication that the Alliance won’t expand in Eastern Europe. This in effect reward Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. After suffering tremendous hardship and loss of life from Russia’s aggression, both countries are knocking on NATO’s door for help—and being told that the door is closed.

Likewise, the Balkan states of Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are now left out in the cold. Other countries have made their NATO aspirations clear and have taken concrete steps to join the alliance; Georgians, Macedonians, and Ukrainians have fought and died on NATO’s side in Afghanistan. Yet now, out of a misguided and dangerous desire to placate Russia, their sacrifice and dedication is being discounted.

For decades, the United States has played the decisive leadership role in NATO, particularly in advocating expansion. Even when European support for NATO expansion wavered—as it did during the the 2008 Bucharest summit—the U.S. was unapologetic voice for strengthening the alliance. Today, with that voice muted, the only country that stands to benefit is a belligerent Russia.

The next U.S. administration must re-endorse NATO' s open door policy, because there is a larger principle at stake. Russia seeks to return geopolitics to a 19th-century world where weaker countries are subject to the whims of stronger ones. The United States, by contrast, should never tolerate a world order that allows counties to carve out spheres of influence. The vision of NATO, by contrast, is one of collective security, where each member contributes to and benefits from a shared security arrangement.

The United States should suffer no illusions that publicly backing away from NATO expansion will appease Russia. Instead, such a policy would only embolden the Kremlin to further destabilize Europe. In his comments, Lute publicly worried that expanding NATO would accelerate Russia’s decline—but refusing to do so will only make Russia stronger. How quickly we seem to have forgotten that Chamberlain's policy of appeasement failed.

The upcoming Warsaw summit presents the perfect opportunity to shore up the alliance for the future.  Instead of backing down, NATO should build up its defenses, particularly on its eastern flank where allies like Poland, Latvia, and Estonia feel most vulnerable. It should offer Georgia and Ukraine a pathway into the Alliance; for those countries that have met the requirements, NATO should open its door wide.  It should begin discussions on permanent forward deployments of U.S. forces on NATO’s eastern border, to reassure allies and strengthen deterrence.

None of these actions will happen, however, without decisive American push-back against what has become Russia’s de facto veto against NATO expansion. For we know all too well from history that if the United States does not lead, NATO will falter.