The two smiling faces in the above photo belong to NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, and Finnish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, the latter having announced Finland’s intention to join NATO as quickly as possible. Swedish leadership has since made a similar announcement..
Of course, this latest round of NATO expansion and Finland’s – as well as Sweden’s – desire for increased security was instigated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But they were also made possible by NATO’s “open door policy.” In Article 10 of the organization’s founding document, the North Atlantic Treaty, it states that membership is open to any “European state in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area,” and that expansion must be unanimously approved by existing members.*
The policy made sense during NATO’s early years, when the threat of the Soviet Union expanding further west was a thought that must have been constantly on the minds of Western leadership. The Soviets were the clear-cut top security concern of both the U.S. and Western Europe and would be for decades to come. But times have changed and organizations based on national and regional security must decide core issues – such as expanding membership – based on evolving circumstances, keeping in mind the twin goals of safeguarding and furthering their interests and diminishing the likelihood of becoming involved in a catastrophic great-power conflict.
While there are potential benefits to having Finland and Sweden in NATO, those benefits can be at least partially obtained without actual membership and the potential threats and damage that could result from NATO expansion so close to Russia at this juncture would outweigh any potential benefits.
For much of the Cold War, people on both sides of the world’s divide were convinced that it was only a matter of time until the outbreak of a catastrophic nuclear conflict. Thankfully, those people were wrong. But it wasn’t through chance or blind luck that a nuclear war between the two superpowers was avoided. Each side was clear as to its red lines – or actions from the other side that would escalate tensions to the point where the Cold War might turn hot. And while they both fought proxy wars and undertook a wide array of undercover operations that did damage to the other side, they were both careful to observe and not cross the red lines of the other side. And the simple reason for that was that the potential consequences of direct conflict were so horrific, that neither power was willing to risk them, no matter how desirable a given objective and even when the odds of a nuclear conflict may have seemed relatively small.
Kruschev violated this principle in Cuba in 1962 and the world endured 13 days of sheer terror as a result.
While Vladimir Putin’s Russia has demonstrated it is nowhere near the powerhouse that was the Soviet Union of old, the country still possesses the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. Putin has also repeatedly made it clear that expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep is a red line for him. Whether one agrees with his reasoning on that is besides the point. He’s already shown he is willing to go to great lengths and cause a lot of bloodshed to back that principle up. It’s important for Western leaders to ask themselves what the potential consequences of continuing to cross this line could be and whether any potential benefits from doing so are vital enough to make those consequences worth risking. The worse the potential consequences, the less prudent it is to risk them; particularly when it’s not in the vital interest of the risk-taker to do so in the first place.
The U.S. and NATO have already shown how far they’ll go to help a nation that is not part of NATO. Why push the envelope by admitting Finland and Sweden when it’s not necessary? NATO can continue to work with those countries without admitting them.
And that brings me to my second point of concern: the revised strategy of President Biden and his advisors with regard to the Ukraine war.
Setting aside the issue of whether some of the president’s actions prior to Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border – most notably the impression of weakness and lack of preparedness with regard to the Afghanistan withdraw – may have influenced Putin’s decision to go ahead with ordering the invasion, from an American perspective, I generally agreed with the way Biden was handling the crisis during the early stages of the war. He offered some support – both material and moral – for Ukraine, while avoiding direct American involvement; at least overtly.
In addition to that, the war seemed to have a galvanizing impact on many of NATO’s European members, stiffening their backbones and loosening their military-spending wallets. This couldn’t have been expected by Putin before he gave the order to invade.
Yet while things seemed to be going relatively well in some regards, Russian artillery continued to rain bombs on Ukraine with tragic consequences. Although Russia’s military efforts have surely disappointed Putin, he can continue to see to it that the Ukrainians suffer while their cities are turned to rubble for some time to come unless he is lured to the negotiating table.
Yet American policy has evolved from the war’s early stages and now appears to be designed to help Ukraine bog Russia down in an extended war – in other words, to bleed Russia. Only much of the bleeding will be done by innocent Ukranians. And to make matters worse, the President has attempted to paint the Ukraine war as part of a broader existential conflict between democracies and autocracies.
The Ukrainians are undoubtedly brave and should be admired for their fighting spirit. Yet the U.S. is not obliged to help another country fight to the last person when it would be both more humane and prudent to at least push for a negotiated settlement. Aside from the obvious suffering on the part of Ukranians, much can go wrong for both the U.S. and the people they are supposedly helping as a result of any effort to extend the war; especially when the opposition possesses the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and probably also stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.
It was arguably wrong – both from a moral and realpolitik standpoint – for a series of post-Cold War American presidents from both parties to encourage Ukraine to think they might be in line to join NATO in the first place. Let’s not compound that now by doing anything other than helping to get the two sides to the peace table.
I’m not calling for throwing Ukraine to the Russian wolves. But there are going to have to be compromises that allow Putin to get out of the situation without it looking like a total defeat for him for there to be any hope of a peace settlement. It’s likely that the people who live in disputed portions of eastern Ukraine would wind up voting on whether they want to remain in Ukraine. The U.S. may have to also ease up on sanctions at some point.
I know that doesn’t seem fair or just. But there is nothing fair or just about the reality of being a country that sits on the western border of a larger power with many weapons and a long-held fear of being invaded from the west. I’m sure you can all imagine how chaotic and bloody the world would be, even in comparison to what we already have, if we dealt with every difficult situation involving a large power on principle instead of interests and accepting the necessity of avoiding worse-case scenarios.
And when it comes to American security concerns, their biggest one now, and likely for many years to come, is China. Several consecutive administrations have been attempting to pivot America’s military and diplomatic attention away from Europe and the Middle East and to the Indo-Pacific region with much difficulty because that is where the center of world affairs is moving. Geopolitics no longer revolves around Europe and the threat that Russian will consume it. The goal is to put fewer resources into Europe and more into Asia.
Yet the Biden administration – with help from a Congress that has found something to agree on for a change – is on the verge of increasing our total aid to Ukraine to somewhere north of $60 billion. That’s more than almost all countries spend on their military each year. There have also been reports of increased covert military assistance -at least in terms of intelligence – going from the U.S. to Ukraine; to the point of helping the Ukrainians kill a series of Russian generals.
And I shouldn’t have to remind anyone of our current economic problems. Our debt is out of control and inflation is getting to that point. Recession is knocking on the door. We can’t keep printing more money under these circumstances, so we will probably borrow it.
Priorities need to be established as to where our resources go, and I would argue that sending them to help fight a war that neither the U.S. nor any of its NATO allies are a party to – and which does not further a vital American interest – should not be at or near the top of our leadership’s priority list. That’s especially the case when in addition to China, we also have a significant security concern much closer to home at this point. And addressing that one clearly is a vital interest. I’m referring to the inability to control our own border.
On the matter of Biden attempting to describe the U.S. as being in an existential conflict against autocracies, the problem with doing this is that the U.S. has worked and even allied with autocracies and even dictatorships when it’s been in their interests, right up to Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China. In fact, we still work with autocracies and won’t stop doing so at any point in the foreseeable future. The President is just making it easy for our many critics to paint the U.S. as hypocrital.
And on a personal note, while foreign policy has been an interest of mine for a long time, the way I view it and what American policy should be has evolved periodically over the years. In my twenties, I was close to a pacifist. By the time I entered my thirties, I was more of a liberal internationalist, which is sort of like being a neocon. I believed in using the military for strictly humanitarian reasons or a combination of humanitarian reasons and furthering policy along ideological lines. But by the time I turned 40, the U.S. was embroiled in a disaster, both for itself and those it was attempting to help – in Iraq.
It took a while for the impact to sink in, but the post Cold War experiences of the United States have been a wakeup call for me – and I’m sure many other people who have paid attention. A style of foreign policy Realism that limits American military adventurism to situations when it is necessary and in our vital interests should be the approach to foreign affairs taken by presidents and their advisers moving forward.
In our efforts to spread democracy and rid the world of menaces like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Ghaddafi, the United States did a huge amount of damage to the people it was trying to help and also overextended itself in a way that weakened it while primarily benefitting it’s lead geopolitical rival, China, which avoided getting involved in wars while building up its own military and economy during the same period.
American leadership must focus primarily on its most vital foreign policy and geopolitical and security interests; preventing China from establishing anywhere near the kind of dominance over Asia and possibly even Europe that the U.S. has had over the Americas since the turn of the 20th century; and protecting the homeland, which includes dealing with both our border and economic issues.
Part of that process will involve prioritizing aid. While it was appropriate to provide some to Ukraine, that well should not be bottomless and it shouldn’t be dished out with the goal of extending the war.
I leave you with this classic from Teddy Pendergrass. I hope NATO’s leadership takes it to heart.
* While I was working on this post, Turkey announced its objection to allowing Finland and Sweden into NATO, which puts the issue in doubt. Regardless of what one thinks about Turkey’s reasons for this, they may be doing their treaty allies a favor.
4 thoughts on “On NATO Expansion and Revised American Strategy for Ukraine War”
Thank you for a very thoughtful post. I think very much along the same lines. The push to allow Ukraine to enter NATO seems to have come primarily from the natural — and pernicious — desire of a bureaucracy to expand its power and reach. Thus the intrusion on a Russian red line. On our side, we seem once again to have succumbed to Mission Creep, as you say, to bleed Russia and to isolate, so corner, and it is at least on the horizon possibly to topple Putin. Cornering someone with a nuclear arsenal is. fool’s errand, and our experience with toppling leaders has not been a tale of happy results. It seems that now we are pushing Ukraine to keep fighting while France and Germany are pushing for talks and for peace. Would that we were.
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Eveyone wants peace in Ukraine. On what terms is another matter. I don’t think American goals were quite as haphazard here as they often seem. Nobody actively thought Putin would be stupid enough to invade Ukraine. As you point out, Barry, the problem has been a string of presidents, principally Democrats. Putin wouldn’t try it with a Republican in the WH, especially not Trump, who was too unpredictable to say the least. All Putin had to do was to wait for another Democrat and who better than Obama’s VP and runner of Obama’s Ukraine policy, Biden.
Turkey wants some concessions and will eventually be bought off. There’s much to see evolve in the situation yet. I wouldn’t plump for peace just yet.
George W. Bush was the president who first publicly announced a desire to eventually bring Ukraine – and I think Georgia – into NATO. Although we’ve had lousy foreign policy leadership from presidents of both parties since the end of the Cold War. There isn’t a really good foreign policy president among them. Bush’s father was the last one.