Oops…Maybe We Shouldn’t Have Expanded the Empire in Europe
At the National Interest, Cato’s Ted Galen Carpenter argues Washington’s Eastern European NATO allies “are dangerous strategic liabilities, not assets.” NATO, he writes, has worn out its strategic value and expanding it as we have since the end of the Cold War merely serves to destabilize Europe by provoking Russia and giving us “crises” like Ukraine.
NATO’s relevance to the United States declined dramatically with the collapse of the Soviet Union. One cannot legitimately equate today’s Russia, with an aging, declining population, a military with many antiquated components, and merely the world’s eighth-largest economy, to the capabilities the USSR possessed during its heyday. Russia is a conventional, second-tier power that has some regional interests and ambitions, but it is not even remotely a global expansionist threat, much less a totalitarian expansionist threat.
That reality should have impelled the United States to give NATO a retirement party at the end of the Cold War, transferring responsibility for Europe’s defense to the principal European powers and, gradually, to the European Union. Instead, U.S. and NATO leaders scrambled to find an alternative mission to keep the alliance in business. They soon settled on an especially dangerous one—expanding NATO into Central and Eastern Europe, eventually to the borders of the Russian Federation itself. Critics warned that such a move created needless new risks for the United States, and that some of the commitments virtually invited a challenge from Russia once it had regained some strength. That is precisely what has happened, and Biden’s reassurances threaten to make a perilous situation even more so.
It is not insignificant, as Stephen Kinzer recently wrote, that the U.S. “has brought 12 countries in central Europe, all of them formerly allied with Moscow, into the NATO alliance,” in what he calls a relentless pursuit of “encircling Russia.” And let us not forget that Washington wasn’t planning to stop at those 12. Georgia and Ukraine, among others, were in the running, no doubt. The fact that nationalist hawks in Washington don’t have the ability to perceive the likely consequences of U.S. expansion and intervention, doesn’t make a strong counter-action from Moscow any less likely.
The diplomat George Kennan, essentially the architect of Washington’s Cold War containment policy, predicted it easily in 1997, when he said, “Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the post cold-war era. Such a decision may be expected…to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”