The expansion of NATO does not automatically increase its strength or ability to defend itself. Each country seeking NATO membership must be evaluated on an individual basis, to determine whether their ability to contribute to NATO missions outweighs the risks that it brings to the alliance by adding another country to be defended. Jamie Shea said that “NATO membership has to be re-evaluated. NATO membership used to be much about benefits and not much about responsibilities, except for the countries that were on the front line during the Cold War in providing much of the military backbone of western defence. But for many Allies it was a wonderful insurance policy… The end of the Cold War has meant that NATO membership today has to really mean something. It has to mean developing those capabilities that make all the differences in places like Afghanistan and Iraq” (Shea, 2004).
When talking about NATO enlargement, we must also keep in mind that new members can be extremely vulnerable. The situation in Georgia is one example. Both Russia and Georgia are members of the Partnership for Peace (NATO, 2005, p. 19). However, the ethnic tensions in the region make it a potentially explosive area. As recently as 2008, Georgia moved troops to occupy a part of Georgia that was under separatist control; Russia responded by driving the Georgians out of the contested area and invading Georgia itself (Friedman, 2008). The Russians invaded Georgia to show the world that America cannot always protect them, especially when they are tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan (Friedman, 2008). Georgia had been taking steps towards NATO membership for three years when the war occurred; if Georgia had already been a member, the United States and the rest of Europe would have been forced into a direct military conflict with Russia from what began as an internal Georgian conflict, which shows the danger of admitting members with continuing ethnic disputes.
NATO enlargement also provides other challenges. NATO is an organization that operates by consensus. As the number of states involved in NATO’s decisions increases, the difficulty of reaching a consensus for meaningful action increases exponentially. If NATO expands too far, it will become as paralyzed as the United Nations has been, unable to come to a consensus about much of anything. A better solution to further NATO expansion would be “to encourage the development of many mini-NATOs in other regions around the globe based on the same principles of democratic decision making and integrated military structures so that they will be able to handle in their regions the type of tasks that NATO has handled in the Euro-Atlantic area, and therefore avoid the need for a globalized NATO being pushed increasingly into vacuums because of an absence of similar type of organizations” (Shea, 2004). Keeping these organizations local to a particular region would make them much more likely to be able to reach consensus for action because the countries involved would have more common interests. In today’s globalized world, these organizations may have to act outside their geographical area (as NATO has in Afghanistan), but they should remain focused on their region’s interests.
The Partnership for Peace provides a framework for NATO to receive support for individual missions from other nations without the complications of a formal treaty arrangement. This framework allowed Russia to contribute peacekeepers to the NATO force in the Balkans and ten different Partner countries to contribute directly to NATO efforts in Afghanistan (NATO, 2005). The Partnership for Peace is an excellent way for NATO to expand its influence without the paralysis of overexpansion.
Russia’s opposition to NATO expansion is partly driven by geography. The region of the Caucasus is extremely important, because the mountains there provide an area that is easy for the Russians to defend from an invasion from Turkey. If Russia lost these mountains, it would be much more difficult to defend the southern border, which explains Russia’s stubborn hold on Chechnya and tensions with Georgia (Friedman, 2009, p. 107). The northern European plain is another problem for Russia, because there are no natural barriers to stop an invading army. Russia has historically solved this problem with a buffer zone, but now, NATO has moved right up to the Russian border in the Baltic states and is increasing its reach into Eastern Europe. NATO troops are now only seventy miles from St. Petersburg; during the Cold War, they were more than a thousand miles away (Friedman, 2009, p. 103).
NATO’s broken promises give Russia every reason not to trust that this geographic encirclement is really as harmless as NATO claims it to be. Dr. Kelly Pease pointed out that “the expansion of NATO raises serious questions regarding the alliance’s purposes, goals, and credibility” (2008, p. 147). In 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker promised Gorbachev, “if you remove your troops and allow unification of Germany in NATO, NATO will not expand one inch to the east” (Bradley, 2009). But NATO now includes much of Eastern Europe. President Putin referenced this incident when he said “A powerful military bloc appearing near our borders will be perceived in Russia as a direct threat to the security of our country. Statements claiming that this process is not directed against Russia are not satisfactory to us. National security is not built on promises, especially since we have had similar promises prior to the previous waves of the bloc’s expansion” (Russia Today, 2008).
Russia is resurging, and NATO expansion will continue to raise tensions with Russia. Russia’s national interests will push it to continue to reassert its influence in the former Soviet Union and beyond.
Bradley, B. (2009). A diplomatic mystery. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/08/13/a_diplomatic_mystery.
Friedman, G. (2008). The Russo-Georgian War and the balance of power. Strategic Forecasting. Retrieved from http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/russo_georgian_war_and_balance_power.
Friedman, G. (2009). The Next 100 Years. New York: Anchor Books.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (2005). Security through partnership. Brussels, Belgium: NATO Public Diplomacy Division.
Pease, K. S. (2008). International Organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Russia Today. (2008). NATO expansion a
‘direct threat to Russia.’ Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oV0jbfVT6Us.
Shea, J. (2004). How global can NATO go? North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Retrieved from http://www.nato.int/docu/speech/2004/s040309a.htm.