The war between Russia and Georgia, on the heels of a NATO refusal to “fast track” Georgia’s application for membership, has reignited the debate over the wisdom of extending NATO to Russia’s borders. Realists on both the right and the left suggest that the war is a predictable reaction to NATO’s intrusion into Russia’s sphere of influence. Neoconservatives and their allies respond that the war could have been avoided if NATO had agreed to include Georgia this year, as the Bush administration desired. (This debate has reopened a discussion strategic theorists have been having about the continued relevance of NATO for more than a decade.)
The war has clarified this hypothetical debate by bringing the costs and benefits of the alliance and its expansion into relief. The controversy over NATO comes down to four questions. In answering them, I start from the premise that the United States and Europe have a strong interest in maintaining good relations with Russia but that this interest has limits and shouldn’t prevent the expansion of the NATO alliance to qualified members.
Was Russia's bad behavior caused by NATO expansion?
While there's plenty of rhetoric to this effect, there's not much evidence.
The case that NATO expansion was to blame goes something like this: If NATO had not extended to Russia's borders (the inclusion of the Baltic countries -- Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia -- is the push most often cited, although some people also feel that Poland should not have been included), then Russia would be more agreeable and less likely to abusively coerce its neighbors. I doubt that for several reasons.
First, Russian abuse is the No. 1 reason why most states seek NATO membership. The Poles, Baltic countries, Ukrainians, and Georgians want to get in because of Russian behavior. It's possible that the leaders (and in most cases, the populations) of these states are simply crazy and that NATO entry will make them more vulnerable to Russian coercion, but I'm pretty far from convinced.
Second, there are compelling reasons to believe that Russia rejected international norms regarding the territorial integrity and sovereignty of countries in its near abroad in the early 1990s, and that it continues to reject those norms today. As Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber has argued, Russia proceeds from a different set of assumptions about appropriate relations between great powers and their small neighbors.
This is not to single out Russia for criticism; there are (believe it or not) some good reasons to question those norms, and other states (the United States, for example) challenge norms of sovereignty on a regular basis.
And Dan Drezner, a professor of international politics, has made clear that Russian rejection of the norms of territorial integrity and sovereignty, through actions such as economic sanctions and the support of irredentist groups, preceded either the attack on Serbia or the inclusion of the Baltics in NATO.
It is possible that if NATO and the United States had not expanded, Russia would gradually have accepted territorial norms that would have limited the tools it uses in relations with its neighbors. But possible is not the same thing as likely. Why would allowing Russia to evade territorial norms in its neighborhood make Russia more likely to respect those very same territorial norms?
While a Russia that felt more secure might feel less need to coerce, I'm not at all convinced that assuring Russia of its capability to violate norms of sovereignty and territorial integrity in certain areas is conducive toward winning eventual Russian acceptance of those norms.
It's also important to note that there are two variants to the argument about NATO causing Russian bad behavior. The liberal internationalist argument against expansion is more or less what I describe above; Russia would have become a good citizen if (strangely enough) it had been allowed to act badly toward its neighbors. The realist case against expansion rejects the norms argument, accepts Russian bad behavior as endemic, and essentially concedes Russia's sphere of influence on the grounds that Estonia isn't worth the bones of a Pennsylvanian grenadier. The realist argument makes logical sense, and represents simply a choice between different values.
What’s the case for NATO expansion to Eastern Europe?
I believe that NATO has had a strongly positive impact on Eastern Europe, and that the expansion undertaken so far was well conceived. NATO and the European Union are the two major institutional components of the post-World War II European peace. This institutional settlement has been remarkably successful, as Europe has enjoyed intra-continental peace and substantial economic growth. Although NATO has included non-democratic members in the past, both NATO and the EU now place democracy high on their list of values and thereby pushed prospective members to adopt democratic reforms.
The expansion of both to Eastern Europe has helped to solidify economic and political gains in the post-Cold War era. The European Union may have played the larger role of the two, but NATO has substantially accomplished two critical goals. The first is securing the states of Eastern Europe from external coercion and attack. This assurance has allowed the former Warsaw Pact states to moderate their defense spending and to pursue political reform without the threat of outside interference.
The second accomplishment of NATO has been to acclimate the military institutions of Eastern Europe to Western norms of civil-military relations. The militaries of the Warsaw Pact, unlike NATO, were designed primarily to protect the government from the people. The ability of NATO to facilitate a shift away from this model has helped make stable democracy in Eastern Europe possible. Stable democracy is good both for the people who live in it and for the national interest of the United States.
Should the West respect a Russian "zone of influence?"
No one in the West thinks, or at least says, that Russia should have a veto over NATO membership. NATO admission should instead depend on the desires of the country in question and the wisdom of extending a security guarantee to that country. To the extent that Russian interests matter, they affect the latter variable. NATO should not grant entry to countries it would be unwilling to defend against Russia.
But NATO should grant entry to those states that it can and will protect against Russian coercion. Protection against such coercion is a net positive for democracy, stability, and economic growth. This leads to the unsurprising conclusion that some, but not all, expansions of NATO are good -- even in the face of Russian threats. As the blogger Hilzoy has argued, unwise expansion in the face of Russian threat would serve to undermine, rather than to strengthen, the credibility of the organization.
What’s the practical case for NATO admission for Ukraine and Georgia?
Even before the war, the practical cases for admitting Ukraine and Georgia to NATO were very weak, weaker even than for the Baltic states. Neither Georgia nor Ukraine have stable, pro-Western democratic governments. The Saakashvili regime has made strides beyond previous Georgian governments but has been reluctant to allow full freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. Moreover, Georgian control over its own territory (including areas not part of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) is often suspect.
In Ukraine, the presence of a substantial Russia population means that a shift in geopolitical orientation (away from NATO and toward Russia) is easily conceivable through democratic means. It hardly makes sense to allow Ukraine to join NATO in order to defend it from Russia, then watch Ukraine adopt a pro-Russian stance after the next election.
The Baltic republics represent the weakest cases for entry into NATO, but their applications were nevertheless much better than Georgia's. Each was more democratic than Georgia when negotiations for entry began, and each had maintained that democracy for over a decade prior to entry. Georgia shares a border with Turkey (a longtime NATO member), but the Baltic states are geographically much closer to the NATO core. While all three have substantial Russia minorities, none were likely to see the rise of a pro-Russian government, and none had outstanding territorial conflicts with Russia.
Timing also matters. While the Russia of 2002 wasn't the basket case of 1994, it wasn't yet enjoying the oil boom, either. To the extent that Russia's practical ability to make trouble for NATO matters for deciding whether to accept a new NATO applicant, accepting new members to NATO made much more sense in 2002 than in 2008. To take the argument to its logical extreme, allowing Hungary to join NATO in 1999 was responsible statecraft, while allowing it to join in 1956 would have been reckless to the point of criminality. Moreover, the commitment acquires credibility over time. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have become deeply integrated in the institutions of NATO -- refusing to defend them now would throw the alliance into crisis. A membership invitation to Georgia today wouldn’t just be a slap in the face of Russia; it would be a slap lacking believability.
The Russia-Georgia War has already had a balancing effect. Poland, which had been playing hardball with the United States over a missile defense system on its territory, struck a deal yesterday allowing the deployment of the interceptors. The reaction of Ukraine to the war will be particularly interesting to watch. Ukraine made noises about refusing to allow Russian Black Sea Fleet naval vessels deployed against Georgia to return to their base at Sevastopol (within Ukrainian territory) but did not prevent the return of four ships from combat operations earlier this week.
NATO membership remains a declared Ukrainian goal, but the country’s great size, its huge Russian minority, and the presence of Russian military bases on its soil make an invitation risky. NATO membership has been a hot topic in the Finnish strategic community for the last several years, with key members of the Finnish government challenging the Cold War commitment to neutrality and arguing for the alliance. Finland's small population and modern military make it an excellent candidate, and the Russia-Georgia War may push it to pursue membership more vigorously. NATO should continue to cautiously expand, mindful of both the benefits of extending the alliance and the costs that new expansion will produce.