The recent NATO summit convened with Georgia and Ukraine lobbying the alliance to continue its steady eastern march. But this process is undermining, not improving, U.S. security.
Countries that have been variously occupied, partitioned and dominated prefer not to trust in the good will of their large neighbors. Indeed, Russia’s popular eruption against Estonia over the removal of a World War II memorial offers a stark reminder that Russia has yet to join Europe in heart and mind.
To the question “What to do?” the answer is obvious: enlist the services of a benevolent, distant superpower. Europe might offer a good economic home, but the very ennui that renders so many formerly great powers harmless diminishes the security value of a military alliance with them. Today’s Germany is unlikely to put its soldiers where they might be spat upon, let alone fired upon.
America is different. The United States possesses the world’s most powerful military and is ever ready to go to war—which is why so many governments pine for Washington’s embrace.
Surely the alliance aids central and Eastern European efforts at continental integration. Joining the exclusive club is particularly satisfying for countries that spent years looking in, across the famed Iron Curtain.
But the most important factor is Article 5—the possibility of turning a war with Russia, however unlikely, into Europe’s, and, more importantly, America’s war.
It’s a policy that makes sense in Tbilisi, Kiev, and elsewhere in the region. But it doesn’t make sense in Washington, D.C. The benefit to America of adding a host of new defense responsibilities is zero.
One reason for America’s expensive outsize military is to back just such treaty commitments. And the price of actually acting on these security guarantees could be huge: Russia remains a serious power with nuclear weapons.
Moreover, Moscow has clout where America needs it—on the U.N. Security Council, which affects U.S. policy toward Iran, North Korea, Kosovo and more. Russia’s nuclear dealings with Iran can undercut American sanctions. Russian cooperation with the People’s Republic of China could generate a serious anti-American coalition.
In short, any cold-blooded assessment of U.S. interests will emphasize Washington’s relationship with Moscow over cooperation with central and Eastern Europe. Countries that fear again becoming an afterthought in great power competition must consider an alternative strategy: upgrade their militaries, create value for Washington, and avoid needless confrontation with Moscow.
Relying on the United States to rush off to war, if necessary, to preserve the independence of distant countries out of abstract good will is risky at best. Countries need to demonstrate that they are net security assets rather than deficits.
Most obviously, that means creating modern militaries, and to do so without U.S. aid. If nations really fear Russian revanchism, they should develop potent if limited deterrents. Policymakers should not mutter darkly about potential Russian misbehavior while turning their defense over to Brussels and Washington.
It also means aiding America in meeting military responsibilities outside of Europe. Poland’s and Ukraine’s commitments to Iraq, for instance, were modest, but evinced genuine effort. Warsaw’s planned withdrawal suggests that the new government expects the defense relationship to run only one way.
Participation in America’s planned missile defense system is another area of practical defense cooperation. The Polish demand for compensation essentially requests the United States to pay twice for a defense guarantee that serves no important American interests.
Finally, vulnerable countries should avoid provoking powerful neighbors. Poland’s last government offended just about everyone, even though Poland’s NATO allies would have been expected to clean up any resulting geopolitical mess.
As a sovereign nation, Estonia obviously had the right to move the Soviet war memorial, but prudence dictated acting in the least offensive way possible. The need for restraint is even more evident in Georgia: Tbilisi’s determination to retain control of Abkhazia and Ossetia does not warrant an allied commitment to go to war.
Having to be concerned about Moscow’s opinion might not seem fair, but as has been said, life is unfair. It is not America’s duty to eliminate all unfairness from the world.
The Cold War dictated Washington’s defense of Western Europe against the Red Army. The United States has few security reasons to defend NATO’s newest members, let alone potential inductees like Georgia and Ukraine. As America’s global domination inevitably shrinks, Washington is likely to reconsider such commitments.
Thus, countries hoping to preserve U.S. military ties should give Washington a reason to commit the necessary resources and take the inevitable risks of doing so. Washington’s new friends should not assume that America will forever put sentiment before interest in defending them. As they surely know, freedom rarely comes that cheap.