Just like Trump rallies, the boos from the foreign policy crowd have gained momentum and have gotten louder to the point “a de facto new Cold War” is blamed on NATO and the very existence of the Alliance is questioned.
The claim is that NATO’s expansion eastward, Ukraine and Georgia’s cozying up to the West, and historically neutral Finland and Sweden’s new interest in NATO membership have enticed Russia’s aggressive behavior, culminating in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. The underlying claim is made that NATO has betrayed U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s promise in 1990 to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand an inch eastward. Finally, it is deducted that since NATO was made to combat the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union is no longer around, neither should NATO.
The first order of business is the out of context claim of the promise made to Gorbachev. Gorbachev himself has stated that no such promise on NATO expansion was made or was even brought up. Furthermore, the promise being quoted pertained only to the eastern part of reunified Germany, which has been obeyed according to Gorbachev himself. Moreover, Russian claims of NATO encirclement hold little weight considering that until its March 2014 invasion of Crimea virtually no permanent NATO troops were stationed in the territory of former Soviet satellite states as is visually depicted in this infographic by the Atlantic Council.
Criticisms of NATO expansion treat the organization as an imperialist power that seeks to re-establish its kingdom and annex neighboring territories. Other than sounding a lot like Russia and expressed in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, these same criticisms fail to acknowledge the sovereign choice of nation states to choose which organizations to align themselves with in accordance with their national interests.
It should not surprise anyone that recent and aspiring members would rather be part of a democratic organization, where members have an equal say and where their territory and sovereignty are regarded as important as any other members’ under Article V, rather than to be economically and militarily coerced with overarching influence in their domestic politics by an autocratic and unstable country, as many of Russia’s allies have experienced. Eastern Europe's gravitation towards NATO does not represent NATO's ability to threaten, coerce, and annex these countries but the expression of their national interests.
Russia’s abrasive influence, which is promulgated through state-sponsored cyber attacks, large and sudden military exercises, media disinformation campaigns, and sponsorship of far right and fascist groups in Europe have even impelled traditionally neutral countries, such as Finland and Sweden, to align themselves closer to NATO. When Russia practices nuclear strikes against Sweden, brazenly threatens Denmark with nuclear force, and identifies NATO as its chief threat in its military doctrine, all unilateral actions, it should not surprise anyone that NATO takes defensive measures like establishing a missile defense shield in Romania.
Donald Trump’s newly inspired NATO critics rightly point out that Europe has yet to pull its weight within NATO.
However, the acknowledgment of a Russian sphere of influence or Novorossiya and the audacious claim by Trump and Gingrich, legitimized by foreign policy critics – that the U.S. should somehow question its Article V ironclad commitment to collective defense of all allies because of defense spending or a countries proximity to Russia – undercuts the very norms that have kept Europe and the world at peace for so long.
To insinuate that the world should accept a Russian invasion of the Baltics based on geopolitical considerations is a spitting image of the naiveté the world practiced in the lead up to World War II. Our promise to never repeat that mistake is one of the most basic takeaways from the most devastating war the world has ever seen.
In the heat of a chaotic and violent world, which no single entity, not even NATO, seems to have a remedy for, it is easy to point the finger at the largest military alliance for the tension that exists. However, NATO is part of the reason these regional wars and conflicts have not escalated into World Wars as they have in the past. The fact that the majority of Europe and North America are together and willing to come to the defense of each other despite differences in interests or opinions, is the underlying fabric that keeps the world’s pants on.
NATO should not be intimidated by the argument, former National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski described as, “the argument that if we respond symmetrically to unilateral actions by the other side, it is us who is somehow provocative and precipitating a war. On the contrary. Not doing so is the most likely way of precipitating a war.”
NATO should instead be emboldened and invigorated in its purpose and legitimacy as an alliance.