Containment Is Dead. Long Live Containment
They say old foreign policies never die, only fade away. Three decades removed from the height of the Cold War, American troops are heading back to Europe: the next war is no longer a matter of if, but when. From the day NATO opened its doors to the East, could we have expected anything different?
The idea of collective security in foreign affairs can be traced fairly definitively back to the Congress of Vienna, in 1815. There, after neither the first nor last "War to End All Wars" in Europe, the most luminous and connected personalities on the continent came together to draft a peace settlement for the ages. What they devised, known as the Concert of Europe, held for a modest half century, until finally done in by such convulsions as the Crimean War and the assembly of the German nation. NATO would appear on first glance to have survived a good three decades past that expiration date, but, like an old tractor falling to pieces in a barn long since abandoned, it has lost its founding purpose.
The geopolitical chessboard that faced the assembled statesmen of the West in 1948 was not too different from a century and a third prior. A hyper expansionist power had just been defeated by a grand coalition of uneasy allies, who had put their territorial quibbles aside in the interest of survival, and now sat together to, in hackneyed terms, win the peace. Last time around, the unifying force had been horror at the sheer devastation at the conflict; this time, having become quite numb to "modern war", it was the external threat of the Soviet Union. This forms the first and most important distinction between what NATO was, and is. It was never a peacekeeping force, and certainly never claimed to speak for the whole world. It was a simple matter of ruthless self-interest. Of course, in 1992, with the Soviets gone, the Alliance was thus out of work. NATO, like many of the recently unemployed, then made its biggest mistake.
With the explicit ideological threat of communism gone, (though the doctrine of world revolution had died in exile with Trotsky), the opportunity existed to similarly dissolve the Alliance formed in opposition to it, and replace it with an international system that acknowledged the competing interests of different states, but did not try to paper over them with delusions of the end of history. Had the Russians been extended neither the slap in the face of continued opposition, nor the naïve olive branch of pure appeasement, but a hand up into a rational international system, our situation now might be very different. Instead, we halfheartedly tried the first two and got neither, starting, of course, with the assurances NATO would never extend past the Oder, and the betrayal of those assurances five years later. Rather than go over the gory backroom deals that opened the door to the East, this article will cover why it should have stayed quite securely locked.
In the preamble of the North Atlantic Treaty it is stated that the purpose of the Alliance is to "promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area", and that the intent of the members is to "unite their efforts for collective defense". This implies two very important propositions. Firstly, the scope of the Alliance is restricted. Obviously, this is not meant to be interpreted strictly geographically, as the later admission of Greece and Turkey would display, but it is clear that this is not a world-spanning endeavor. Second, it means that each member of the Alliance is expected to contribute something to the safety of every other member. Some members might contribute more or less, but through economic power, military force, or strategic location, each addition ought to improve, rather than degrade, the security of the Alliance as a whole.
According to President Bill Clinton's own words at the time, the justification for inviting Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join NATO in 1997 was the creation of "a Europe that is undivided, democratic, and at peace […] for the first time". Romania and Slovenia were both favored for admission by a number of European allies led by France, but were blocked for various reasons, though both would soon join. Crucially, this first round left a belt of neutral states between the Alliance and Russia, and so the Russians, though unnerved, continued to put on the face of European solidarity, signing more and more cooperation agreements so the Western governments could pretend they were shaking hands with the bear. Their core fear, NATO troops forward deployed mere miles from the Russian border (a fear which is actively being realized as of the moment of this writing), still seemed impossible.
That is until, on a quiet Monday in 2004, NATO admitted the Baltic States. While the first post-Cold War round of expansion could be justified, if thinly, under the purposes set out in the charter, given the technological benefits of including at least a few former Pact nations and the credible military assets of the Visegrad states, this committed NATO completely to aggressively confronting Russia. To suggest that Estonia, with its population of a million and change and position directly astride Russian lines of communication in the Baltic, could have consisted of anything in anyone's mind but a firebase for a NATO attack on Russia is utterly ludicrous, and one can only imagine the gumption it must have taken for American diplomats to look their counterparts in the eye at the NATO-Russia Council meeting three months later and tell them otherwise.
One can talk for ages about the peace of mind granted to our eastern partners, how the intervention in Ukraine only proved the Russians really are out to get us, but that would be missing the point. NATO must reestablish trust with Russia, and that begins with unilateral de-escalation, through both a force drawdown and recognition of the rights of Russians in the former Soviet territories. The closest the world ever came to nuclear war was when Russian weapons and troops were in Cuba, 90 miles of ocean away from American soil. What message does it send when an Alliance that claims to stand for peace bases its soldiers a Sunday stroll from those who could have been its friends?
Maxwell Roberts is a second-year INTA student at Georgia Tech. He serves as the Public Relations Chair of GT Model UN and is currently interning with the International Rescue Committee's Immigration Program.
This article has been submitted for category B "NATO's Biggest Mistake and Lesson Learned" of the competition "Shaping Our NATO: Young Voices on the NATO Summit". Comments are most appreciated. You can also read the other articles in this category. Learn more about this competition and how you can submit your own text or video in the categories C and D.
- Atlantic-Community.org in Transition
- Towards a More Inclusive Transatlantic Partnership: Update on the 2nd Atlantic Expedition
- Topic of the Month: The Future of Health Care
- Do We Need Data Donations?
- eHealth - Tele-Monitoring and Tele-Medicine - Digital Innovation in the Life Science Sector in Germany