NATO's Missing Member
Criticism of the eastward expansion of NATO misses a crucial mistake: the failure to map out a plan to incorporate Russia as a member of the Alliance. It should have taken more concrete steps toward ensuring Russian cooperation, providing plans for Russian and NATO engagement leading toward a goal of eventual membership.
A broken promise. A needless aggression. Overstepping its bounds. NATO's incorporation of former Warsaw Pact countries has come under fire from a variety of sources, most of all Russia. The enlargement of NATO after the fall of the Iron Curtain obviously touched a nerve there, and has joined a litany of slights suffered by Russia since the end of the Soviet Union. Yet criticism of the eastward expansion misses a crucial mistake made by NATO while organizing the accession of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary during the 1990s: the failure to map out a plan to incorporate Russia as a member of the Alliance.
This was always going to be a difficult task, considering the disorienting aftermath of the end of the Warsaw Pact. However, the Alliance could have taken more concrete steps toward ensuring Russian cooperation, providing clear plans for Russian and NATO engagement leading toward a goal of eventual membership. It was a mistake not to, and we are now paying the price. There were three ways NATO could have made membership more enticing for Russia:
- Fundamentally, an effective reorientation of priorities and signaling a new goal for the Alliance in the immediate post-Cold War situation would have been attractive to Russia at the time. Although the world of the early 1990s was still haunted by the ghosts of the Cold War, this was the perfect time to reevaluate NATO's purpose in the world. The bloodless dissolution of the Warsaw Pact did not prompt an imagination of new directions to take the Alliance, however; instead, NATO entered an extended crisis of identity, hampering its ability to respond to a changed world. An Alliance that does not know its purpose cannot effectively include new members, because there are few arguments to convince those on the fence that it will be a good guarantor of their security interests. Therefore, while Russia acquiesced to partnership with NATO during the 1990s through the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation, it could not be convinced that joining the Alliance would be of tangible benefit. The NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 cemented this view; for the first time after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia felt that the West was threatening its interests.
- Emphasizing the ways in which NATO makes Russia more secure, especially vis-à-vis China, would have gone a long way toward prompting Russia to deepen its cooperation with NATO over the past 25 years. The period after September 2001 was a perfect time to deepen NATO-Russia ties, and the creation of the NATO-Russia Council was an excellent step. However, because this council was focused upon cooperation and coordination between the two parties rather than envisioning a further development of the relationship, little advancement was made. This lack of vision was especially egregious as both Russia and NATO encountered the rising clout of China. Where there could have been concrete coordination of security partnerships, there was none at all, and it will be very difficult to reconcile present policies.
- Finally, working to convince Russia of its continued ability to have a voice in the Alliance were it to join would provide an important incentive prompting Russian consideration of membership. A key feature of Russian hesitancy toward NATO is its perception of NATO as a bloc directed from the center. In this view, NATO is not an assemblage of equal partners, but rather a directed coalition, and "Great Powers don't join coalitions," as a former Russian envoy to NATO once said. Emphasizing the manner in which NATO member states come to a mutual accord, and perhaps reforming the decision-making process toward ensuring that each of the states can be clearly heard are both excellent measures to combat the myth of NATO's domination by the United States.
What is ultimately most important is for NATO to be understood not only as an Alliance directed toward Washington, but as an equal partnership of its member states. As well, NATO needs to understand the ways in which it can effectively appeal to new members, especially in an increasingly multipolar world. If the Alliance will grow—which it undoubtedly could, considering the present Ukrainian and Georgian enthusiasm for membership—then it must also become more flexible and responsive to its member states' interests. Articulating a positive vision of the unique contribution of NATO to world security will craft not only a stronger Alliance, but also make the Alliance increasingly attractive for membership.
Although Russia joining NATO is, as of 2016, a possibility which seems closed for a generation, NATO can use lessons from the failure to properly entice Russia in to the Alliance in its cooperation with other large economic and defense powers. NATO must have coherent, clear goals, and work with others to achieve these with tangible forward steps. It must know itself to know others better.
Tristan Sechrest studied History at Yale University, where he served as Executive Director of the Yale International Relations Association. He is currently the 2015-2016 Fox International Fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin.
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.
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