What’s NATO worth?

Today’s question: How far east should NATO expand? Should the United States concede Russian dominance over the Caucasus in exchange for admitting, say, Ukraine into NATO? Previously, Moynihan and Meier discussed Russia’s membership in G-8 and possible membership in the WTO, U.S. diplomacy in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s and the extent to which Russia wants to exert control over its neighbors.

Nations that want membership should get it
Point: Michael C. Moynihan

Now that I’ve watched Barack Obama’s convention cameo and suffered through Democratic attempts at out-hawking their uber-hawk opponent, it is time for us, Andrew, to return to a foreign policy issue that will surely confront our next president -- that prickly issue of NATO expansion.

And it is, of course, a challenge that has dogged every president since George H.W. Bush. But rather than going all the way back to the early 1990s to provide context, let’s start as recently as 2001, when Russia warned that the absorption of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia into NATO would have “extremely serious” consequences for European security. And I suppose it has, in one sense: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania today feel far more secure than Georgia and Ukraine.

Or how about just this past April, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said ominously that the mere promise of expanding NATO into Ukraine and Georgia would not go “unanswered.” So during negotiations, Moscow again threatened to punish European insolence, exercising an unofficial veto of the decision to fast-track the two countries toward NATO membership (the Ukrainians grumbled that Moscow’s tactics amounted to “economic blackmail”). A contemporaneous Associated Press headline earlier this year captured the mood perfectly: “Putin scores major diplomatic victory by blocking NATO’s expansion plan.” It was, for the time being anyway, a dead issue.

But regardless of how effectively Moscow cowed leaders in Berlin and Paris, Georgia was invaded, its ports occupied and its military neutered (though it is again worth pointing out that Georgians are hardly blameless in all of this). Could the Kremlin have lived with a moderately hostile government in Tblisi that heeded its warnings on NATO expansion? I’m not so sure. Given the Abkhaz and South Ossetian casus belli, it seems fairly certain that Putin eventually would attempt to manipulate the situation to Moscow’s advantage. Besides, Chechnya never threatened to join the Atlantic alliance, and you saw what became of Grozny.

There is much misappropriation and misunderstanding of Neville Chamberlain’s diplomatic failure at Munich in 1938, and I am loath to invoke the specter of appeasement. But the second part of the question -- should the United States concede Russian dominance over the Caucasus in exchange for admitting Ukraine to NATO -- has a bit of a Munich ring to it, as does much of this dishonest discussion of “ethnic Russians” stranded in former Soviet republics, a point forcefully made by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. If it isn’t Washington’s place to dictate the foreign policy of countries on Russia’s borders (and it most certainly is not), then it should be equally offensive to suggest we collude with our allies to sacrifice the independence of a country like Georgia to satiate the territorial ambitions of Moscow. The United States needn’t encourage Georgia or Ukraine’s desire to join NATO, nor could it successfully convince the Polish government to accept its missile shield. Washington, it now seems, could have just sat on its hands -- Russia has a pretty decent record of uniting its neighbors against itself. This is a point consistently ignored by Russia’s allies in the West. When they argue that encouraging the westward expansion of NATO will only serve to irritate Moscow, they willfully ignore the endless list of Russian aggression that has served to push Ukraine and Georgia toward the West.

There are, obviously, many wrinkles in this story, but at the end of the day, it’s difficult to disagree with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who recently stated the rather obvious: “The NATO Treaty very clearly states that European democracies fulfilling their criteria for NATO membership are welcome.”

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

An obsolete alliance
Counterpoint: Andrew Meier

Michael, let me hone in on two of your many excellent (if deeply misguided) points.

Point No. 1: “Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania today feel far more secure than Georgia and Ukraine.”

On the question of how safe those Baltic nations feel today, let’s game it out. What if, say, a little chunk of tiny little Estonia had decided to side with Russia -- say, the town of Narva, population 73,000, which has an overwhelming majority of ethnic Russians and is separated from Mother Russia only by a narrow river. Estonia is a NATO member. So what would have happened if Russian tanks had crossed that little bridge and filled the streets of Narva? Unlike in South Ossetia, preparation time for an invasion would be minimal, as Narva lies about 75 miles from the big army bases outside St. Petersburg. Are you trying to tell me that B-52 bombers would have blown the bridge? That NATO’s Bradley tanks would have faced off with Moscow’s APCs?

Point No. 2: You quote that poor Dutchman, the NATO secretary-general, as saying, “The NATO Treaty very clearly states that European democracies fulfilling their criteria for NATO membership are welcome.”

Let’s consider the sacrosanct NATO Treaty and what’s inscribed on its welcome mat. Maybe I was hanging myself out on a far limb the other day when I argued that the U.S. should invite Russia into NATO -- though the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, Tom Friedman and Ronald Steel have since echoed the sentiment. But I do think I’m in fairly good company on this brazen declaration: Who cares? If nothing else, the fighting in Georgia has made it abundantly clear: NATO no longer operates as its founders intended. The world has changed a bit since the Berlin Wall fell. The alliance is not only dysfunctional, it is about 17 years overdue for a “fundamental reformation” -- the kind that Friedman and others agitated for in the final days of the U.S.S.R. Many recognize that NATO is overextended in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. But maybe it’s time that folks consider a radical rethink -- and recognize that in the distant mountains of the Caucasus, the alliance may have just heard its death knell.

Michael, you’re right to hear in today’s question the echo of Chamberlain. It’s not so simple as, “You take Georgia, we’ll take Ukraine.” Earlier this week, you claimed, “The Ukrainians, who have a very recent experience with revanchist Russia, feel much the same” about coveting NATO membership. Nonsense. For starters, the Ukrainians, poor things, suffer a centuries-old schizophrenia thanks to the country’s famous geographic, linguistic and political divides. Many in Ukraine will tell you that about half the country has no love for the West, let alone a NATO that in recent memory bombed Belgrade. In the east and north of Ukraine -- or just about anywhere within 300 miles of the ex-hubs of the Soviet military-industrial complex -- the ties to Moscow run deep. But there’s a twist often left out of the argument: Even in the Western reaches of the country, many Ukrainians fear joining NATO.

Just ask Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, a steel and coal magnate who rose in the wilds of Donetsk. Akhmetov orchestrated -- and ably funded -- the resurrection of his compatriot (and Soviet felon) Viktor Yanukovich, the former Ukrainian prime minister. Or ask the country’s current prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko -- another child of the east, who is still adored in her hometown of Dnipropetrovsk -- who’s steadfastly nurtured conflicted feelings about the alliance.

But most memorable was an exchange I had with a young Ukrainian border guard who had tried to “arrest” me and a photographer in western Ukraine about 500 yards from the border with Poland. Major Viktor -- he refused to give his surname -- was not the chatty sort until I cheekily remarked that one day the border would likely straddle two NATO countries and he’d be serving a commander in Brussels. “We don’t need your [expletive] NATO!” he snorted. “We can defend our homeland on our own just fine.”

Well, Michael, here’s hoping that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Lviv (that lovely cultural capital of western Ukraine) never comes, and we don’t have to witness the cost of Major Viktor’s vanity.

Andrew Meier is a former Moscow correspondent for Time magazine and the author of the new book, “The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service.”

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