Is NATO Getting Too Big to Succeed?

American and Polish troops taking part in the official welcoming ceremony for NATO troops in Orzysz, Poland, in April. Credit Wojtek Radwanski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Of the many foreign policy pledges that President Trump made as a candidate, one of the few worth keeping is to improve relations with Russia. Fueled most recently by Russian interference in the American election and differences over Syria, tensions between Washington and Moscow compromise American interests in Europe, the Middle East and beyond. If Mr. Trump is serious about reducing those tensions and mending ties with the Kremlin, he should use the occasion of this week’s summit conference in Brussels to call for a halt to NATO enlargement.

As is his style, Mr. Trump would be breaking with foreign policy orthodoxy — except this time, it would be fully warranted. Since the Cold War’s end, American and European governments have agreed that admitting Europe’s new democracies to NATO is the best way to anchor them in the Atlantic community and protect them against a potential resurgence of Russian adventurism.

The policy has backfired. From Moscow’s perspective, NATO has ignored its vociferous objections and expanded eastward in successive waves since the 1990s, bringing the world’s most formidable military alliance up to Russia’s borders. The Kremlin may well have returned to its bullying ways whether or not NATO’s frontier moved Russia’s way. But Moscow perceives a threat from NATO’s advance and resents its effort to peel away Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, helping fuel the confrontational turn in the Kremlin’s foreign policy and renewed rivalry with the West. Indeed, Russia militarily occupied chunks of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 in no small part to block their path to NATO.

That NATO opened its doors to former members of the Soviet bloc is understandable. They suffered Moscow’s coercion for decades, and the West felt a moral and strategic obligation to attach them to the community of Atlantic democracies. But Russia’s reaction is equally understandable. The United States would not sit idly by if Russia concluded a military alliance with Canada and Mexico and deployed Russian troops in those countries. For NATO to keep moving eastward and eventually offer membership to Georgia and Ukraine — as promised at NATO’s 2008 summit — is a recipe for a strategic train wreck.
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Getting out of this geopolitical impasse requires shutting down NATO enlargement. Rather than doing so arbitrarily, NATO should aim for a natural strategic boundary. The Balkans offer just that.

Before closing its doors to new members, NATO should complete the process of integrating all the states of the former Yugoslavia when they meet the standards for entry. Croatia and Slovenia are already in, and Montenegro is about to join. Eventual membership for Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia will help consolidate stability on the Balkan Peninsula — and provide a logical stopping point. The area is about 1,000 miles from Russia’s border, minimizing the heartache that NATO’s integration of the Balkans would cause Moscow.

Even if NATO effectively throws away the key after bringing in the rest of the Balkans, its door should remain indefinitely open to European democracies that have long been aligned with the West but have so far chosen to remain neutral, including Austria, Finland, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland. These countries are allies in all but name, they are all strategically located, and they would bring considerable military capability to NATO’s ranks; they should be welcomed into the alliance if and when their electorates so choose.

Limiting NATO’s reach is about not just exercising strategic prudence toward Russia but also maintaining the integrity of the alliance’s solemn commitment to collective defense. NATO should not be in the business of extending territorial guarantees to countries that are deep into Russia’s periphery and therefore very difficult to defend. As democratic countries intent on attaching themselves to Western institutions, Georgia and Ukraine may well deserve NATO membership. But NATO cannot afford to take on unrealistic commitments that would call into question its credibility.

To be sure, publicly declaring the prospective closing of NATO’s open door would resign Georgia, Ukraine and the other states located between NATO’s eastern frontier and Russia to a strategic gray zone. But the prospect of NATO membership only fuels false hopes and encourages Russian intervention to forestall their westward course. Clarifying that NATO membership is not in the cards would trigger needed consideration of alternative strategic options and may well encourage Russia to back off. In the meantime, the Atlantic democracies can continue to assist those countries with political, economic and military reform.

Calling a halt to NATO enlargement should not come without strings attached; Moscow needs to take reciprocal steps. Among the options on the table should be Russia’s readiness to end the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, move toward resolution of “frozen conflicts” elsewhere in Europe and de-escalate tensions with NATO through arms control and military-to-military exchanges.

Russian leaders from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin have consistently blamed NATO enlargement for spoiling the West’s relationship with Russia. Let’s test them.

Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served on the National Security Council from 2014 to 2017.

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