The Rewards of a Larger NATO

By Ronald Asmus

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bellicose speech at the Munich security conference on Feb. 10 has caused some to revive their arguments against enlarging NATO. The policy was wrongheaded because it produced the nationalist policies that emanate from Moscow today, they say. NATO expansion was a bad idea, they argue, because it enraged the Russians and prompted them to elect a former KGB officer and cold warrior as president. The only thing we got out of NATO enlargement, they say, was the Czech navy.
The critics were wrong when they opposed adding nations to the alliance in the 1990s, and they are still wrong. In fact, the more time that passes, the better the arguments in favor of enlargement look. There were basically three reasons for expanding NATO, and each has been proved right.
First, NATO enlargement was meant to provide a security shield behind which the countries of Central and Eastern Europe could bury their historical conflicts and peacefully integrate into the West. By taking the lead on enlargement, NATO helped make expansion of the European Union possible as well. The result is that Europe is more democratic, peaceful and secure than ever. All of us — Europeans, Americans and Russians — benefit. The threats Russia faces today are not in the West but in the South and to the East. Indeed, Moscow has more stability and less uncertainty on its Western borders than at any time since Napoleon.
Second, we enlarged NATO as a hedge against a Russia that, down the road, might once again emerge as a regional bully or threat. That is exactly what Moscow is in danger of becoming. But the good news for Central Europe is that it is secure now that it is firmly anchored in NATO and the European Union. Just imagine what Central Europe would look like today if we had not enlarged the alliance: Central and Eastern Europe leaders would spend more time worrying about how to stand up to Russian pressure than building democratic institutions and managing robust, free-market economies. Relations with Poland or the Baltic states would look something like the troubled relations Moscow has today with Ukraine and Georgia. We would again have instability in the heart of Europe when we could least afford it.
The third reason to enlarge NATO was broader and more strategic. At the time, President Bill Clinton spoke of his desire to help Europe resolve its continental conflicts and of his hope that this would encourage Europeans to raise their geopolitical sights, assume more global responsibility and become partners with the United States in addressing new threats beyond Europe. Does anyone doubt the need for precisely that after Sept. 11, 2001? Would NATO be in Afghanistan today or be talking about a more global mission if we had not helped build a stable post-Cold War security system in Europe in the 1990s? If Europe were not secure today, it would be much harder to persuade our allies to engage with us in places such as Afghanistan or the Middle East.
To say that NATO expansion triggered Putin’s election as president is to rewrite history. When it comes to Vladimir Putin’s career, we can thank Boris Yeltsin. He picked Putin as his successor to protect his own interests, not for reasons that had anything to do with NATO expansion. Let’s stop pretending that Russia’s troubling emergence as an illiberal, increasingly authoritarian state driven by a form of Eurasian petro-nationalism is the result of Western policy. It is because of developments inside Russia over which the West has little control.
To say that the West got nothing out of NATO expansion is to miss the forest for the trees. While many of NATO’s new members are still poorer than Western European nations, their contribution to the alliance on a per capita basis is higher than that of most West European allies. The nations of Central and Eastern Europe are democratic, stable and prosperous. They made this progress precisely because they were able to leave the Soviet orbit and become part of Europe. That dream of joining NATO and rejoining Europe galvanized their populations and caused them to unite in support of tough reforms that were achieved only because they were the price of joining NATO. And today they have the confidence as well as the wherewithal to deal with the rise of a nationalist Russia.
In truth, with NATO’s expansion we got much more than the Czech navy. We got a Europe that is whole and free. And we have an alliance that is better able to protect us from the threats of the future precisely because it has buried so many ghosts from the past. That’s a pretty good deal.
The writers served in the State Department during the Clinton administration. Greg Craig was director of the Office of Policy Planning, and Ronald D. Asmus was deputy assistant secretary for European affairs.