James Goldgeier is a a Professor of International Relations at American University. He is also a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Center on International Security and Cooperation and a Visiting Fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. Recently, he is the coeditor with Joshua Itzkowitz Shifrinson of a new book called Evaluating NATO Enlargement: From Cold War Victory to the Russia-Ukraine War.
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- Introduction – 0:35
- Purpose of NATO – 2:37
- NATO Expansion – 16:00
- NATO and Democratization – 22:41
- Future of NATO – 32:42
I was a kid when the Cold War came to an end. So, until recently conflict with Russia had always felt like a thing of the past. Institutions like NATO felt not just unnecessary, but even archaic. They had historic significance, but I struggled to understand their present day relevance.
However, Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated the importance of NATO. It made clear for me why so many countries felt the need to join after the Cold War was over. But it also raised a number of questions I had never taken the time to think much about. So, I reached out to James Goldgeier to help me answer those questions.
Jim is a a Professor of International Relations at American University. He is also a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Center on International Security and Cooperation and a Visiting Fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. Recently, he is the coeditor with Joshua Itzkowitz Shifrinson of a new book called Evaluating NATO Enlargement: From Cold War Victory to the Russia-Ukraine War.
Our conversation touches on the purpose of NATO, the consequences of its enlargement, and its future. It reflects on the history of NATO expansion, but also puts those ideas into a contemporary context.
Now if you like this episode, you should consider supporting the podcast on Patreon or becoming a premium subscriber on Apple Podcasts. You’ll get early access to new episodes and access to a growing library of exclusive bonus episodes. Recent bonus material has featured interviews with Beth Kerley, Rene de Nevers and Tim Shaffer. Look for the link in the show notes to become a Patron. But for now… This is my conversation with James Goldgeier…
James Goldgeier, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thanks for having me.
Well, Jim, I learned a lot about NATO from your new book, Evaluating NATO Enlargement: From Cold War Victory to the Russia-Ukraine War. It’s a very expansive book and touches on a lot of subjects both of history and geopolitics. In the book, there is a quote that is repeated a couple of times. It’s from the First Secretary General of NATO, General Ismay, who said, “NATO existed to keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in.” He said it a long time ago. A lot has changed. Is this still the purpose of NATO in your mind?
Well, to varying degrees, yes. I mean, certainly, I would argue that there was a period in the 1990s when the goal wasn’t so much as to keep the Russians out, but to try to create a partnership with Russia. But there’s no question today that the goal with an aggressive Russia and Putin espousing these imperialist attitudes towards neighbors that NATO is designed to keep the Russians out.
Most importantly, it is designed to keep the Americans in and that is why NATO stayed around after the end of the Cold War, because you could have argued that it should disappear. The Warsaw Pact disappeared when the Cold War was over. Why should NATO continue to exist? It was really driven in part by the George H. W. Bush administration and then continued after that. The United States felt like it needed NATO to continue, so the United States could continue to remain actively engaged in Europe and really continue to dominate European security.
The interesting piece of that is really about the Germans. You know, I would argue 30 years ago with German unification in 1990 and with lots of changes in Europe, lots of uncertainty, there was still reason to be worried about what Europe might look like. I think that there are those in Europe who see the US being in as a way to keep Germany from being too strong. We need Germany to be stronger than it is and so I hope that NATO wouldn’t continue to be there to keep the Germans down. I hope that NATO would continue to be there to allow the Germans to play a more active role and really become stronger on defense. It would be better if there was a more equal partnership between the United States and Europe.
The Germans down is the most fascinating part of this, because many countries in Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe, but even the French would be annoyed if the Germans were dominating NATO and playing an outsized role in the alliance. In a lot of ways, the United States is a much better leader of NATO, because there’s always a reluctance to be able to do things in the United States. There’s a hesitation to be able to get too involved. There’s always a sense of retrenchment that’s looming with the United States. We see in the European Union sometimes a lot of countries are a little bit hesitant of German dominance within the EU. So, it’s interesting to me because it comes back to the idea of which countries should be in and which countries should be out. It reminds us that there’s a lot of dynamics that happen within an alliance like NATO.
Yes, a lot of dynamics and even more as it gets bigger. Right? You have more and more countries, I mean, now it’s got 31 and hopefully with Sweden joining sometime this year will make it 32. That’s a lot of different interests: North, South, East, West Europe and North America, Canada and the United States. There are a lot of different interests, as you say. I mean it, it’s always easier to have a power like the United States that’s far from Europe be the one that’s most dominant because it makes others less nervous. Those countries around Germany don’t want to see Germany become too powerful. Of course, when NATO was founded and Lord Ismay’s quote about the Germans down, the Russians out, and the Americans in, I mean, you’re just coming out of World War II. Nobody wanted Germany to be powerful again.
But this really is a dilemma today because the United States, if it really wants to focus more on the Indo-Pacific and on China in particular, it needs a stronger Europe. It needs a Europe that can do more for its own and for Europe to do more for its own defense. It needs Germany to be able to do more and to really have the German population believe there’s a threat out there for which they need to develop their own defensive systems and really build up their military. US engagement will remain important, but what we’re seeing in this war today is just a reminder of how dependent Europe is on the United States. I just don’t think that level of dependence is healthy.
And it’s not just Germany. I mean, a lot of countries in NATO are not meeting the 2% of GDP threshold for defense spending. But obviously Germany’s really the linchpin because if Germany meets its obligations, I think a lot of nations will probably follow along. And if Germany continues to fall short of its obligations, a lot of countries will see that as a reason to fall short as well.
Yeah, and they really haven’t even tried to get to 2%. You know, there was a lot of big talk from the German chancellor after the war expanded in February of 2022, but we’re not seeing the actions following the talk. Now, again, it’s easy to complain and criticize. You know, they do a lot. They’ve borne a lot of the burden from this war like refugees coming in and higher energy prices. So, we shouldn’t be so quick to criticize and complain, but NATO members did agree in 2014 that they would aspire to this 2% target on defense and all the countries of NATO need to be serious about trying to reach that.
There can be too much of an obsession with these numbers and what 2% actually means. It’s more important how it’s spent really than how much, but still, they all agreed to try to reach that target by 2024. So, I think you’re right. I think Germany really being serious about it would send a signal to everyone in the alliance.
We also mentioned that the purpose of NATO was to keep the Americans in, to keep them involved, and in many ways that’s still the case today. Do you feel that NATO enlargement – when we expanded NATO and maintained it instead of allowing it to disband the way that the Warsaw Pact did – Was that necessary to keep the Americans engaged in European affairs?
Well, I think the first decision that was made was to stay engaged and to continue NATO. You know, other options included having what’s become the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe which includes all the NATO and former Warsaw Pact members, so that means including Russia… Could that have developed after 1990? Could the European Union, what became the European Union, could that have taken on more of a role in European affairs? I mean, the George H. W. Bush administration was very deliberate in saying we need to keep NATO. That was because they wanted to make sure that the United States stayed in charge of European security and there was a good reason.
The lesson they took from the 20th century was that after the end of World War I, the United States left Europe and two decades later you had a Second World War. The United States stuck around after World War II and helped ensure that Western Europe would become secure and stable and prosperous and that was good for Western Europe and it was good for the United States. So, in 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart, the Bush administration, I think, rightly looked at Europe and thought there’s a lot of uncertainty. It would be good to keep NATO and it’d be good to have the United States stay engaged to ensure that things don’t go wrong in Europe after the end of the Cold War.
Then the question was what do you do about Central and Eastern Europe? They started clamoring to join. Why not? There they were coming out of communism. They wanted to join the West. They wanted to be in both NATO and the EU and the United States became the major champion of that enlargement to the East. Again, looking back at the 20th century and what we had done with Western Europe after the Second World War, the idea was let’s do for Europe’s East what we did for Europe’s West. So, I think it was all very logical. The challenge was how do you do that and try to have a better relationship with Russia and that was always the tricky.
But many of the authors in your book raised the counterfactual that we could have just maintained NATO at its current size or we could have stopped enlargement after 1999 after we allowed in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. We could have stopped there and said that’s about where we think NATO should be for the time being. We’re going to move forward and pause or wait until we feel that it’s necessary to expand more. But many of the other authors also emphasized that there was a real impetus to enlarge NATO because it kept the United States engaged in the process.
The peace dividend resulted in so many countries cutting their military budgets that if we just would’ve stayed pat and said NATO is what it is, it’s likely the alliance would’ve fallen apart. Even if NATO existed, it would’ve been a shell of itself. It seemed to keep the alliance moving forward in doing something even while many countries cut their military budgets and reduced their military spending, NATO still seemed to have a purpose and existence and it kept the Americans engaged. Was that necessary to keep them engaged in European affairs or do you think that if we just would’ve allowed NATO to stay static that the United States would’ve found other ways to get engaged?
Well, it’s a great question. We don’t know. I mean, NATO was this readymade vehicle. We knew what it was. We knew what the US position was and the US role in it. You’re right that these things did give NATO a purpose when it wasn’t clear what its purpose would be after the end of the Cold War. I mean in the nineties it was the movement toward enlargement and the first round of new members come in in 1999 and then animates NATO through the 2000s. You then have the Afghanistan war, which provides a lot of purpose for NATO. Then, of course, as is often the case, whenever people are thinking NATO doesn’t really need to continue anymore, the Russians do something to remind people that maybe it’s a good thing to have NATO.
So, you point towards the different views in the book. One of the reasons is that my coeditor and I, Josh Shifrinson, have different views on NATO enlargement. We pursued this project because we wanted to improve the quality of the debate about this topic. There’s just so much written that tends toward the extremes that doesn’t really consider the different possibilities. That doesn’t weigh the pros and cons of the policy chosen with the pros and cons of other policies. I think even if you accept that the United States was going to keep NATO and that the United States was going to continue to dominate NATO, even in that world, there were three alternatives to the policy that was chosen.
One, as you point out, was to do some of the NATO enlargement that occurred, but not as much. There were people who argue that taking in the Baltics stretched NATO too far and that it was really taking in countries that it couldn’t properly defend. I happen to be a supporter of the Baltics coming into NATO. But there’s a real debate to be had there and I think it’s important that we drew that out in the book. Then in 2008 NATO declared that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. That declaration in 2008, I think was unwise. It didn’t provide a path for NATO membership for those two countries, but merely antagonized the Russians. So, that was certainly an alternative.
The two other major ones within a NATO context included the Partnership for Peace that was established in 1994. That was a Pentagon idea of creating military to military ties with former Warsaw Pact, former Soviet countries that from the view of the Pentagon was an alternative to NATO enlargement. That certainly would’ve made things easier with the Russians, but it wouldn’t have really answered the calls from the central and Eastern Europeans about formally being part of NATO. Because NATO has written in the original 1949 Treaty, Article 10, which says that any European country that meets the criteria and can contribute to alliance security can be considered for NATO membership. It just would’ve been really hard to just keep those out just because Joseph Stalin drew a line through Europe in the late 1940s.
But that Article 10 also means that potentially Russia could join and that was the other alternative in the 90s that was often discussed. If NATO’s different and it’s not about containing Russia, then why not just invite Russia to join? You know, it was talked about. Yeltsin talked about it. Putin talked about it when he first came into office. The Clinton administration in the 90s certainly discussed it. I don’t think it was ever realistic just given Russia’s size and once Russia turned in a more authoritarian direction that was just not going to happen. But there were these alternatives and I think it’s important as we look back to assess what they were and how we think of them in comparison to what unfolded.
Why did so many countries want to join NATO? I mean, we spend so much time worrying about the United States wanting to expand it and Russia being upset that it’s expanding. Why did so many other countries… I mean, NATO’s expanded from 16 countries at the end of Cold War to 31 now. It’s about to double, if Sweden joins. Why did so many countries want to join?
Well, it’s interesting. It’s worth having that conversation. Why those countries wanted to join is different from why the United States wanted to expand NATO, especially during the Clinton years. The main impulse for expanding NATO from a US perspective was to try to encourage these countries to become more democratic, to respect the rule of law, to create more stability and security across Europe. These countries wanted in partly because they wanted to be part of that democratic West for sure. But they were mainly saying Russia right now is weaker than it’s been. We’ve been under Russian domination for a long time and we want to get out from under that and we want protection. So, just in case Russia comes back bad again, we want to be in NATO.
It turns out that impulse was a correct impulse. They are protected. Putin invaded Ukraine because he thought he could get away with it. In 2014 he did get away with it. Largely in 2022, he did not when he expanded the war. But he’s been very careful about not attacking NATO countries just as the United States and the NATO allies have been careful not to attack Russia. So that impulse of the Central-Eastern and Eastern Europeans was certainly there and now we see it with Finland and Sweden. These are two countries that never had any intention of joining an alliance. But with what happened in February of 2022, they decided we better get in too, because we need to make sure we’re protected against this.
There’s a lot of time spent talking about things that the United States and the West have done to antagonize Russia, but I often wonder if some of the Russian behavior actually encouraged other countries to pursue NATO membership. Because even before we get to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, even before the involvement in Georgia in 2008, even before those first countries joined in 1999, I mean, Russia is fighting a brutal war in Chechnya to be able to preserve part of its empire that exists. You have Russia defending the Serbians who are committing a genocidal war. They’re upset not just about the bombings in Yugoslavia. They’re not even willing to really talk down Milošević and get in there and play a role of mediator to actually make sure that the atrocities stopped.
I mean, there’s a lot of different things that they did that I think that if I was in Poland or if I was in Hungary, I’d be a little bit concerned about having a border with Russia or being so close to Russia and not having security guarantees within NATO. Were countries concerned about those activities that Russia did, those actions that Russia was taking even dating back to the nineties and early 2000s?
Yes, they were. I think one of the things that I think we underestimated in the United States that the Eastern Europeans understood very well was how deeply ingrained Russian imperial attitudes are. You know, in the nineties after the collapse of Soviet Union, I think in the United States we largely focused on whether we could help Russia become a democracy. Could we help Russia become a market economy? There was a recognition when Bill Clinton in April of 1993 before his first meeting with Yeltsin talked about the transition Russian was going through. He did talk about the transition from dictatorship to democracy, from command economy to a market economy, and from an empire to what he called a normal nation state. I think though we largely underplayed that transition and these Europeans understood that Russia is still very much an imperial country.
Given what we’ve learned, especially since February of 2022, with how views that Ukraine shouldn’t have the right to exist as an independent country, this is not just a Putin view. I mean, this is held across the elite. This seems to be held across the population. You know Russia in its internationally recognized 1991 borders is a big country. I think from an outside perspective, we could say it doesn’t really need to be any bigger and I think the West would be perfectly happy to help Russia feel secure within those internationally recognized borders.
What we don’t want is a Russia to think that it can just send its military into neighboring countries and take territory that it thinks belongs to it. These territories don’t belong to Russia and I think the central and eastern Europeans understood in the 1990s very well that Russia as an empire and a Russia that still held imperial views was still going to be a threat to them.
Do you feel that the Russian imperial mindset makes democratization of Russia at the moment an impossibility?
Well, I would like to think not. I mean, I would like to think that Russia could become democratic. But it isn’t going to be welcome in Europe and able to really be part of a European security order unless it flatly states that it does not have designs on other country’s territory. I suppose I’d look at it like this. When we think about Ukraine, what Putin feared the most was a successful Ukrainian democracy that would show that you could have a successful democracy right next to Russia in a country that had been in the Soviet Union.
I think Putin feared what that would do to his hold on power in Russia. But if Ukraine can have a successful democracy, then we should hope for Russia to be able to have the same thing. It just has to be a Russia that’s going to accept a Ukraine that’s a successful democracy, secure in its own borders itself.
I guess the question isn’t so much whether Russia can become a democracy, but an imperial Russia can become a democracy.
Yes. I mean, as long as it wants to continue to rule over these other territories, that’s going to get in the way. So, in that sense, yes, I agree with you. These are related. And so if we’re going to see Russia move on a path to democracy, giving up these imperial attitudes are going to be hugely important.
So, one of the reasons for expanding NATO from an American point of view, from a western point of view was that it was going to help facilitate democracy and in many of those countries where we did expand NATO, we did see democracy flourish. We saw some genuine democratization. But we’ve also more recently seen some democratic backsliding. Do you feel that NATO has contributed to democratization?
I think NATO did contribute to democratization. I think what a lot of us missed was that countries that democratized in large part to join NATO in the European Union, countries like Poland and Hungary, could backslide. I don’t think that was on a lot of people’s radar screens in the 1990s. I think people thought if we could just get them to become democracies, then they’ll become democracies and then they’ll continue in that direction. Of course, I don’t think people really thought the United States would have so much trouble maintaining its own democracy, but that’s a separate issue.
Still, I think that it has exposed a big challenge for NATO because there’s not a lot of leverage over these countries. You can’t kick Hungary out of NATO. There’s no provision for that. It’s an organization that operates by consensus. There’s no eject button. There’s no way to kick a country out. That is a problem for the institution. I have heard from some Hungarians that they believe things would be even worse in Hungary if it weren’t a member of NATO and the EU. So, in that sense, maybe NATO and the EU have at least prevented things from being even worse in Hungary, but it is really a problem.
It’ll be interesting to see how Turkey develops. There’s a lot of concern about the state of democracy in Turkey. There are elections in May in Turkey. An opposition victory in Turkey would have a tremendous impact on how we think about Turkish democracy. If President Erdoğan wins the election and continues on, then there’ll be a lot of concerns about where Turkey is heading as well. But again, you can’t kick a country out and Turkey is strategically important, so it remains an important country for NATO.
Why can’t you kick a country out? I mean, I would think that there’s a way through the treaty that if every one of the countries but one, which would be difficult with Turkey and Hungary because they would back each other. But I would think that if all the countries decided that they didn’t want to be part of this other country that you could somehow find a legal way to be able to get it done.
I don’t think there’s a way to get it done and I don’t know that NATO wants to be in the business of sort of this country now no longer meets the criteria. It should be kicked out. I mean, NATO has always had an issue with this during the Cold War. There were issues with respect to Portugal, with respect to Greece and Turkey. I mean, what you hope is that you can move these countries back on a more democratic path, just as I think there are a lot of us in the United States who hope that the United States can stay on a democratic path. I don’t think you want to give up on anybody, but it does reduce your leverage for sure.
I don’t think it’s the question of whether they’re democratic enough to be in the alliance, particularly for Turkey and Hungary, because Poland has its own issues of democratic backsliding, but nobody questions whether Poland is a reliable ally within NATO. Poland is one of the lynchpins, particularly in Eastern Europe. I mean, they’re rock solid even with all the issues in terms of democratic backsliding. But Turkey and Hungary kind of come across as if they’re almost fifth columns within the alliance. Sometimes Turkey is oftentimes described as almost a ‘frenemie’ of Russia. With Hungary, I’ve heard of reports that have come out that they think of the United States as potentially a geopolitical enemy of theirs. How can NATO kind of resolve members who, if not today, perhaps one day in the future, would purposely want to sabotage the alliance from within?
Yeah, I mean that is a serious concern. The Hungarian leader, Viktor Orbán’s relationship with Vladimir Putin is a major concern. Erdoğan’s own relationship with Putin is of concern. You don’t want to feel like you’ve got countries in the alliance that you can’t trust in terms of whatever information they might be passing on to Russia or any other adversary. And you’re right, especially prior to February of 2022, we used to talk a lot about the concerns about Poland and Hungary. But Poland’s been such an important ally during this expanded war against Ukraine that we aren’t talking as much about the domestic political developments within Poland.
But again, it’s also important to remember, we had a president of the United States between 2017 and 2021 who also seemed like he might pull the United States out of NATO. His national security advisor, John Bolton, said that he expected that if Trump won a second term, that he would’ve pulled the United States out of NATO. You know, if he wins the election in 2024, who knows what’ll happen in 2025. We want all countries to be good allies, good members of NATO, and I think that it really is a grave concern to NATO how these countries are acting. I don’t know any way you address it other than by trying to work together with these countries and to try to convince them that their future lies with NATO and that they should see the importance of that and work together with their NATO allies.
We also should remember that NATO and the European Union have been quite united since February of 2022. They have responded very effectively to the war. That’s with Hungary in both NATO and the European Union and Turkey in NATO. So, these institutions have been able to act in a quite effective and unified manner even with these challenges.
A related concern is about whether NATO enlargement has actually made the alliance more secure. Now we’re kind of talking about whether or not it’s made it more secure politically when you have members like Turkey and Hungary. But you’ve got some authors in the book that also make the point that by adding so many new members, it became difficult to be able to integrate all the different militaries together. On balance, do you feel like NATO enlargement made the alliance more secure?
So, I think that enlargement made Europe more secure and I think on balance NATO has managed very well. But for me, this is one of the most interesting features of the book for me personally, just because I’ve been pretty well steeped in the US-Russia debate. So, I knew that one pretty well. I was pretty well steeped in the European security debate. So, I knew that one pretty well. The chapters we have on NATO as an institution, how it’s evolved, what enlargement has meant, the challenges of working within an expanded alliance, the challenges of defending territories that are much harder to defend than the territories of the 16 that emerged at the end of the Cold War. I learned a tremendous amount from those chapters, and it really helped me recognize that there’s a mixed story to tell and we should understand it better.
As somebody who thinks NATO enlargement was a good idea, I do recognize, especially having read those chapters that it created some enormous challenges for the alliance and we should try to understand better what that’s meant and just how much more difficult it has made NATO operations and just the expansion of the territory that NATO has to defend and the challenges of really being able to defend those territories. So, I really learned a lot from our authors and I thought they were extremely helpful to me in understanding better this whole issue and how NATO has evolved.
It made a lot of sense to me because I have some background working in operations. It’s really important to understand how pieces kind of fit together and I had never considered the fact that not only does NATO have to defend more territory, but it has to integrate so many different countries together so that if there is an attack on NATO, they can work together and complement each other. With each new member it’s more difficult. But despite all of that, you’ve said that you still think it was a good idea. So, I mean, do you think that the benefits outweighed those disadvantages?
For me personally, the benefits do outweigh, but as you say, we have authors in the book who feel differently and in some cases those authors feel differently because they would like the US to be doing less in Europe and they would like Europe to be doing more. I also think it’s worth noting that for me, this is what’s one of the exciting things about Finland and Sweden coming in. Hopefully Sweden coming in. Finland now already in. These are established democracies. They provide a lot of capabilities. They’re strategically important. I think they really helped secure Northern Europe better than we were able to before. After years of taking in smaller countries that couldn’t contribute much militarily, that were really being brought in for reasons other than what they could contribute to a military, having a country like Finland in I think is a big deal.
So, I think that this latest enlargement is quite important on that score. But partly the reason that I think the benefits outweigh the cost is partly because I don’t think the relationship with Russia would’ve looked that different in the absence of enlargement. There are authors in the book who believe differently and think that without enlargement there was a chance of a better US-Russian relationship. I think that’s a pretty important point to really think about. I think there were a lot of other reasons for the US-Russia relationship to deteriorate and I think it would’ve deteriorated anyway. But if you think that there was a chance that the US could have had a better relationship with Russia, you’re probably going to think differently about NATO enlargement than I do.
So, you mentioned a lot of people who think NATO enlargement was a bad idea partly believe that because they’d like to see the United States move out of Europe many of those people believe the United States should be more involved in the Pacific region because China is seen as more of an existential threat long term than Russia is for the United States. Do you think that it’s possible for nations outside of Europe that are American allies like Japan, South Korea, even India to one day become members of NATO?
I don’t think we’ll see the alliance expand to countries outside of North America and Europe. But we are seeing countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, become closer partners to NATO and having representatives coming to NATO meetings. They were at the last summit in 2022. I assume they’ll be there in the summit coming up in Vilnius in July of 2023. So, I think we’re seeing the closer partnerships. I do agree that the United States really needs to continue to rebalance its foreign policy toward the Indo-Pacific. The only way it can do that is if Europe becomes stronger and a more equal partner. The dependence that Europe has on the United States that the war has highlighted is not healthy in the long term.
I don’t want to see the United States leave Europe, but I would like to see a Europe that’s more capable and more capable of being an equal partner to the United States. I think that would really improve things considerably. It’ll also be interesting to see, on your point about countries like Japan and South Korea, whether there are ways for the United States to enhance dialogue across these regions. So, to have European allies engaged with US allies in the Indo-Pacific. I mean, we certainly saw with the AUKUS deal, the submarine deal, a way of bringing together the UK and Australia and the United States in a really interesting way. So, will we see more opportunities for dialogues like that across these regions among US allies? That’ll be an interesting thing to watch.
So, I do want to pivot to Russia. I think that that’s such an important piece of any conversation about NATO, especially with the invasion of Ukraine, but even before that. You’ve mentioned that a lot of the other writers, including your co-editor, believe that NATO enlargement disrupted the US relationship with Russia. Can you explain a little bit about why the Russians resisted NATO enlargement in the first place?
Well, I think there are different views on that and there are different views expressed in the book. For example, Barnard Professor Kim Martin has a chapter in the book where she argues that NATO enlargement was really more of a symbol than a cause of the problem. She argues that the Russian military never really worried much about NATO enlargement because they didn’t really see that it was going to undermine Russian security from a military standpoint. Instead, it was the loss of status. It was a symbol that Russia had lost status. The Warsaw Pact had disappeared. Why is NATO still there? It’s the Cold War adversary of Russia. There it is. It’s still there. Not only is it still there, it’s growing from a Russian standpoint. It diminished Russia and seemed to enhance the United States and enhance the West.
So, I do agree that NATO enlargement contributed to the deterioration of US-Russian relations, because the Russians didn’t like it. So, it definitely contributed to it. But do I think it was the fundamental cause of the deterioration? No. I do think that Russia just couldn’t accept trying to find a place in Europe where it wasn’t one of the two great powers. What Russia wanted was a Europe that was run by the US and Russia where these two were considered the leading powers and where Russia didn’t have some seat at the table that was going to be the same as some small country in Europe.
We saw in the winter of 21-22 when Vladimir Putin was putting various proposals out that didn’t seem to be serious, but one thing that did seem to be serious was he seemed to want the US and Russia to be able to sit down and make all the decisions. He still seems to want the US and Russia to sit down and make all the decisions with respect to a country like Ukraine. Russia has had a very hard time accepting a role in Europe that’s not a superpower role.
I think the United States tried very hard to ensure that Russia felt like an equal, like it was being respected. Bill Clinton expanded the G-7 of advanced industrialized democracies to become a G-8. I think with the NATO-Russia founding Act of 1997, there was an attempt to assuage Russian concerns. I think there was an attempt to have Russia feel like it was being respected and its security interests were taken into account. I think the Russians just didn’t feel like it was enough. They don’t want to be just any country in Europe. They want to be there making decisions with the United States and that’s just not from a US standpoint. That’s just not going to happen except on nuclear arms control. That’s the one place where you see that bipolar world still, although with China increasing its nuclear arsenal that will change.
But yes, NATO contributed to the deterioration of relations, but I agree with Kim Martin that the deterioration was going to happen anyway because Russia just was having a hard time accepting its change in status from a Cold War superpower. I think for Putin that’s been particularly important. Again, as we were talking about earlier, when you still have those imperial attitudes and believe that other countries belong to you, you’re going to have a hard time.
I think that’s a point that’s oftentimes missed because when we consider the idea of Russia perhaps joining NATO as part of a counterfactual, the reason why that was never seriously considered by either Russia or the United States is that Russia wanted to have outsized influence in NATO if they joined. At the same time, the other countries in NATO wouldn’t be able to stomach having Russia join and have so much influence within NATO. It just doesn’t make sense based on the size and potential hard power that Russia would bring to the table for it to be a member of NATO. So, it creates a very awkward dynamic as to what to do about Europe and how to be able to balance Russia in the end, because it seems like it’s always on the outside looking.
Right. Absolutely. I agree. You know, how do you manage that over time? I mean, right now we’re sort of in a mode of trying to contain Russian aggression. That’s where we’ll continue to focus. But if a more democratic Russia emerged, if a Russia that gave up imperial designs emerged, we would want to have a good relationship with that Russia. But how would we integrate it into European security if the main institution in Europe is NATO. That is something we didn’t figure out in the 90s and we still haven’t figured it out. So, that remains a major point of uncertainty.
But they were part of a potential alternative, which was Partners for Peace, PFP, that you mentioned earlier. And like you said, just a moment ago, it just wasn’t enough because it was just going to be one more seat at the table. It was going to be equal to a country like Poland and Russia doesn’t want to be equal to really any other European country. It believes that it’s the dominant country within Europe. It wants to be equal to the United States.
You know, we should expect Russia to want to be secure and strong, to want to be independent, to not be dependent on the West, although we’re watching Russia become more dependent on China. So, that’s an interesting development in and of itself. But even so, if we had a democratic post-imperial Russia that wanted to be a strong independent power and wanted a good relationship with Europe, how would we build that? I think we should all be starting to try to think about that, because hopefully we’ll get to that world down the road and we’ll need to figure out how to do it in a way that we never figured out in the 90s how to do it.
NATO has been supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia or rather against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine is likely to become a member of the EU. It’s already on path to be able to do that sometime in the future. Should Ukraine become a member of NATO in the future as well?
Should it? Will it? I’m not sure on the should it, although I will say there’s one thing we’ve learned. Who would be a better ally than Ukrainians? These are people who are fighting so bravely and have shown so much resilience. That’s what we should want in an ally. We should want people like Ukrainians. I think probably for its security, it should. But I don’t really think that it’s going to, at least not in any kind of near-term timeframe. So, I think we need to be thinking about other things. We want to provide Ukraine with what it needs to defend itself against future Russian aggression. Even if there were a settlement to this war, that threat of Russian aggression would continue and I think we should make that commitment to provide Ukraine with what it needs to defend itself.
But I think in the near term, it will focus on its path to membership in the European Union. I hope that won’t be decades away. I mean, hopefully it can move on a path in a reasonable timeframe. It’s going to be hard, but I hope it will. I think the focus today really is on what we can do to help ensure that Ukraine can defend itself. But we should recognize how amazing these people are and how these are exactly the kind of people that we would want as allies of the United States.
So, some people speculate about a negotiated peace and they come up with these grand ideas that if Ukraine would just cede certain territory, that they could come to peace with Russia at some time. I have a hard time imagining how that’s possible, even under the best-case scenarios without security guarantees for Ukraine. And I have a hard time imagining what security guarantees would be enough without NATO membership for Ukraine. It makes me wonder if there was a negotiated settlement, which I don’t foresee happening anytime in the near future and would have dramatic political implications for both Ukraine, Russia, and geopolitics, but if there was, do you think that NATO membership would be on the table if it was necessary to bring an end to the war?
Well, as you said, it’d be hard to imagine Russia agree to a settlement where that was on the table. I don’t think there’s really going to be a formal settlement to this war. I think you could have a slowing down or a cessation of fighting. I think you could end up maybe with some kind of disengagement. I think you’re going to have a state of war that continues to exist between these two countries for the foreseeable future. I say that partly because Vladimir Putin has shown no interest in serious negotiations. I don’t see how a Ukrainian president could negotiate away territory when we see what happens to people who live in Russian occupied Ukrainian territory. I just don’t see how a Ukrainian president could do that.
So, I think you could have a situation where you have fighting slow down or even stop, but that’s not going to happen soon either. But where you could imagine a situation is where Russia hasn’t given up its designs and where Ukraine hasn’t given up on getting its territory. I think the United States and its allies can make a commitment to provide Ukraine with what it needs. People call it the porcupine strategy where you give it what it needs to defend itself. But there is a question as to whether or not the United States politically is capable of making long-term commitments like that given how different the two parties seem to be.
Now there’s been strong bipartisan support for Ukraine. It’s been great to see that. But there is a difference in public opinion polling between Democrats and Republicans and we do see two leading Republican candidates for president, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, who seem to have a different view than many others about the need to support Ukraine. Certainly, there are Republican candidates like Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and others who do believe that it’s important to support Ukraine, but Trump and DeSantis seem to be the front runners and they aren’t there. So, if one of them becomes President in 2025, would that be a major shift? I mean, that’s going to be one of the big challenges. Can the United States maintain a bipartisan commitment over time no matter who becomes president of the United States?
Well, let’s expand that idea. Just in terms of NATO itself, we’ve seen it evolve dramatically over the course of the past year or two since Russia invaded Ukraine. How else do you expect NATO to continue to evolve in the future?
Well, one is this idea about whether Europe really can be a more equal partner to the United States and really develop its own defenses to become more capable. You know, I don’t love the term strategic autonomy. I wish people wouldn’t use it, but we need a more capable Europe and it would be great to see NATO evolve in a way in which there’s a more equal partnership. I worry about the opposite. That what this war has shown is the US is still so dominant and Europe is so dependent on the US that the US needs to be there as the main dominant force within NATO. I think that’s a trend we might see coming out of this.
The second is about the other US allies in other parts of the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific. I think NATO has made a move to create stronger partnerships with those countries. I would love to see those develop and I hope that those will develop. Russia is a major threat to Europe and the United States, but it’s not the only threat. So, for NATO to remain relevant, expanding on these global partnerships is a really important thing for it to do.
Well, Jim, thanks so much for joining me today. Just to mention the book one more time, it’s called Evaluating NATO Enlargement: From Cold War Victory to the Russia-Ukraine War. It’s got so many different essays that touch on every possible aspect of NATO enlargement that are extraordinarily timely. It’s a great read. I think it’s a very important read right now. So, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you so much for putting that book together with your co-authors and coeditor.
Well, thank you so much for reading it and if you actually go to the link at Springer Nature, which owns Palgrave MacMillan, which is where the book was published, they’re having a sale right now. $24.99 for the hardback. So, a great opportunity also for most faculty and students at university libraries. University libraries tend to subscribe to Springer products and faculty and students should be able to download it for free. So, I hope that people will be able to make use of it, especially in the classroom, to improve the debate. It was great of you to read it and also to ask such thoughtful questions. I really appreciate the opportunity to be on here with you.
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