NATO’s Prophetic Critics. Expanding the alliance has led to a war many experts predicted - The Centre for Independent Studies
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NATO’s Prophetic Critics. Expanding the alliance has led to a war many experts predicted

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, a chorus of government officials, academics, commentators, and retired bureaucrats and diplomats has dismissed any link between the crisis and NATO’s decades-long expansion. Moscow’s aggression, we are told, is all about Vladimir Putin’s imperial impulse — his desire to recreate the Russian empire. Yet three decades ago we had some warning of Russia’s strategic sensibilities about NATO expansion. During the 1990s campaign to bring Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic under the US nuclear umbrella, many leading military and foreign-policy thinkers argued that the enlargement of NATO would lead to trouble with Russia. Expansion would create the very danger it was supposed to prevent: Russian aggression in reaction to what the Kremlin would deem a provocative and threatening Western policy.

The list of opponents of NATO enlargement from three decades ago reads like a who’s who of that generation’s wise men. It included the architects of the Cold War containment doctrine George Kennan and Paul Nitze; the former senior Reagan defence officials Fred Iklé and Admiral James Watkins; president Jimmy Carter’s CIA director Stansfield Turner; the Nixon-era diplomats Robert Bowie and Robert Ellsworth; the Reagan-era ambassadors to Moscow Arthur Hartman and Jack Matlock; the intellectuals Ronald Steel, Edward Luttwak, and the Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter; the magazine editors Owen Harries (the National Interest) and Charles Maynes (Foreign Policy); and, not least, the distinguished historians Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes, John Lewis Gaddis, and Britain’s foremost military historian, Sir Michael Howard.

Officials in the State and Defence departments also opposed NATO plans to expand eastward, including the Polish-born chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili and defence Secretary Les Aspin, as well as his successor William Perry, who considered resignation in late 1994 when the policy proposal moved forward. Former defence secretaries Robert McNamara and James Schlesinger also aired their concerns that NATO enlargement would decrease allied security and unsettle European stability.

In the lead-up to the Senate’s ratification of expansion in 1998, the New York Times editorial board said that it was “the most important foreign policy decision America has faced since the end of the Cold War” and could “prove to be a mistake of historic proportions . . . It is delusional to believe that NATO expansion is not at its core an act that Russia will regard as hostile.”

Although the Times opposed NATO enlargement, it was not the case, as Poland’s president, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, joked to the columnist William Safire in 1997, that “the only ones against us are the Russians and the New York Times.”

In fact, the opponents represented an ideologically diverse group across America’s political spectrum — from the unreconstructed accommodationists Noam Chomsky and the Nation on the left to the America First “isolationists” Pat Buchanan and Phyllis Schlafly on the right. In between, there was opposition from legislators on both sides of the political aisle: from the Republican senator John Warner and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher to the Democrat senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the former senators Sam Nunn and Gary Hart.

Virtually all opponents were primarily concerned about upsetting Russia’s strategic sensibilities in a ‘new world order’ — or what the leading neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer dubbed “the unipolar moment”. For Washington, that meant not just the triumph of Western principles and influence, but a pax Americana. For Moscow, though, it no longer meant a security arrangement between equals.

Three critics of NATO expansion distinguished themselves during this period: Pat Buchanan, George Kennan, and Owen Harries. Although they expressed themselves in different ways, all highlighted not only the folly of rubbing Russia’s nose in its Cold War defeat but also the ominous consequences of giving security guarantees to the former captive nations of Eastern and Central Europe.

A past and future Republican presidential candidate, Buchanan used his nationally syndicated column to rail against a new cold war with Russia. In 1994, he noted that if the Cold War presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson backed away from confrontation with the Soviet Union over Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, “why would we risk a clash with Moscow when the Cold War is over?” NATO expansion, Buchanan warned, “is a prescription for a NATO-Russia clash, as soon as the nationalists come to power.” Three years later, in 1997, he lamented that “antagonizing Moscow” meant “driving her toward China and Iran.”

George Kennan — the author of the containment doctrine of 1947, a former ambassador to the USSR, and one of America’s wisest students of Russian affairs — spoke for the many dissenters in 1997 when he warned that NATO expansion “would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era”. It would weaken Russian reformers, embolden hard-liners, undermine strategic arms agreements, and escalate East-West tensions when Russia got back on its feet and began acting like a great power.

In the 1990s, Russia was no threat to the West and was incapable of serious military action. But “if humiliated further and made desperate,” as Owen Harries warned in 1996, “it could be dangerous in a way that a wounded animal can be dangerous.” Its potential to be a troublemaker was huge. A sick Russia with a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons would one day get well and declare its own Monroe Doctrine.

Harries — a Welsh-born conservative academic and cold warrior who became an Australian diplomat-policymaker and editor of the National Interest (from 1985–2001) — argued: “Expanding NATO violates the wise principle enunciated by Winston Churchill: ‘In victory, magnanimity.’ Churchill was no softy, but he recognized the stupidity of grinding the face of a defeated foe in the dirt.”

As early as 1993, in a widely quoted essay in Foreign Affairs, Harries warned of the perils of any proposal to intrude US military power into Russia’s sphere of influence. It would greatly annoy the Russians, but it would have little credibility, create splits within the alliance, and require much in blood and treasure.

The 45-year interlude of the Soviet bloc was merely an episode in a much larger history, Harries said, and its demise did not necessarily mark the end of Moscow’s involvement in the region. He cited “strategic interests, traditional motives of prestige, the ‘historic mission’ of freeing the Greek Orthodox population from infidel rule, and the pan-Slavism that had a very real impact on policy” as reasons to take into account Russian sensibilities and interests beyond its own borders.

“To ignore all this history and to incorporate Eastern Europe into NATO’s sphere of influence, and at a time when Russia is in dangerous turmoil and when that nation’s prestige and self-confidence are badly damaged, would surely be an act of outstanding folly.” Harries warned that in such circumstances, NATO expansion could provide a “catalyst that would enable extreme chauvinistic elements in Russia to exploit frustrations, resentments and wounded national pride in ways that would have unpleasant consequences both internally and internationally.”

Another central tenet of the Harries-Kennan-Buchanan critique was that NATO expansion could suffer a massive credibility problem. Ends and means, Walter Lippmann famously warned in 1943, ought to be brought into balance, and aspirations should match resources in foreign-policy deliberations. Yet here was the U.S. cashing in on the so-called peace dividend by cutting defence spending and army and naval troop levels even as it added security commitments in a part of the world where Cold War presidents felt America had no vital interest justifying a risk of war. Meanwhile, European allies were slashing their own defence budgets and downsizing their own militaries. The irresponsibility of such conduct raised the question of the seriousness of the new commitments being undertaken.

Harries, Kennan and Buchanan were also among the opponents of NATO expansion to draw attention to the assurances the US and Germany gave to Moscow during the early 1990s: that if Russia withdrew from its Warsaw Pact client states and accepted German unification, NATO would not move “one inch eastwards.” By expanding NATO to the frontiers of the former Soviet Union, they warned, Washington had repudiated an implicit agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev thanks to which the demise of the Soviet Union did not unleash the kind of chaos and brute force that had characterized the collapse of other empires. As the English foreign-policy realist Martin Wight once put it: “Great Power status is lost, as it is won, by violence. A Great Power does not die in its bed.”

What happened in the case of the Soviet Union’s collapse was the exception to the rule. From 1989 to 1991, the Kremlin turned loose all of its satellites, allowed the Berlin Wall to fall and Germany to be united, and dissolved the USSR into 15 independent nations — all with virtually no bloodshed. This political miracle took place in no small part because the George H. W. Bush administration refused to exploit Russia’s security vulnerabilities. There was, to be sure, no formal treaty to codify any casual agreement that Washington would not expand its security reach into what Moscow had long viewed as its near abroad. But America had given Russia its word, and then suddenly broken it. As Kennan lamented in 1998: “We did not, I am sure, intend to trick the Russians, but the actual determinants of our later behaviour . . . would scarcely have been more creditable on our part than a real intention to deceive.”

It was around this time when the eminent historian John Lewis Gaddis said he “had difficulty finding any colleagues who think NATO expansion is a good idea.” Gaddis, who later wrote Kennan’s biography, observed in the New York Times: “I can recall no other moment when there was less support in our profession for a government policy.”

The distinguished Oxford historian Michael Howard illustrated Gaddis’s point. “If NATO were to be extended eastward, we would see the beginning of a familiar pattern of aggression,” he wrote in the Times of London in 1996. “Russia, seeing herself threatened by her traditional enemies, would once again set about establishing her dominance over Ukraine, Belarus and probably the Baltic states.”

“NATO would have to respond by improving its military ties with the Visegrad states and perhaps offering guarantees in the Baltics, which the Russians could only see as further threats to their own security.” Sir Michael concluded: “Within a few years, we would be back to a military confrontation in which the security of the Visegrad states would really be threatened, and the whole merry-go-round would begin again.”

Meanwhile, a broad cross-section of the Russian political elite, including Boris Yeltsin and pro-Western reformers, remained alarmed at the prospect of NATO’s advance towards its border. The Kremlin pointed out that Washington would not tolerate Moscow forming a military alliance with Cuba and Mexico and then planting Russian missiles in those countries. So why would Russia accept the US doing the equivalent in Central and Eastern Europe? As Buchanan put it in 1997: “If the Russians gave war guarantees to Mexico and began arming and training Mexican troops, would any Russian assurance diminish our determination to run them out of our hemisphere?”

It was, of all people, President Bill Clinton who eventually recognized Moscow’s anxieties shortly after NATO’s bombing raids against Serbia in the Kosovo War, which appalled many Russians. As he told the UK’s prime minister Tony Blair in April 2000, the Russians “are still affected by Napoleon, Hitler and the way the Cold War came to an end, and about the way the Soviet Union collapsed.” Yeltsin, he said, “wound up mortally hating communism but still believing in Mother Russia. All these guys do, and we’ve got to be sensitive about that.”

Yet Clinton’s considered reflections were too little, too late. According to the New York Times’ veteran reporter R. W. Apple, Jr., writing in 1997, the decision to extend NATO eastward was made in early 1995 “in characteristic Clinton Administration style, without a formal policy review, without a structured evaluation of competing viewpoints, without political debate and over the initial objections of senior military officers.”

In 1998, thoughtful senators were uneasy at the rush to a vote on NATO expansion, and the New York Times editorialised that Clinton had not argued his case to the American people. In his State of the Union address that January, the President spent less than one minute of his hour-long speech setting out his position on NATO expansion.

In this era, James Cameron’s Titanic became the highest-grossing movie of all time to that point. “Like the captain of that ill-fated liner,” warned Susan Eisenhower — the chair of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies and the late President Dwight Eisenhower’s granddaughter — “Clinton has been warned that icebergs are everywhere, but he is steaming full speed ahead, ignoring what may lie beneath the surface, insisting that our vessel is indestructible, unsinkable.”

Yet in April 1998, the president — backed by arms manufacturers, hawkish think tanks, the interventionist wing of the Republican Party, and Central European ethnic voting blocs — was able to push the first of what would become three tranches of NATO enlargement (this one incorporating the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland) through the Republican-controlled Senate by 80–19 votes.

Shortly after the Senate ratified NATO expansion, Kennan told the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman: “I think it is the beginning of new cold war . . . Of course, there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.”

This history serves to highlight the extent to which many distinguished experts raised objections to moving NATO into Russia’s backyard. Their warnings about poking the bear proved prescient. Yet as they consistently warned about an impending new Cold War and a near-certain confrontation with post-Yeltsin Russia, it’s important to note that the opponents of NATO expansion in the 1990s were never dismissed as Kremlin apologists or Russia’s “useful idiots.”

True, there were few congressional hearings, and there was little vigorous debate on Capitol Hill. The critics rarely occupied prime real estate on the opinion pages of the Washington Post or Wall Street Journal, despite their occasional representation in the New York Times. Nor did they appear on the then-influential Sunday morning television programs to make their case against NATO expansion. Still, they were not treated as if their views were outside the boundaries of serious public discourse.

Today the intellectual climate is very different. Anyone — including prominent scholars such as John Mearsheimer and Jeffrey Sachs—who blames NATO expansion for the Ukraine crisis instantly arouses anger and suspicion about his or her motives. Although they are popular on social media, today’s critics of NATO enlargement are virtually ignored across mainstream media, and their intentions are all too often impugned. Never mind that they are effectively reaffirming the legitimate criticisms that Buchanan, Kennan, Harries, the New York Times, and many others raised a generation earlier.

What has changed in three decades? Why are today’s opponents of NATO expansion treated with such contempt and derision?

The answer lies in understanding the power of media and institutional groupthink. In the case of Ukraine, as Ted Galen Carpenter argues in Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and US Foreign Policy, establishment journalists tend to “portray a complex situation as a shallow melodrama, with nearly all blame put on one side”.

Meanwhile, much of what passes as original thinking in official US foreign-policy circles in 2021-2024 amounts to a policy agenda from an earlier generation that culminated in the disasters of Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan: the notion that the US — infused with the belief that it is fundamentally different from other nations in its motives, intentions, and behavior — should exercise ‘benign’ global leadership and promote liberal democracy around the world. Hence, Joe Biden’s declaration that “America is back” and Francis Fukuyama’s claim that Ukraine’s fight represents “the spirit of 1989” and “a new birth of freedom”. This narrative, especially by comparison with Donald Trump’s so-called isolationist America First worldview, has wide appeal among Western, and especially American, elites.

After all, Ukraine is the first major war in Europe since World War II, and Russia is clearly the aggressor. Moreover, there is a history of revanchist attitudes in Moscow, and Putin’s thuggish and autocratic persona helps confirm the widespread view in the West that Russia took up arms exclusively because of its imperialistic ambitions, not because of anything the US and its allies did, including NATO expansion.

But although the Western conventional wisdom insists that Russia is inherently and incorrigibly expansionist, the Russian armed forces lack the military power to conquer Ukraine, much less countries in the erstwhile Warsaw Pact. A Russia that has its work cut out for itself in Donbas is no serious military threat to Europe.

Nor has Putin indicated serious interest in making all of Ukraine part of Russia, much less reconstituting the Russian empire. His strategic objectives appear more limited: he wants to annex eastern Ukrainian territory and badly weaken that country so that it is in no position to join NATO.

The popular Western narrative insists the West should never allow Russian intimidation to deny sovereign peoples their right to join NATO. There was and remains an indispensable corollary, however: as the critics warned in the 1990s, it was inevitable that Russia—with an improving economy thanks to rising oil and gas prices as well as Putin’s success in re-establishing a functioning state—would eventually push back against a US-dominated military alliance growing on its borders.

Great powers, as de Gaulle once remarked, are “cold monsters,” and they will react strongly to the intrusion of a rival great power into what they regard as their spheres of influence. And no great power has been more insistent than the US in playing hardball to protect its near abroad. Latin Americans can attest to that.

The grim reality is that we are facing the prospect of a frozen conflict coupled with the Russian annexation of even more Ukrainian territory, leaving Ukraine as a broken rump state. This is a tragedy that almost certainly could have been avoided if US leaders had heeded the warnings of the many wise opponents of NATO expansion during the 1990s.

Tom Switzer is the executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies.

Photo by Mathias Reding.