Pondering NATO’s Future

To enlarge or not to enlarge? What to do about Russia and Putin? Should NATO look beyond Europe? Steve Saideman on some of big questions facing the alliance.

By: /
19 June, 2014
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

This week, I had the chance to participate in a DFATD “Fast Talk” where a roomful of individuals at DFATD (as well as DFATD personnel around the world) has a conversation with experts around the world on a given topic via teleconference. I was one of the four non-Canadians brought into provide ten minutes of thoughts and then participate in a Q&A session. The others were an American, a German and a Pole, all working at elite think thanks. The session was held under Chatham House rules, so I cannot say what anyone said, but I found a good deal of consensus and some disagreements which I think I can report (with only my name attached).

I had the first speaker’s slot and discussed NATO’s strengths and limitations before discussing the current crisis in Ukraine. I pointed out that NATO members always, always have conflicts of interest so gaining consensus is always hard. That this particular crisis has an interesting dynamic where those closest (Poland, the Baltics) and the furthest (U.S., Canada) seem to have similar views about the severity of the threat and the need to act and the ones in the middle (France, Germany) appear to be less motivated. I also pointed out that regardless of interest, NATO members also always vary on how much they can do, based on what capabilities they have invested in in the past and on what restrictions/caveats that domestic politics might impose (I never shirk an opportunity to plug the new book).

I also mentioned a key strength of the institution—that there is no substitute for NATO. Because its members value the organization, when the organization itself is seen as being at risk, members will do quite a lot to prevent it from failing. We saw that in Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999, and in Afghanistan as well.

What about the current crisis? Well, there was some disagreement about enlargement—whether we should give membership to Georgia and maybe Ukraine. I was in the majority of the panelists when I suggested that this was a bad idea. This conclusion is based on the fact that extending NATO to include new countries means being aware of the resulting need then to provide a credible commitment to defend those countries. I doubt whether we could defend Ukraine or Georgia (or Moldova or Azerbaijan) if we wanted to while getting consensus to do so would be mighty, mighty hard. The real question is how to provide some kind of partnership to these countries short of membership that improve their security and provide some reassurance.

The real problem is this: there is little we can do to help Moldova or Georgia or Ukraine if Russia decides to invade. Unless we want to create tripwires everywhere with Americans stationed in these countries as hostages (because it is most important to lock in the American commitment), these countries, even with a lot of new equipment and training, cannot hold off an aggressive Russia.

So, the question then turns to how to make Russia pay for its aggression. There was near unanimity that the measures taken thus far fall short. The sanctions have not been that heavy. The West could certainly to do more. One speaker pointed out that the EU has an economy of USD $12 trillion and Russia has an economy of USD $2 trillion which suggests that the balance of economic power is actually not in Russia’s favour.

We then pondered Putin-ology because the costs imposed on Russia may or may not faze Putin, depending on what one thinks of his character and of his domestic political requirements. Much was made of his current popularity, but I pushed back, suggesting that it is inflated due to a “rally around the flag” effect. Serb irredentism was popular until the costs mounted and then Slobodan Milosevic sold out his kin abroad. If and when the costs of these adventures mount, the Russian people will care more about themselves than about the kin abroad, Putin will then have to ponder how to manage things. Yes, he is not exactly a democrat, but he apparently needs to be at least symbolically attentive to things like elections. When authoritarians hold semi-fake elections and win, they tend to lose power.

As we looked to the future, the discussion turned to the next summit of NATO in Wales in September. We discussed what should be on the agenda. The answer, given current events, should be security in Europe and not much else. The days of NATO venturing beyond its raison d’être are over for the time being. Even President Obama omitted the pivot to Asia in his latest foreign policy statement, so NATO should not be concerned with ignoring China, North Korea and rest of the other side of the world.

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