- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Obama attended the NATO Summit in Europe on April 3 and 4 and made clear the NATO option he favors for the future. Rather than an alliance against a resurgent authoritarian Russia or a League of Democracies to consolidate and spread freedom in Eastern Europe, Mr. Obama favors a NATO that acts as a collective security organization working with Russia to fight common threats such as terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons.

At its recent meeting, NATO celebrated its 60th anniversary. By any measure, NATO is one of the most successful military alliances in history. Formed to support the economic and political reconstruction of Europe in 1949, NATO became a military alliance to contain and deter the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It pioneered the strategy of nuclear deterrence, the dangerous yet necessary diplomacy to threaten the Soviet Union with escalation at any level of attack in order to discourage it from attacking or escalating in the first place.

Paradoxical as it may be, the idea was to threaten war, including limited nuclear war (through so-called counterforce strategies), in order to avoid it. Some observers say this strategy was never necessary. They obscure the reality that nuclear weapons were deployed widely and their use was threatened at critical times during the Cold War. They will argue that no one ever really intended to use nuclear weapons, including Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis. But their view is more conviction than fact. The record shows Mr. Khrushchev risked nuclear war even if he did not want it. In response, so did Mr. Kennedy.

The Cuban missile crisis sobered the two rivals, although military alerts occurred again in subsequent crises, such as the 1973 Middle East war. Eventually, the conflict was decided by diplomacy and domestic economic and political performance.

In 1991, the Soviet economy and state collapsed and the Soviet Union disappeared. But all that took place behind the revitalized wall of NATO military defense and deterrence that President Reagan insisted upon after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Mr. Reagan thought the only way to secure peace was to convince the Soviet Union it could never win a war or even an arms race against the United States.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been in search of a mission. Is it still an alliance against an enemy, like the former Soviet Union? Is it a league of democracies that emerged from the Cold War and now embraces the spread of democracy in Eastern Europe, including potentially a new democracy in Russia? Or is it a collective security institution like the United Nations that includes all countries, democratic or not, and considers no one country a threat but addresses threats common to all countries?

Right after the Cold War ended, NATO seemed to have no further mission, not only because the enemy was gone, but because the United Nations seemed to be the new global provider of security. In 1991, the United Nations conducted history's first successful collective security operation, to expel Iraq from Kuwait. However, later crises in Bosnia and Kosovo proved too controversial for the United Nations. Russia vetoed U.N. action, and NATO found a new role in quelling ethnic and religious violence in the former Yugoslavia.

In Eastern Europe, NATO expanded as a league of democracies to consolidate and spread freedom. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined in 1999. Seven more countries followed in 2004, including three former republics of the Soviet Union - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Croatia and Albania became members in 2009.

The United States convened a Community of Democracies in Warsaw in 2000. It has met every other year since then to consolidate and strengthen the new voice of freedom in the world.

Meanwhile, NATO as an alliance has fallen on hard times. It failed to address the terrorist threat or the resurgence of nationalism in Russia. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States rejected a NATO offer under Article V - a threat against one is a threat against all - to fight the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Two years later, the United States divided NATO further over the decision to invade Iraq.

At the same time, Russia, unhappy with NATO activities in Bosnia and Kosovo and NATO membership for former Soviet republics, pushed back. It warned the West not to invite Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO or to deploy missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe against Iranian threats. In recent years, Russia has used its leverage to meddle aggressively in the domestic politics of Ukraine and the Baltic States, and last year, it invaded disputed provinces in Georgia.

Thus, as an alliance, NATO hangs by a thread. It commands Western forces in Afghanistan, but only a few NATO members contribute combat forces or desperately needed equipment such as helicopters.

The choices at the NATO summit, therefore, were stark. Does NATO regroup to fight an actual enemy such as al Qaeda and counterbalance a more assertive Russia? Does it continue to push the spread of freedom in Eastern Europe by preparing Ukraine and Georgia for NATO membership? Or does it accept the presence of Russian forces in Georgia (which have not withdrawn from undisputed Georgian territory as called for by the cease-fire), back off the decision to deploy missile defenses against Iran and work with Russia to address common threats such as nuclear proliferation and terrorism?

Mr. Obama has selected the latter option. He put alliance issues on the back burner - saying nothing about Russia's troops in Georgia or Ukrainian and Georgian membership in NATO and gained no additional NATO combat forces for Afghanistan.

He undercut new democracies in Poland and the Czech Republic by agreeing to forgo missile defenses in these countries if Russia helps to end Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. And he launched an ambitious and hurried program of arms-control negotiations with Russia to sign a new START agreement by the end of the year.

Mr. Obama's choice is a big gamble. He has mortgaged NATO's unprecedented success as an alliance and community of democracies to undertake a risky collective security partnership with Russia that has less and less in common with Western democratic societies. If Russia does not come through, a highly likely possibility, Mr. Obama may wish he had chosen differently.

Henry R. Nau is professor of political science and international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and is the author of “Conservative Internationalism: From Jefferson to Reagan,” Policy Review, No. 150 (August/September 2008), pages 3-45.

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