What Would America's Two Greatest Statesmen Think of NATO?
As the Cold War wound down in the early 1990s and the threat from the Soviet Union receded, the reason why the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was created disappeared. But bureaucracies die hard, and bureaucratic and political inertia are often hard to overcome. An alliance established to contain the Soviet Union needed a new purpose, and like other going concerns and political organisms, NATO would either expand or die. So it expanded.
And it began to expand at the same time that the United States was urging Russia to join the West in a "partnership for peace," and to peacefully accept the unification of Germany despite Russians' memories of two savage world wars fought against the Germans. Secretary of state James Baker told Russia's leaders that NATO would not expand "one inch" closer to Russia. Yet, just a few years later, President Bill Clinton began the process of expanding NATO to the east, and in 1999, despite prescient warnings from Russia expert George Kennan, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic became NATO members.
It didn't stop there. In 2004, NATO, like an insatiable organism, admitted Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The Cold War was long over, and we were fighting a global war on terror with Russian support — so why was NATO expanding? Why was it in the vital national security interest of the United States to go to war to protect those new members? The Bush 43 administration had no answers, but then it was awfully busy trying to spread democracy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere because, the president claimed, America could not be secure unless democracy spread throughout the region. Bush, continuing to channel Woodrow Wilson, then offered NATO admission to Ukraine and Georgia, but the more prudent Europeans demurred.
Not to be outdone, the Obama administration expanded NATO to Albania and Croatia, two Balkan nations that no American statesman had ever claimed to be peripheral, let alone vital, interests of the United States. And even the "America First" Trump administration added to the folly by admitting Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020.
And now the Biden administration has pledged to support the admission of Sweden and Finland into the alliance. When that happens, there will be no "buffer states" between NATO and Russia. NATO will form a cordon sanitaire along Russia's border. And since the beginning of Russia's war with Ukraine, Biden and members of his administration have threatened war crimes trials for Russian president Putin and Russian generals and soldiers, and have called for regime change in Russia, while members of Congress have taken turns posing for photos with Ukraine's President Zelensky, who plays the role (he is an actor) of the Churchill of the 21st century. International tensions are rising to a dangerous level, but Zelensky still has time to open the Cannes Film Festival. It would be laughable if it were not so serious.
Effective and prudent statesmanship includes the ability to look at situations, crises, and developments from perspectives other than your own. The mindless and relentless expansion of NATO untethered to any concrete national security threat would have been denounced by George Washington and John Quincy Adams, perhaps our country's two greatest statesmen. Washington and Adams, as the late Angelo Codevilla reminded us in his recently published book America's Rise and Fall among Nations, believed that the United States should mind its own business unless and until its national security interests were at stake.
Washington counseled Americans to avoid letting sentiment or emotion guide foreign policy, and his neutral stance in the war between Britain and France in the late 18th century likely saved the young republic. In his Farewell Address to the nation, Washington warned against permanent alliances with any country but acknowledged that temporary alliances based on specific circumstances would sometimes be necessary — but only based on America's interests.
Adams, likewise, advised his countrymen that the United States is the champion and guarantor only of her own liberty and freedom, and he warned against the temptation to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. As the principal author of the Monroe Doctrine, Adams understood the importance of geography and the limitations it imposes on foreign policy. His approach to the world, Codevilla contended, epitomized "America First."
Codevilla suggested that Adams would "use the history of NATO's post-Soviet expansion as a means of confronting Americans with the reality of commitments." "Adams," Codevilla wrote, "would argue for withdrawal" from NATO "because specific commitments are justified only by the alignment of specific interests in specific circumstances." Codevilla explained that today's U.S. alliances, including NATO, "are general commitments of indeterminate length, not for specific goals but rather for the sake of broad relationships." NATO, he wrote, is an end in itself that usurps judgment and forecloses "consideration of our interests regardless of time and circumstance."
Writing before Russia's most recent incursion into Ukraine, Codevilla further suggested that Adams would "reject the idea that Europe needs the United States to protect it from Putin's Russia, because conquering and occupying even Ukraine, never mind Germany, France, Italy, etc., is beyond Russia's physical as well as political capacity."
George Kennan could not have said it better. He predicted that NATO expansion would be the most tragic decision of the post–Cold War world, imposing a barrier to better relations among the United States, Europe, and Russia. And so it has. Biden is about to make things worse.
Image via U.S. Army.