Dan Nexon argues that efforts to have Ukraine join NATO could be self defeating:
Moscow’s greatest fear is that Ukraine winds up a member of NATO. The more that NATO suggests it views Ukraine as worthy of military confrontation, the more Moscow will become convinced that an autonomous Ukraine — rump or otherwise — will someday become a member of the NATO alliance. The net result: escalating efforts by NATO at military deterrence actually increase the pressure on Moscow to take decisive action in the near term.
The whole post is worth reading, and those few Duck readers who don’t follow Dan’s blog should do so as soon as possible.
But there’s still something puzzling me about Russia’s adventurism in its near abroad: Who cares who joins NATO? Or, to be more precise, what role should NATO membership have in international relations theory?
I write with more disclaimers than usual. I’m not an expert on NATO, on Russia, on Ukraine, or on alliance systems in general. So my questions aren’t just rhetorical maneuvers to justify a blog post, but actually sincere motivations to think through some problems.
The hypothesis that many people seem to intuitively support is that NATO membership credibly commits the United States to defense of NATO members. This, however, is not all that convincing upon reflection. Sure, during the Cold War, the United States was as credibly committed to the defense of West Germany as it was to any of its allies, but alliance membership in itself was obviously not sufficient to motivate that commitment. Schelling’s argument about using forces as tripwires was motivated by the Berlin brigade, after all. Putting troops in harm’s (potential) way made the U.S. commitment credible in a much more meaningful way than signing the North Atlantic Treaty.
Nexon’s worries that a NATO committed to the defense of Ukraine will be a NATO over-committed and hence not credible at all reflects the notion of NATO as credible commitment mechanism:
At the same time, a botched commitment to Ukraine poses significant downsides. The worst-case scenario? That NATO emerges looking like a paper tiger. In fact, NATO and the United States do have legal and consequential security commitments to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This is where the alliance needs to draw its “line in the sand” against future Russian adventures, and where it needs to do so with as much credibility as possible.
But if countries really do make judgments about their interlocutors’ credibility on a current basis (as Daryl Press has argued), then treaty commitments shouldn’t affect Russia’s behavior one way or another. Regardless of how many signatures are on how many treaties, Moscow should evaluate U.S. commitments to Germany differently than U.S. promises to Ukraine.
Maybe, though, signaling concerns trump these objections. Perhaps alliance membership do serve as useful “lines in the sand”, as Nexon writes. Yet to whom are alliances meant to serve as signals? Potential adversaries? Other alliance members? The U.S. public? The last seems plausible, given that NATO has a fairly good brand name with elites. Given that relatively few Americans would opt to defend Turkey or Latvia in the absence of information that both countries are U.S. allies through NATO, it might be that Washington policymakers view a NATO commitment as valuable as a way to communicate to the public that they should take certain countries seriously. Joining NATO does, after all, put a country in the same category as the United Kingdom or France. In this case, a NATO-level commitment by Washington would indeed carry too many risks, both of conflict were the Russians to pursue a hostile course and of devaluing the best U.S.-run club were the United States to fail to live up to its credibility.
All of this fails to address why the subject of NATO membership for former Warsaw Pact members is so neuralgic for Russian foreign policy opinion, or why the threat of NATO membership might (as Nexon writes) prompt more activist Russian foreign policy initiatives. One line of argument that seems to explain both the U.S. and the Russian debates on the subject, as far as I am acquainted with them, is that membership in a formal alliance is a declaration of identity as much, or more, than it is a military commitment. Joining NATO, like joining the EU or the OIC, would then be an expression of a state’s self-identity (or, more accurately, of the role conception of the foreign policy elites who happen to be running that state at a given time). Having Ukraine join NATO would thus be a severe embarrassment for Russian policymakers, one that might pose such a threat to their understanding of the world and the role they play in it that it could in fact justify precipitate action. This explanation has some advantages, since it treats NATO membership as a question of social status first. It is also potentially flawed, since it doesn’t itself explain why these sorts of questions only seem to come up with regard to NATO and not (to my knowledge) ASEAN, the AU, or other international organizations.
As I mention above, I’m really not an expert on these issues, and a quick Google Scholar search shows that there’s a lot that has been written on “NATO membership”. On the other hand, one of the few easily accessible (non-gated) articles available is a 2001 Washington Quarterly piece by former secretary of state James A. Baker, arguing for the expansion of NATO to include Russia on the grounds that doing so would reduce Russian expansionism. The piece is an interesting viewpoint into policy-relevant work, but it is most interesting because of the imagery Baker seems to employ: “Putin has now played the NATO chess piece,” Baker writes. This leaves me with one final puzzle: Is there nothing that Putin can do that won’t leave Western observers thinking that he’s a brilliant chessplayer?
There is actually a lot of IR literature – over about a 20 year period on NATO and how it relates to IR theory…realist, neoliberal, constructivist – you name it. Its all out there and rather extensive.
I know: “As I mention above, I’m really not an expert on these issues, and a quick Google Scholar search shows that there’s a lot that has been written on “NATO membership”.” But I haven’t encountered much of it out in the wild, and at least one rather better-read colleague hadn’t either. As I mention in the post, though, I’d greatly appreciate specific pointers that help to answer _this_ question; a lot of the NATO-specific work seems to be driven by immediate policy needs, and sorting out the core theoretical articles from the massive applied work seemed like something that would take a lot more work.
Of course, the very best result would be for someone who knows this literature intimately to write a blog post about it :)
The hypothesis that many people seem to intuitively support is that
NATO membership credibly commits the United States to defense of NATO
members. This, however, is not all that convincing upon reflection.
Sure, during the Cold War, the United States was as credibly committed
to the defense of West Germany as it was to any of its allies, but
alliance membership in itself was obviously not sufficient to motivate
that commitment. Schelling’s argument about using forces as tripwires
was motivated by the Berlin brigade, after all. Putting troops in harm’s
(potential) way made the U.S. commitment credible in a much more
meaningful way than signing the North Atlantic Treaty.
I don’t get this at all. You say that “the hypothesis” that NATO membership credibly commits the US to defense of NATO members is “not all that convincing.” To me it’s *very* convincing. NATO members came to the collective aid of the U.S. post-9/11, and the US would look very bad, to put it mildly, if a NATO member were attacked and the US (along w other NATO members) didn’t come to its defense. That wd be it for NATO. It might as well fold up (which, actually, in my opinion, it shd have done when the Cold War ended, but that’s another topic).
As for W Germany, why was NATO membership “obviously not sufficient” to motivate the US commitment? Is there a shred of historical evidence to support this statement? How can you disentangle US soldiers in W Germany from the fact that the latter was a NATO member?
NATO is a collective security organization, isn’t it? Its most basic obligation is to defend members when they are (unambiguously) attacked. Art. 5 was invoked for the first time, if I’m not mistaken, after 9/11. I don’t see how it cd not be invoked if, for example, Russian tanks rolled into Latvia (which isn’t going to happen, imo, but we’re talking hypotheticals here).
As for the ref to Daryl Press, I haven’t read his work on commitment/credibility but what you say in the post on that score doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, partly b.c I don’t know what “on a current basis” means here. But in any case there is no reason for Russia to suppose that the treaty commitment is meaningless. There might be a reason for Russia to assume that, if in the past NATO member X had been attacked and the alliance failed to defend it. But that’s never happened.
p.s. On thinking about this a bit more, I remembered that during the early CW there was some doubt among the NATO allies about whether the US wd be willing to sacrifice NY for Berlin, or however that phrase went, and in that context the deployment of US soldiers in eg W Germany was intended to reassure the allies of the commitment and act as a ‘tripwire,’ as you said. But I think this is a pretty weak reed on which to rest an argument that the Russians see the NATO treaty commitments as meaningless pieces of paper.
I’ve tried leaving comments twice before, but somehow they didn’t take. Now I’ll try with a different computer.
If you’re interested in alliance politics, I’d recommend starting with Glenn Snyder.
In this particular case, however, I think you may be heading in the wrong direction. It’s a level-of-analysis issue. Russia’s reaction to NATO expansion, I think, should be explained at least in part in terms of Russia’s history, perceptions, fears, assumptions about NATO’s “real intentions,” etc., as much as in terms of the systemic effects of alliance politics. Hence the differences between NATO and, say, ASEAN.
“All of this fails to address why the subject of NATO membership for
former Warsaw Pact members is so neuralgic for Russian foreign policy
Because countries that appear to live to vituperate Russia, such as the Baltics, shelter under its aegis.