The Duck of Minerva

Was NATO expansion a mistake?

20 April 2022

Foreign Affairs ran an “expert poll” on the question of whether “NATO enlargement was a mistake.” Someone decided, for reasons that I expect will remain opaque, that I count as an “expert” on the subject. I’m certainly the only participant without a professional headshot.

My answer builds upon Cheryl Rofer’s excellent post on counterfactuals and NATO expansion.

Like Cheryl, I’m frustrated by the often narrow terms of the debate. It’s been over thirty years since NATO adopted its so-called “open door” policy. That’s enough time for concatenating changes to produce a very different world than we live in. Hence, while I don’t think that NATO expansion was a mistake, I picked the lowest “confidence level” possible.

Here’s what I wrote:

What would the world look like without NATO enlargement? Maybe the Visegrád alliance and the Collective Security Treaty Organization would currently be locked in an arms race, or Russia would be dominating most of the former members of the Warsaw Pact. Perhaps a Hungarian-Romanian war would have recently ended with the partition of Transylvania. EU defense forces might be protecting the Baltic states. I don’t really know, and neither does anyone else. Since we can’t travel back in time and undo the various waves of expansion, it’s best to see the debate for what it really is: a proxy for other disputes.

Stacie Goddard indicated the second-lowest confidence level (a “five”) and also pointed to problems with the question itself:

If we are going to say that a decision was a strategic mistake, then we need to think about the alternatives available. In this case, is there a world where the United States might not have expanded NATO? Perhaps there is one where the United States expands via Partnership for Peace. But given U.S. concerns in the 1990s over democratization and ethnic conflict in eastern Europe and the intensity of calls in eastern Europe for the expansion of some sort of security architecture, I don’t see “non-expansion” as a viable policy alternative.

Stacie and I have coauthored a number of pieces together and are currently working, along with Paul MacDonald, on book about power politics. So maybe the synergy between our two answers isn’t that surprising.

The various answers are definitely worth a read; between them, they cover most of the key arguments in the debate.

[Cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]