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December 22, 2008


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Noel, I couldn't agree more (with you, not with Will Marshall). I studied NATO expansion under John Mearsheimer back in my undergrad days (not that I've given much thought to it since, though). I still think that letting the Baltics in was a bad idea.

Letting Georgia in would be like sticking NATO's hand through a hole in the fence at the zoo, where we have no way of knowing what kind of animal is on the other side.

I think that someone in the Bush State Department dropped the ball in a big, big way by allowing the Georgians to think that the United States was going to back them up if their confrontation with Russia escalated. (The Georgians must have somehow gotten that idea in their head; it's the only way to explain their behavior). Admitting Georgia to NATO would be that error, magnified and made permanent.

Besides: if the balloon goes up, how is Brazil going to defend Estonia?

Japan presents problems other than the constitutional limitations on their military. There's the Kuril Islands dispute, for one thing.

India... sheesh... where to begin...

Alright, I am not an unbiased individual on this one. I have a personal stake here: I have in-laws mere kilometers from the Russian border in Ukraine. With Russia thumping its ursine chest, I want my family covered with some sort of protection...especially with the Russians passing out passports in the Russian speaking portions of Ukraine like they did in Georgia's errant territories. However, if oil can crash for a while longer, oh, say two to three years, then Russia will not be an issue.

Even so, I think as a long term goal, expanding NATO is not a bad idea. However, and it's a big however, it's not doable for the foreseeable future just due to costs for the potential member nations.

Ukraine I'd like to see pulled in and subsidized just to prevent Russia from recovering her in all or part. She has three or four divisions total equivalent. Even if we carry half the upgrade price, it's really not that much and the Ukrainians are helped along their independent course.

As far as outside Europe...well...not a bad idea in the long term but the choices of nations in the article are a little questionable. Japan, btw, is slowly, but surely loosening the Constitutional bindings. I'd expect in 20 to 30 years that they'll be gone. If that long.

Briefly, it's late:

Baltics -- least of several evils. Contemplate for a moment the ATL where the Baltics /weren't/ allowed into NATO, or where their membership was indefinitely delayed.

Georgia -- NATO membership for Georgia is rapidly becoming another touchstone for me... viz., anyone who seriously supports it is instantly downgraded. This is such a deeply and obviously dumb idea that you really have to be blind to several rather large chunks of reality to even consider it.

Ukraine -- see "Georgia". Sorry, Will. But Ukraine brings nothing to the table /and/ is a huge strategic risk and potential liability. There's just no upside here. There are emotional arguments for letting Ukraine in, but when it comes to joining an alliance that involves a nuclear deterrent, emotion should be in the back seat while cool long-term strategic calculation takes the wheel.

NATO is probably too big already, but that's an unavoidable accident of history. No need to make it worse.

Doug M.

"Georgia -- NATO membership for Georgia is rapidly becoming another touchstone for me... viz., anyone who seriously supports it is instantly downgraded. This is such a deeply and obviously dumb idea that you really have to be blind to several rather large chunks of reality to even consider it."

A sensible Georgian government that doesn't try to sneak an Operation Storm over a non-forgiving Russia would be a plus.

As for Ukraine, the unpopularity of NATO membership among Ukrainians--60:30 against, as multiple polls have suggested over the past year--leads me to think it would be a much more divisive factor than not, potentially threatening Ukrainian unity. EU membership is more sensible, IMO.

I'm curious, Dennis; given your views on the Baltic states, in your opinion, on what basis should the NATO accept - or refuse - new member states? And likewise, according to your interpretation, what exactly is the purpose of the NATO?

I'll try to explain point-by-point why I'm asking these questions. Your opinion on the undesirability of the Baltic states seems to be due to your stated risk-aversity. Well and good, but does this mean that you also thought that having West Germany as a NATO member state during the Cold War was a pretty bad idea? Because that would be consistent with your stated opinion that the interests of the NATO are not served with a close involvement and military obligations on a potential crisis zone.

(I'm also under the impression that your argument contained a conflation between the "interests of the NATO" and the "interests of the United States". I'll return back to this later on.)

And, of course, since you apparently had a problem with the membership of the Baltic states in the NATO, I suppose that by the very same token, you must have also had a problem with the NATO operation in Kosovo? Because that also entangled the NATO and the American forces in a situation where neither the United States nor the NATO had no direct interest, and where the said operation was likely to antagonize Russia and China.

But I may be going too far. After all, since you're not really questioning the _raison d'etre_ of the NATO, I suppose that you actually accept the existence of the NATO, right? And consequently, you must also accept the American military presence in Europe, right? So, it seems that you just want to limit the alliance and the military presence to include only the _right_ sort of European countries - that is, the countries that are not likely to embroil the United States in any undesirable conflict.

Okay, then. Which European countries are those? Britain, Germany, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, all the traditional NATO members?
You're fine with those?

Well, then. Considering that those countries obviously have no security risks that would place the United States in an undesirable political situation, what do they need the NATO for? Clearly these safe and stable European countries, those "right" sort of allies, are under no threat, have more than enough military capability to take care of themselves, and are thus in no need of any direct American military protection. So, what's the point of having them as American allies, and in some cases, maintaining an actual American military presence on their soil?

The conclusion would be - and correct me if I'm wrong - that you're willing to tolerate the membership of these European countries because their presence in the NATO - and the consequent American presence in Europe - actually somehow serves the American interests.

So, what are those interests, Dennis? Assuming that the American intention is simply to extract auxiliaries for various overseas operations ordered by the White House, then the Baltic states have definitely done their part twice over, much more so than many old NATO countries. The perceived necessity to demonstrate their loyalty to the Alliance has led them to undertake pointless military missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and other distant and unimportant places where they have no security concerns whatsoever.

And in return, they've gained little. The NATO support in those issues where the Baltic States do have a direct interest has been questionable, as testified by the collective hibernation of the NATO and the entire West during the Bronze Warrior riots.

On the other hand, assuming that the American intention is to transform the NATO simply into an instrument for international peace-keeping - the hypothetical Plan Obama - well, in that case, what does it matter if the Alliance includes countries bordering on Russia? I'd imagine that _any_ European country should be considered more than welcome.

So, Dennis, _what_ exactly is, in your opinion, the purpose of the NATO in the present-day context? Peace-keeping? Protecting American interests in Europe? And what are those interests? Or is it yet something else?

Most people know that I'm a cynic, and most people know my opinion on the NATO. However, as a neutral observer, I might at least note that an alliance relationship is a two-way street. Assuming that the NATO really is an _alliance_, in that case the interests of the old European members must be considered just as important as the interests of the United States. If countries such as Norway, Denmark, Germany and Britain were already willing to accept Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as new members in the NATO, that was enough of a reason to allow the three Baltic republics to enter the Alliance. And this was the case; Germany, Norway and Denmark in particular supported the membership of the Baltic states quite wholeheartedly, and considered it necessary and desirable.

So, right now, my problem with the comment that Dennis made is that it's open for a very parochial interpretation; namely, that it equates "bad idea" with "something that our European allies wanted to do". But assuming that the United States actually does have interests in Europe and wants to keep the NATO as a going concern, well, in that case the United States has to play ball with the European member states; and the membership of the Baltic states in the NATO was part of that package.

(... the membership of the _Balkan_ states, now, I don't know what purpose that served, and who the hell thought that it was really necessary. But I'm sure that some people wanted it.)

N.B., personally I wouldn't mind if the Americans just packed up and left this Continent. As I've said before, it's questionable if the so-called "trans-Atlantic relations" really serve any purpose whatsoever in this day and age, never mind what our recent Nobel Laureate might say. Some splendid isolation might be exactly what both the United States and Europe need right now.

As for Will's comment, well, he seems to have a pretty clear opinion of the purpose of the NATO (basically; it's the same as before). However, with all due respect to his inlaws and the people of Ukraine [1], if they feel that they're unable to protect their homeland without the help of the United States and the European countries, it's questionable if their homeland really deserves its independence.

I've lived and worked in the immediate vicinity of eastern border, in a country that's smaller than Ukraine, and I'm not going apeshit because of Russia, even though I recognize that it's definitely in the ascendancy [2]. I've also encountered my fair share of academic, upper-class Poles and Ukrainians who have, in spite of living in countries with nominal conscription, somehow managed to avoid their national service, often in a manner that at least I find somewhat questionable.

Not surprisingly, they've always supported the idea of sub-contracting the defence of their country to the NATO. Blah.


J. J.

[1] Hi, Oresta! Assuming that you've brushed up your English and are reading this, that is.

[2] Walk softly and carry a credible deterrent, that's what I always say.

Jussi-- thanks for the thoughtful questions. I'll try to be brief, but I can't promise that I'll be coherent or consistent:

Regarding West Germany in NATO: During the Cold War, from what I can tell, NATO basically had two principal objectives: (1) to deter a Soviet invasion of West Germany and (2) to accomplish objective #1 without involving West Germany independently re-arming itself to an extent that would threaten the rest of Western Europe. It was in the interests of the United States to ensure that both of these objectives were met. In other words, during the Cold War, the whole point of NATO was an alliance between the United States and West Germany.

With respect to the rest of your questions: I'm American, so when I say that something is a "good idea", you can assume that I mean "serves the interests of the United States". There isn't any such thing as the interests of NATO; there's only the various interests of its individual members. Of course I'm parochial, what else would you expect? I would also expect the Germans and whatnot to advocate within NATO what they perceived as the best interest of their countries-- and I guess if you're in Germany, moving the eastern boundary of the NATO perimeter farther away from the homeland makes a kind of sense. But that doesn't mean that the United States should have been talked into accepting an expanded commitment.

I doubt whether you and I really disagree about the arithmetic of whether it's in the interest of the United States for a particular country to join or stay in NATO: each country brings assets, but some of them also bring liabilities. The Baltics, for example, bring disproportionately big liabilities because they separate Kaliningrad from the rest of Russia. In my mind, the contributions that the Baltics bring to the table don't outweigh the liability of a treaty obligation to defend them. During the Cold War, the U.S. was willing to enter into a commitment to treat an attack on, say, Frankfurt as an attack on the United States because defending Frankfurt from the Soviets was really important. I didn't think that in 2004 it was appropriate for the U.S. to commit itself to go to war to protect the Russian-majority parts of Latvia or Estonia. But that's now water under the bridge-- we're stuck with them now. But I can't think of any sensible reason to extend defense commitments even further: I'm definitely not willing for the U.S. to go to war to protect Sevastopol or Kharkiv.

Yes, I disapproved of the Kosovo action for the reasons you point out. I haven't studied Obama's ideas for what NATO's future role ought to be, but if it's adventurism or Kosovo Part II or "Let's Fix Darfur Through Tactical Air Superiority" then I oppose it.

Finally, the purpose of NATO is a commitment by all of the members to defend each other. (Not adventurism or "peace-keeping" outside of the territory of NATO member states). Defense from whom? Well, presumably Russia. But the ways that Russia might threaten NATO member states are different than the ways that the USSR threatened the Cold-War-era NATO states. For this reason, I'm entirely in favor of re-assessing how best to position forces within NATO to defend today's NATO members against today's threats. The U.S. has made treaty commitments to 25 other countries so the U.S. has to continue to fulfill those commitments. If the U.S. can fulfill this obligation while withdrawing American forces from Europe, great. Does the U.S. need to maintain a Mediterranean fleet, for example (beyond what's required under Active Endeavour)? If not, I'd rather spend the money on something else.

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