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Why NATO Expansion Is a Mistake

By Ivan Eland
May 25, 2010

Editor’s Note: Despite budget crises confronting many Western nations, including the United States, the American foreign policy elite is eager to expand NATO -- and Washington’s imperial umbrella -- to more and more countries, including some on Russia’s doorstep.

In this guest essay, the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland argues that this expansion means more drain on the U.S. taxpayer with few geopolitical benefits:

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently led a panel of experts in coming up with a report, “NATO 2020,” which will be used to draft a replacement for NATO’s current strategic concept, adopted in 1999.

The report essentially advocates a continuation and expansion of NATO’s quest to be all things to all people.

Unfortunately, this effort resembles the “expand or die” mantra that was applied to NATO as its primary mission — countering the Soviet Union — was tossed into the dustbin of history. Instead of expanding in territory and mission after the Cold War ended, NATO probably should have died back then and may die — or be severely crippled — by its likely loss in Afghanistan.

Although the Cold War is long over, the report advocates recommitting the alliance to its original collective security mission — so that member countries will feel more confident committing to do missions in far-flung areas outside the NATO area to counter the new threats of terrorism, piracy, cyberattacks, and nuclear and missile proliferation.

Even though NATO has never been an organization designed or suited to counter these types of threats, the report is essentially saying that the U.S. should recommit to defending NATO nations — especially nations close to Russia, such as Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

Such an American effort would then allow the allies to feel comfortable diverting resources from defending themselves to buying rudimentary power-projection forces to help provide a NATO fig leaf for U.S. interventions in remote lands outside NATO territory — such as Afghanistan.

Such interventions would ostensibly be done to fix failed states, respond to humanitarian disasters, and stop genocide and violations of human rights but would often further underlying U.S. perceived geo-strategic goals.

This “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine” is good for the American empire because it makes the allies dependent on the United States for their defense — thus increasing American influence in Europe — and allows the U.S. to get a stamp of NATO respectability on some of its meddling around the globe.

These are advantages for the interventionist U.S. foreign policy elite, but actually defending all of these added NATO countries hardly benefits the already strapped American taxpayer or enhances his or her security.

The alliance has not done much planning about how it would defend such far-forward nations against any Russian attack. That’s because defending them is costly and because the United States is also pursuing the contradictory goal of improving relations with Russia.

In fact, Albright’s report encourages cooperation with Moscow on counterterrorism, maritime security, the drug war, and missile defense against Iran. But more generally, improvement in relations with Russia will always be limited as long as the potentially hostile NATO alliance is near and right on its borders.

Getting into a war with a nuclear-armed Russia over countries that were not regarded as vital to U.S. interests after World War II — when the United States wisely let the Soviet Union, which had just been devastated by a Nazi invasion, have a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe as a buffer — does not make the U.S. taxpayer more secure, especially when Russia is a mere shadow of the Soviet Union.

But proximity does matter, as U.S. impotence during the recent Russo-Georgian War in 2008 showed. Similarly, an effective American conventional defense of allied countries like the Baltics against locally superior Russian forces would be difficult.

Defense of the Baltics, non-strategic for U.S. security, could quickly escalate to a nuclear exchange, which might very well threaten the U.S. homeland. How all of this makes the American taxpayer more secure is doubtful.

Albright’s report again illustrates how irresponsible it has been to induct into NATO so many new countries so close to Russia. She and her panel seem to be backhandedly opening a vast sinkhole of new spending on actually defending these nations — at a time when budget deficits are out of control in many NATO countries (including the U.S.) and could bankrupt some of them (Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy).

Yet, even in the unlikely event that more American and allied money is spent to defend all of these added countries, Frederick the Great’s maxim still holds: To defend everything is to defend nothing.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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