At the upcoming North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in December, U.S. officials will once again make the case for admitting Georgia and Ukraine to the alliance. Our NATO allies, with Germany and France leading the way, already blocked the two countries' path to membership last spring, a move that in retrospect might have prevented August's dustup between Russia and Georgia from escalating into a nuclear standoff. Rather than being grateful to them, U.S. leaders are instead doubling down on folly.
If the Bush administration gets its way, NATO will this time offer these nations Membership Action Plans, one of the last steps towards full membership that generally lasts one to two years. Although the interests of the United States — and its NATO allies — militate against expanding the alliance, both U.S. presidential candidates support the misguided position, meaning that it will very likely outlast the Bush administration.
To justify another round of NATO expansion, U.S. foreign policy analysts portray a Russia — fueled by energy wealth and Vladimir Putin — that has reinvigorated its economy, cast off pretenses of democracy and repaired its military. According to this scenario, Moscow is now poised to overrun its democratic neighbors and reclaim the Soviet empire, all the while gathering energy supplies to use to blackmail Western clients. Hitler and Stalin taught us that aggressors must be stopped early, so it follows that we must now contain Russia by extending security guarantees to its neighbors.
This narrative is devoid of strategic logic. Leaving aside nuclear weapons, which deterrence renders unusable, Russia is not a great power, and is incapable of threatening Western Europe, let alone the United States. Even fattened by oil revenues, which have fallen by roughly 40 percent since the war in Georgia, Russia still only has a GDP roughly equivalent to that of Italy and Portugal combined. Its stock market is down by more than half since August. Its defense spending totals about $70 billion annually (less than what the U.S. spends on defense research and investment alone), for what remains a second-rate military. That might be enough to pummel weak neighbors like Georgia, but shouldn't worry Europe, which spends roughly four times more. Balance of power theory tells us that if Russia grows more threatening, the European Union — now richer than the U.S. — will respond by investing more on defense than its current average of 2 percent of GDP, and by further integrating its military capacity.
No longer driven by a revolutionary ideology, Russia also lacks the Soviet Union's ambitions. True, Russia does not like the democratic governments on its flanks in Ukraine and Georgia. But that is because these governments are pursuing policies that anger Russia, not because they are democratic per se. What Russia wants is pliant neighbors. That desire is typical of powerful states: The long U.S. history of violent interventions in Latin America undermines whatever lectures we might direct at Moscow.
Now compare today's security situation to the one that caused NATO's formation in 1949. The Soviets had at least 700,000 troops deemed capable of overrunning a Western Europe left vulnerable by broken armies and empty treasuries. European poverty gave Moscow-backed Communist parties a realistic chance at taking power democratically. Fearing that the Soviet Union — by conquest or revolution — could seize enough of Europe's industrial might to threaten the U.S., Americans sent aid via the Marshall Plan and troops via NATO. U.S. intervention restored the balance of power, serving its own interests.
No similar rationale justifies defending Georgia and Ukraine. In fact, allying with these countries simply creates defense liabilities for NATO members. Alliances are not free. Credible defense commitments require spending and troops, particularly to defend long borders like Ukraine's. With much of NATO's manpower tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, new commitments may require new recruits, an expensive proposition in an era when the cost of military manpower is quickly appreciating.
These are precisely the sort of allies a prudent alliance would avoid. They offer little, and come carrying pre-existing territorial conflicts with a stronger neighbor. A recent poll indicated that 63 percent of Ukrainians do not even want NATO membership. Georgia currently has Russian troops on its territory and is run by a leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, with a demonstrated capacity for recklessness. NATO backing will only encourage him.
The benefits of expanding NATO to Ukraine and Georgia are uncertain. Some argue that NATO needs to defend Georgia's gas and oil pipelines. The fear is that the more supply Russia controls, the more it can coerce Europeans by threatening to shut off their power. This analysis ignores the simple fact that energy suppliers also depend on consumers. The oil and gas sector accounted for about two-thirds of Russia's export revenues in 2007, according to the World Bank. That makes it hard to shut off supply, or credibly threaten to do so. Supply threats are more likely drive buyers to invest in new energy sources like liquefied natural gas (LNG) than to curry Russian favor.
With a $520 billion non-war defense budget, two indefinite wars underway, and a financial meltdown at home, it is time to stop pretending that every foreign squabble requires American intervention. Russia is not about to march west. Our European friends can defend themselves were they to try. As for those, like Georgia, that cannot, our sympathy for their struggle does not mean we should join it.
This article appeared in World Politics Review on October 22, 2008.
Benjamin H. Friedman is a research fellow in Defense and Homeland Security Studies at the Cato Institute, where Justin Logan is associate director of Foreign Policy Studies.
Reprinted with permission of the Cato Institute. The Cato Institute is a non-partisan public party research institute and does not endorse any political candidate or political party.