NATO Enlargement and U.S. Grand Strategy: A Net Assessment

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: NATO expansion since the end of the Cold War has forced the United States into security obligations that do not serve its interests and risk needlessly provoking Russia. Going forward, the United States must rethink its generally positive stance towards NATO expansion.

NATO was founded at the outset of the Cold War, as its first secretary general put it, to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” By that or any metric, NATO has clearly been successful, and has helped keep the United States militarily involved in Europe for decades. However, in recent years scholars have begun to rethink the necessity and effectiveness of NATO in the post-Cold War era.

There is a case to be made that NATO needed to survive past the Cold War, since “the preservation of the Atlantic alliance has been central to the US post-Cold War grand strategy of maintaining global primacy.” Maintaining NATO gives the United States access to strategic locations and resources throughout Europe, and allows the United States to guide continental affairs in ways that benefit its geostrategic interests. Occasionally, NATO props up interventionist U.S. policy by providing “the veneer and sometimes the substance of multilateralism.”

Since the end of the Cold War, the NATO alliance has grown considerably larger. “The alliance expanded, in stages—from 16 members at its Cold War peak to 30 in 2020.” This expansion was fueled by the alliance’s relative success. Newer member states found joining an existing, successful alliance preferable to forming an entirely new alliance.

NATO expansion was fueled by several proponents, including many in the United States, who argued the alliance’s continued existence was necessary to preserving democracy and free trade in Europe. While prominent American leaders, including George Kennan, opposed NATO expansion, it won out in the end.

NATO expansion since 1994 has brought the alliance ever closer to Russia’ border. Assuming Georgia and Ukraine join, Russia will share a border with four NATO countries (Estonia and Latvia joined in 2002). This causes several problems for NATO. First, “it would be suicide to try to fight a war with the Kremlin” in the territory controlled by NATO’s Baltic members, since “the entire area is covered by Russian Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities.”

Since the United States is responsible for most of the funding and power that supports NATO, the lion’s share of this impossible deterrence will fall on the U.S. military. Further adding to the lopsidedness of the issue is the fact that the Baltic states “are simply more consequential to Russia’s security than they are to the security of the USA. Moscow therefore has significant motivation to take steps against these countries that the USA will be hard pressed to counter without taking imprudent risks.”

Moreover, continued NATO expansion could further stoke tensions with Russia. From the beginning, “Russia registered its objections [to NATO expansion] early, frequently, and emphatically.” In fact, NATO expansion was one of several factors that fueled “Russia’s eventual transformation from a putative partner of the West into an adversary.” Bearing this in mind, policymakers must weigh potential benefits against the possibility of further conflict with Russia when considering the future of NATO.

The threat of provoking Russia and likelihood of shouldering an ever-greater defense burden in Europe are two good reasons for the United States to be wary of further NATO expansion. Another is the fact that “neither the USA nor its allies need the states that most desire to join the alliance.” Georgia, for instance, is a strategically insignificant country with a weak economy. It isn’t a major trading partner for the United States, but it is a major security risk.

Viewed through the Georgian prism, it’s clear that for the United States, pushing for NATO expansion means sacrificing blood and treasure without gaining anything in return. And while it’s important to avoid overstating the existential threat Russia poses to the United States and its allies, the country nonetheless does pose a threat, and must be treated accordingly.

Ultimately, “NATO enlargement has hurt the USA.” It made it difficult for the United States and others to pursue a peaceful, fruitful post-Cold War relationship with others, and has led to “numerous unintended consequences, additional defense obligations, negligible benefits, and an increased risk of crises and even war.” Going forward. U.S. policymakers would be wise to rethink its traditional, broad-based support of NATO expansion.

Read the full report here.