Is NATO Redundant? We'd Better Hope So

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This month, Jeffrey Tayler wrote a piece responding to Donald Trump’s unprecedented shrug over whether the United States would uphold its treaty obligations if a NATO ally were invaded during his hypothetical presidency. Tayler argued, in effect, that Trump had stumbled on a good idea in thinking about radically reassessing America’s commitment to NATO, an alliance that raises no end of trouble with Russia and is, anyway, an anachronism. Tayler advocated what he called a “Détente 2.0,” pushing for American foreign policy to do whatever it takes to return to the halcyon days of the Brezhnev era when, Tayler said, things were trending friendly with Russia.

I agree that détente likely did produce better results than its alternatives in the Brezhnev era, and that NATO’s post-Soviet expansion in central and eastern Europe may have been a strategic blunder. As I noted in a recent interview with the NATO scholar Michael Mandelbaum, Russia under Putin has made numerous military incursions into Chechnya, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—all non-NATO countries. Tayler is also right in his analysis that Russia’s geopolitical ethos is based on grievance—grievance as a great historical society laid unfairly low, subject to perceived disrespect and mistreatment by the West—and so Putin is likely to respond more favorably to flattery and bribery than to threats. But something’s off here.

Tayler asks us to “see matters from Russia’s perspective.” While this may be a necessary exercise for policymakers trying to make predictions about Moscow’s policies, it often entails assuming untruths and accepting false moral equivalence between Western action and Russian “reactions” on the world stage. The West inviting an independent country to a defensive alliance should not be equated with Russia sending tank columns into Georgia to seize territory. This is not a matter of perspective. Yet Tayler frequently argues as though Russia’s self-pitying viewpoint is the salient one.

NATO, too, is perturbed by Tayler’s claims. Tayler published a response to his piece by alliance spokesperson Oana Lungescu as a note, along with his own rebuttal. Lungescu complained, rightly, that while Tayler has tremendous sympathy for Russia’s viewpoint, he carefully avoids assigning any blame to Moscow. For example:

Some perspective is in order. When Russia, in its Soviet incarnation, was strong, the United States did not intervene to thwart the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 or combat the Soviet invasions in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Nor did it counter Poland’s imposition of martial law in 1981. As much as the United States supported Eastern European movements for democracy (rhetorically, at least), it recognized they were taking place within the Soviet sphere of influence, where strategically, militarily, and geographically, Moscow held all the cards.

This is all the more so in Ukraine. At the very least, NATO would be wise to evaluate the outcome of its expansions and U.S. support for the post-Yanukovych, pro-NATO regime in Kiev: nearly 10,000 deaths in a stalemated civil war in Ukraine’s east, plus the effective loss of the two embattled ethnic Russian provinces; a politically paralyzed, pro-Western Ukrainian government that is likely at least as corrupt as the one it replaced; the takeover of Crimea; an ominous military buildup in Russia; a risk of nuclear conflict now perhaps as high as it was during the worst years of the Cold War, or higher.

The idea that the blame for the situation in eastern Ukraine rests at the feet of the West is dubious. Who is more responsible for the current chaos and death? Washington, for its tepid support for the Poroshenko-Yatsenyuk government, voted in months after Russia’s unmarked brigades had already seized swathes of Ukraine? Or Russia, for invading its Western neighbor and lying about it, after its attempts to persuade the neighbor’s kleptocratic ruler to back away from a popular pro-Western deal led to his ouster? An Atlantic reader provides a nice reality check:

Nobody forced Putin to invade Ukraine and no one is forcing him to start military competition. Any backing off will simply encourage him to try to rebuild the Russian empire, which is no one’s interest, not even the Russians’. We have no more reason to respect the former Russian empire than we have to respect the former British empire. Russia is a declining power with a GDP about the size of Canada's. It will decline further, and the oligarch-dominated government will neither stop the population decline nor reinvigorate the economy.

Here’s one more paragraph from Tayler’s piece:

As a starting point, the debate should assess whether NATO’s relentless expansion—begun during the 1990s and proceeding in waves, with Montenegro’s eventual accession, once-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia having been promised membership, and even historically neutral Finland and Sweden now pondering participation—played a role in Russia’s increasingly aggressive posturing toward the West. As the world’s most powerful military alliance slid up to Russia’s borders, the West couldn’t have expected Putin to sit idle.

Whatever the merits of NATO expansion, has it been truly “relentless”? Or is it more accurate to say that the 28 members joined on seven distinct occasions over 67 years? Tayler suggests that Putin was clearly provoked by the alliance’s growth, and could not simply leave independent countries alone. Under that logic, challenging Georgia, annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, stirring a crisis in eastern Ukraine that has now claimed almost 10,000 lives, and playing the victim while ducking responsibility, was a reasonable response on Putin’s part. These, I would submit, are far from reasonable responses to NATO’s growth.

Yet, in Tayler’s piece, there are more instances of taking Putin’s logic at face value. We are told, for example, that “NATO’s continued European expansion through the decades, like its bombing campaigns in the former Yugoslavia to coerce an end to internecine wars tearing the region apart, demonstrated a willingness to use force in Russia’s backyard against one of its historical allies." It takes some mental gerrymandering to accept this claim: Kosovo is 1,893 kilometers from Moscow. By contrast, it is 697 kilometers from Rome, 567 from Athens, 717 from Vienna, 1,238 from Geneva, and 1,043 from Ankara.

In his analysis, Tayler evaded the fact that Putin’s foreign policy involves invading neighbors, threatening to nuke Danish ships in the Baltic, and conducting assassinations in places like London and Washington. Putin is attempting to morally blackmail the remaining true world powers into treating Russia like one of them, in an effort to maintain his grip on power by way of nationalist appeal. Giving into this blackmail is not a sound strategy.

There are legitimate complaints Russia can and does make against America. Washington has far too close a relationship with the democracy-promoting “quasi-NGOs” or “QUANGOs” in Russia that constitute some of the U.S. support for regime change. (It is, however, worth remembering why an organization that seeks to give a country’s people a say in their own government is inherently inimical to the Putin regime.)

Tayler does not address why it’s the West that should make all the concessions necessary to improve relations with Moscow. It’s especially strange that he does not explore whether Russia might itself help bring this détente, 2.0, nearer by compromising on some of its desires. That seems the better option, since the Russian leader deemed the end of the Soviet empire, under which half of Europe was enslaved, “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

The most confounding idea in Tayler’s original post is this: “Détente 2.0 would entail the renunciation, in writing, of NATO’s plans to invite Ukraine and Georgia, coupled with Moscow’s recognition that both countries retain the right to join whatever economic or political union they desire.” Tayler asks us to accept a world that effectively offers the countries Russia believes reside within its sphere of influence the choice of any alliance they want, so long as it isn’t NATO—and any geopolitics they like, so long as it adheres to Moscow’s revisionism.

Tayler’s piece, in the end, offers us a choice between letting Russia have its way with eastern Europe and risking war that may well be nuclear. There is every reason to think that this is a false binary. If it isn’t, NATO is more relevant than ever.