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Michael O’Hanlon. NATO Expansion, the U.S.-Russia Relationship, and Memory

Abstract: O’Hanlon argues that NATO expansion has gone far enough. While not creating a military threat to Russia, NATO’s growth has predictably been seen quite differently, and more negatively, among Russians. In the West, history taught that nations in central Europe that had suffered too long through world wars and Cold War finally deserved their freedom. For Russians, by contrast, history taught of a long series of aggressions against them emanating from western Europe, and bred fear about the possibility that could happen again. Russian pride also was wounded, given that Russia’s strength in the 1990s and early 2000s was not what it had once been. In many Russian eyes, existing NATO countries then took advantage of that temporary Russian weakness in choosing to expand an alliance that arguably was no longer even needed. For all these reasons, we need a new security architecture for eastern Europe, and especially the former Soviet republics that are not now in NATO, that would not expand NATO further. This concept should not be offered as a “concession” or admission of guilt or apology to Moscow, however, and it should require Russia to protect the sovereignty of countries like Ukraine and Georgia as part and parcel of the overall new architecture.”


Keywords: NATO, Kennan, Gorbachev, Perry, alliances, Article V, Article X


Michael O'Hanlon is Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution, and author of The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021.


James Wertsch, in his excellent study How Nations Remember, explains to us what we often already sense to be true yet rarely act upon—countries develop their own views of history, their own narratives, even their own myths. These are used not only to understand the past but to guide behavior in the present and shape the future. As the great American novelist William Faulkner said, writing in the Deep South of the United States but making comments of worldwide applicability, the past is never forgotten—in fact, it’s not even past.

I think of these comments often in regard to NATO expansion. For the United States and many of its allies, bringing former members of the Warsaw Pact and even former republics of the Soviet Union into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—an innately defensive group of like-minded nation states—is a way to spread democracy and ensure that these countries do not have a future that resembles their past, when freedom and safety were denied them. For most Russians I know, however, NATO is a Cold-War anachronism that is psychologically insulting even if not militarily threatening, and that symbolizes the worldwide scope of American strategic ambition.

My own view is that the Russian view is widespread enough that it should inform our future policy in a major way. Specifically, I do not favor bringing Ukraine or Georgia into NATO; indeed, I would rather not enlarge NATO any further at all, but instead seek a new security order for eastern Europe.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, when Russia was weak, NATO enlargement was motivated by different considerations than had driven it been before. It took on a role of promoting democracy, and more generally a common European space and European identity, that was to extend to former Warsaw Pact nations and even former Soviet republics.

I questioned these decisions at the time, and I still do now. That said, there was nothing about this enlargement process that was sinister, imperialistic, or aggressive. Russia should not have reacted the way it did. I will come back to this point at the end.

Yet Russia’s reaction was predictable, and predicted—by the likes of George Kennan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Bill Perry. Moreover, NATO’s concept of enlargement was not strategically consistent with the original purpose of the alliance, which was to fortify strategically crucial areas of the world (three of George Kennan’s original five centers of strategic/industrial/military capability) against a potentially hostile threat—a clear and present danger. NATO was not then seen as a tool of democracy promotion; nor was it seen as an instrument that should extend to cover or include every possibly worthy American partner in the region (for example, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, and Finland). But the overconfidence of the 1990s and early 2000s changed this logic, in my view, and made the enlargement process too much about soft power, when NATO’s core purpose should and must ultimately still revolve around Article V and the mutual-defense pledge.

Some say that Article X is relevant here too—with its “open door” policy—and that European states are all entitled to choose their own future alliance preferences. Yes, but the United States is entitled a major say in which countries in faraway Eurasia it would promise the lives of its sons and daughters to help defend.

There is no purpose or need to relitigate these past decisions—or to somehow give Russian colleagues succor in believing their angry reactions to previous NATO expansion have been justified. They have not been justified. And we should not dismantle NATO or weaken its security pledges to any existing member.

However, as Thucydides taught us, nations go to war over greed, fear, and/or honor. Wounded Russian honor and wounded Russian pride is therefore a sentiment he would have recognized. So should we.

Whatever its past merits, any further NATO expansion will have serious costs that are foreseeable. It will almost certainly produce a worsening of U.S.-Russia and NATO-Russia relations, a more tense European security theater, a more uncertain state of deterrence—and on balance a greater risk of war, the costs of which would be incalculable and fundamentally unacceptable.

There are better paths to future European security integration and cooperation than any further growth in a NATO alliance that, with its 30 members today, is already nearly double its 1989-size.

But in closing, while I may be making a policy argument that many Russians may like—or at least prefer relative to existing NATO plans to someday bring Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance (a plan dating back to the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit)—I would appeal as well to Russian friends to reconsider whether their own view of history should be challenged. Americans need more strategic empathy—we need to work harder to see how NATO expansion could appear in Russian eyes. But Russians should also rethink their historical narrative to understand why it was not wrong of Brussels, Washington, and other western capitals to want to help the likes of Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and yes even the Baltic states ensure they would not have to relive their history and again be subjected to domination by larger neighbors.

If we all make such efforts, perhaps we can achieve the twin goals of not expanding NATO any further, while reducing the friction in U.S.-Russia relations that has resulted in the aftermath of its expansions to date.

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