If, as Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson suggests, the United States broke a promise in expanding its reach into Eastern Europe vis-a-vis NATO, Russia may indeed have cause for concern and these actions may help to explain — at least in part — the interventionist activities of Russia in recent years. The actions of both superpowers with relation to NATO highlight an inconvenient truth about regional organizations, namely that world powers are prone to use them to advance their own national interests. From the Russian perspective, extending the influence of NATO into European countries such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic may be viewed as an incursion into Russia’s sphere of influence, and in the eyes of a leader like Vladimir Putin, justify reactions like we’ve seen in the Ukraine, Georgia, and Syria. From the U.S. perspective, the fall of the Soviet Union represented a unique opportunity to expand its influence in former Soviet satellite states, ostensibly to establish further collective security, but almost certainly to further its interests in these “newly opened” states. As Karns, Mingst, and Stiles point out, the Cold War threat of communism and Soviet expansion was the impetus for the creation of NATO. Now that the Cold War is over, NATO continues to solidify its foothold in places that were once inaccessible, and not surprisingly (and especially in times of economic hardship at home), Russia continues to react.
When the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War came to an end, one of the most pressing questions was whether a reunified Germany would fall under the influence of Europe and the U.S. (under NATO’s umbrella) or Russia. Shifrinson highlights that the U.S. agreed not to let NATO’s reach move east of Germany in exchange for the newly unified country being included within NATO’s ranks. From this point of view, the expansion of NATO since the early 1990s would understandably represent an overreach of NATO powers led by the U.S., who — as even Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump points out — carries the overwhelming financial burden of the regional organization, and thus arguably a greater say in its leadership compared to its allies. Within this context, the actions of Russia in the Ukraine start to look more like self-defense than intervention. This comes at a time when Russia perceives its loss of influence not just in Europe but uncertain in the Middle East as well, as its only ally in the region (Syria) is in its fifth year of a civil war that threatens the Russian-aligned Assad. As Russia struggles internally due to a prolonged economic crisis and sees its influence threatened on all fronts, its actions outside Russian borders (so often maligned as proactive in the West) take on new meaning.
In terms of the U.S., the expansion of NATO since the end of the Cold War makes sense from the perspective of its national interests, whether geostrategic or economic. This is true both from a realist stance and from a liberal stance, as Karns, Mingst, and Stiles point out. From a realist stance, the expansion can be seen as bolstering Western collective security interests, and keeping Russia from expanding their own interests. From a liberal stance, it can be seen cultivating space for democracy to grow as well as being amenable to U.S. and Western economic interests. Daalder and Goldgeier have even argued that NATO’s reach should be global in nature, and that its work can be beneficial in tackling the common challenges we face as a global community.
The U.S., however, would do well to be more mindful of how its actions (as carried out through NATO) are perceived by world powers such as Russia. Regional institutions of course aren’t purely instruments used to advance the interests of such powers, but they certainly play a part. It’s not hard to see how Russia would view U.S. actions carried out through NATO over the past 25 years as an assault on Russian influence, rather than simply a safeguard against it. For this reason, the U.S. should immediately forfeit all notions of new membership for NATO, and look for ways to both actively tamp down its expansionist tendencies and make it more open as a regional institution that is less informed by ideology and U.S. interests, and more informed by truly tackling the collective challenges we face as a global community. If NATO continues along the path its been on over the last two decades, we risk a potential for a Cold War 2.0, and that is in no one’s national interest.