Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is the most egregious effort since World War II to forcibly alter the borders of a sovereign European state. It is also the biggest test of Western resolve since the Cold War ended a quarter century ago. If history is any guide, at this week’s summit in Wales, President Obama and fellow NATO leaders are unlikely to extend significant assistance to Ukraine, and will probably instead focus on providing reassurance to the alliance’s own membership.
NATO has already committed to deploying a limited rapid reaction force of perhaps 4,000 troops to its front-line members, including Poland and the Baltic States. Today in Estonia, President Obama promised that the allies would meet in Wales with Ukrainian president Petro O. Poroshenko “to show that our 28 nations are united in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and right to defend its territory.” He also endorsed “concrete commitments” by NATO to help Ukraine—as well as Georgia and Moldova—modernize their security forces.
However, it’s unclear whether Obama will be able to get the alliance to deliver on his promise. Most NATO members would presumably endorse tighter economic sanctions on Russia, but these are unlikely to influence Russian president Vladimir Putin. When it comes to providing sophisticated arms and training to Ukrainian forces, NATO members are more divided: many fear that escalation could precipitate an open military conflict with nuclear-armed Russia. The undecided within the alliance may well seize on President Putin’s “seven-point plan” for a ceasefire in Ukraine—announced just today—to plead for more time before taking bold steps.
Meanwhile, the crisis has revealed how valuable NATO membership is—and shown how vulnerable are European nations like Ukraine that remain outside its protective embrace.
A bit of history on NATO’s origins helps place Ukraine’s predicament in context. During World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had ambitious plans for a postwar world order. He envisioned a global system of collective security to anchor world peace, which would give a managerial role to the great powers. All the world’s countries would have a place to meet, in a universal assembly. But the peace would be guaranteed by the “Four Policemen”—the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and Nationalist China. With the addition of liberated France, these countries eventually became the five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council.
Alas, FDR’s harmonious vision quickly collapsed. He had assumed that the big powers would exercise restraint in pursuing their interests. But the hoped-for great power concert broke down. First, territorial disputes in Central Europe (particularly over Germany’s future) sparked East-West tensions. Second, Moscow insisted on a regional sphere of influence and demanded political control over governments in neighboring countries. The bipolar division crystallized, paralyzing the UN Security Council. Except on rare occasions as in the early Korean War (when the Soviets were boycotting it) or the Congo crisis of the 1960s, the Security Council played only a marginal global role. The lesson was clear: when the P5 are divided on matters of national interest, collective security through the United Nations is impossible. This remains true today, as we have seen recently both in Syria and Ukraine.
It was the failure of the UN that led to the birth of NATO. With America’s “One World” dreams dashed, the Truman administration set about in the late 1940s to consolidate a narrower “Free World” community, based initially on a core of likeminded, democratic states. The security pillar of the transatlantic community was and remains NATO. Unlike the UN, a universal but dysfunctional collective security organization, NATO would embody the principle of collective defense. There was and remains an important difference between these two concepts.
Whereas the UN Charter treated international peace and security as a “public good” to be enjoyed in principle by all UN member states, NATO treated security as a “club good.” In signing the North Atlantic Treaty (NAT) of 1949, the twelve original members of NATO agreed under Article 5 “that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” In such a circumstance, each party would take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic Area.”
For alliance members, it was all for one—and one for all. Outsiders were out of luck.
Creating NATO was a revolutionary strategic commitment for the United States, which had generally avoided “entangling alliances” since Thomas Jefferson had warned against them. The NAT soon enmeshed the United States in a complex peacetime alliance, involving a continuous program of military assistance and forward deployment of U.S. military forces to Europe, all under a U.S. Supreme Allied Commander. Although NATO never fired a shot in hostilities during the Cold War, it served as an indispensable instrument of containment and a guarantee of extended deterrence to U.S. allies.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, transatlantic officials and defense intellectuals engaged in ferocious debates about whether NATO should expand. The United States and its allies ultimately decided to open NATO’s door—and extend its Article 5 guarantee—to any European country that met the requirements for membership. The Partnership for Peace, initially created as a stopgap measure to stabilize Eastern Europe and professionalize its militaries, soon became a waiting room for aspirants to full membership.
Unfortunately for Ukraine, its aspirations for NATO membership have always inspired skepticism, being at once too big, too internally divided, and too close (geographically and culturally) to Mother Russia. When the Moscow-leaning Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, the West placed Ukrainian membership on ice. In Wales, NATO leaders will be joined by his Western-leaning successor. But the most that Poroshenko can hope for is a doubling down on Western sanctions against Russia and limited military assistance, so that his country can survive intact in its unenviable no-man’s land.