What is NATO?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a defensive military alliance formed in 1949 by 12 countries in North America and Western Europe. NATO was founded to counter the threat of Soviet expansion in Europe. Its goal is to promote peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic area through NATO’s three core tasks: collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security. A key tool to achieve this is Article 5 of its founding treaty, which lays out the principle of collective security and is the cornerstone of the alliance. Additionally, NATO’s open door policy, described in Article 10, permits any country in the Euro-Atlantic area to join the alliance if they meet certain criteria. Since its foundation, thirty nations have joined.
The Process of NATO Accession
Countries wishing to join NATO must demonstrate their ability to further the principles of the 1949 Washington Treaty and contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area. Aspirant countries are invited to engage in an “Intensified Dialogue” to discuss any political, economic, or military reforms that country may need to undergo. Aspirant countries may then be invited to participate in the Membership Aspiration Plan (MAP). This decision is made by the North Atlantic Council through the consensus of all member states. NATO does not acknowledge the influence of third-party countries in this deliberation. NATO’s stated position is that its continued expansion “poses no threat to any country. It is aimed at promoting stability and cooperation, at building a Europe whole and free, united in peace, democracy and common values.”
Potential Continued Expansion of NATO
In 1955, the Soviet Union responded to the creation of NATO by creating its own collective military alliance, called the Warsaw Pact. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a number of former Warsaw Pact countries expressed a desire to join NATO. In 1995, NATO’s study on the enlargement of its membership found that increasing the number of member nations would enhance the security of the Euro-Atlantic area. Currently, three states have expressed interest in joining NATO: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Ukraine. In 2008, NATO agreed that Georgia and Ukraine would not join the MAP immediately, however, they would become members of NATO in the future. Bosnia and Herzegovina was invited to join the MAP in April 2010. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, as well as the invasion and occupation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and the ongoing invasion of Ukraine in 2022, have de minimis delayed the accession of Georgia and Ukraine, if not making their accession to NATO a practical impossibility because Russia perceives NATO encroachment into its traditional sphere of influence as an existential security threat.
In addition to the three aspirant countries, public opinion in Finland and Sweden has recently swung in support of joining NATO. Despite this, Finnish and Swedish politicians are hesitant to begin the MAP because of its limited additional strategic value. The Finnish and Swedish militaries are already highly cooperative with NATO and further integration may increase rather than decrease the security threat in the North Atlantic region by threatening Russian energy and exports through the Baltic Sea.
NATO’s Eastward Expansion and the Security Dilemma
The increased tension between NATO and Russia in Eastern Europe is best characterized as a security dilemma; a situation where a nation seeks to increase its security by increasing its military capabilities. Doing this alarms neighboring states, who increase their military capabilities in response, leading to an escalation trap which increases the likelihood of conflict, producing the opposite result than intended for each country.
Though former Warsaw Pact states have sought to increase their security by joining NATO, Russia has perceived their actions as a threat by decreasing Russia’s ‘buffer zone’ with NATO. Vladimir Putin has explicitly linked NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to Russian security interests. In response, Russia has taken steps to increase its own security by invading Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. NATO members, especially the Baltic States and Poland perceive Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine as a signal that Russia seeks to resurrect the Soviet Empire and bring them back into Russia’s sphere of influence. In this way, both NATO and Russia’s actions have increased the perceived security threat to the other.
However, such a surface level analysis of the present security dilemma would draw a false equivalency between the actions of NATO and Russia. First, NATO is a defensive alliance. Article 5 is only triggered when a foreign adversary attacks a NATO member. Therefore, “NATO does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to Russia,” unless Russia intends to wage an aggressive war against a NATO member state. Therefore, Putin’s actions may be driven largely by the threat of democracy creeping closer to Russia. The legitimacy of Putin’s regime would be severely undermined by a functional liberal democracy with a vibrant economy at Russia’s southern border, composed of a population with significant historical, cultural, and linguistic ties to Russia.
The future of NATO is more uncertain than at any point since the end of the Cold War. At the Madrid summit in June 2022, NATO leaders will develop a new strategic concept. The future of the alliance will be driven by its primary strategic goal of promoting peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic area through NATO’s three core tasks: collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security. This strategic concept will be crafted underneath the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s four demands of NATO. These demands are unacceptable, because Putin’s ambitions do not end with Ukraine and appeasing him would embolden further Russian military adventurism in the region.
Since the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, one of NATO’s primary objectives has been to avoid an escalation trap with Russia while protecting the sovereignty and security of its members. With this objective in mind, Ukraine joining NATO would recklessly escalate and complicate the conflict by requiring NATO to directly confront a nuclear adversary. President Zelinsky has recently acknowledged this point. Additionally, other options that have been proposed by commentators in recent days like installing a no-fly zone, sending in NATO troops into Ukraine, or calling on Finland and Sweden to begin the MAP, would not achieve this goal and would also dramatically increase the risk of direct conflict between NATO and Russia.
Therefore, as NATO crafts its future and reacts to the Ukraine crisis, it should provide Putin a path toward de-escalation, maintain the integrity of the Alliance, as well as support the sovereignty of Ukraine. In order to provide a path to deescalation, NATO should encourage and support diplomatic talks between Russia and Ukraine, maintain the coordinated economic sanctions against Russia, and consider pausing discussions of further NATO expansion. To support the integrity of the alliance, NATO should permanently deploy more battalions in the Baltics and Poland, as well as increase the number of cooperative military exercises with its newest members. To support Ukraine’s sovereignty, NATO should provide Ukraine with the military equipment required to repel the Russian invasion, and continue coordinating humanitarian aid for Ukrainian civilians for as long as the conflict lasts. Tweet
Author Biography: B. Grady Stevens is a 2024 J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School, a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB), a Member of the Alternative Dispute Resolutions Board, a Member of the Mock Trial Board, and Co-Champion of G.W. Law’s 1L Mock Trial Competition. He has a B.A. in Philosophy and Classics with a Minor in Psychology from Johns Hopkins University, a M.A in Classics from Johns Hopkins University, and a M.A. in International Relations from Harvard University’s Extension School. He previously taught Ancient and Modern European History and Latin at Pace Academy in Atlanta, GA, where he also coached wrestling and lacrosse, and was Dean for the Class of 2020.