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Is NATO Expansion Really More Dangerous Than the Status Quo?

Daniel Larison responded to my post yesterday in which I argued that Georgia should be considered for NATO membership. I recounted that the stated reasons for keeping Georgia out in 2008 were Foggy Bottom’s concern such advocacy would prompt Russia to turn against our Eastern European missile defense plans, and the hypocritical warning from Germany–which endured quite a significant territorial dispute with the Russians for the first 35 years of its NATO membership–that countries with territorial disputes with the Russians should be kept out of NATO.

The first concern has obviously vanished, since those missile shield plans were scrapped. Germany’s position–which is refuted most effectively by its own history–should be reexamined now that Georgia and Russia have signed a border-control agreement. Larison disagrees, but I think ends up strengthening my original point. He writes:

Trying to bring Georgia into the alliance does not enhance European security in any way, and Russia would still regard it as an intolerable provocation. Just as it did not in April 2008 during the Bucharest summit, Georgia still does not have full control of its territory. It is ridiculous to ask members of the alliance to extend an Article V guarantee to a country with ongoing territorial disputes.

The latter point echoes the Germans’ concern about the “frozen conflicts” of the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Larison also faults Georgia for “escalating” the 2008 conflict with Russia. But to me, this seems to incentivize exactly the wrong behavior on both sides.

One point I made yesterday was announcing the “frozen conflicts” were reason enough to keep Georgia out of NATO encourages Russia to continue to stir up trouble. The Germans said this in April 2008, and Russia invaded in August of that year, and has since admitted that of course keeping Georgia out of NATO was exactly why they did so.

NATO has never considered itself exclusively a club for countries with no natural predators, so I’m not convinced the Russia-Georgia dispute should disqualify Georgia anyway. I’m not arguing it would absolutely prevent war, but our current position has instigated war already, and set a pattern of such conflict. So it cannot be argued that keeping Georgia out of NATO contributes in any meaningful way to conflict prevention.

Larison and I disagree on whether Russia or Georgia is more to blame for the 2008 war, and I don’t want to relitigate that entire discussion. But it’s worth noting that before that war, Russia had already stacked South Ossetia’s government with ethnic Russians who were trained by the Russian military and security services. (Russian General Vasily Lunev, who was installed as South Ossetia’s defense minister a few months before the war, is but one such example.) Led by such men, Russian forces had been shelling Georgian territory for years prior to that war. Russia, therefore, “escalated” the conflict several times prior to the 2008 war, which was itself a Russian escalation of the conflict.

So let’s take Larison’s point of view for a moment. If Georgia were a country looking for excuses to “escalate” the conflict, wouldn’t keeping them out of NATO on their lack of full control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia be likely to trigger a Georgian “escalation”? Would it not, that is, encourage Saakashvili to keep trying to replicate his success in exiling Aslan Abashidze from Adjara and getting the Russians to remove their base from Batumi?

And wouldn’t this require a major war, since Russian personnel run so much of South Ossetia’s government, and therefore Saakashvili might get the impression that nothing less than a full de-baathification of those provinces would resolve this conflict enough for Germany to consider the border matter settled? I think the answer is yes–I think our current posture toward the conflict as the justification for excluding Georgia from NATO is one that incentivizes war, whether you believe Russia or Georgia is more likely to be the aggressor.

Now, you may argue we can still keep Georgia out of NATO because, as Larison suggests, Russia would consider it an “intolerable provocation.” So it would make Russia angry. And what would they do in retaliation? Perhaps they would sell Iran upgraded radar jammers; suppress the UN nuclear watchdog’s report on Iran’s nuclear program; sell weapons to Bashar al-Assad; prevent even token action against Syria at the UN Security Council. They could not do any of this in retaliation, because they are already doing all of those things.

Is Russia’s cooperation on the Afghan supply route the only chip left to play? Of course it’s not nothing–we greatly appreciate it. But can that be the trump card to any Russian provocation? And who in their right mind thinks Russia wants us out of Afghanistan? They unambiguously do not.

Larison suggests Georgia isn’t democratic enough for NATO. But it’s hardly Belarus, let alone Ukraine. And isn’t that why we have membership action plans in the first place? No one is suggesting we leave NATO’s front door wide open for just anyone to waltz in. They have to earn it. And isn’t the prospect of NATO membership a better way to encourage such democratization than leaving such nations to Russia’s sphere of influence? Again, I give you Belarus.

Ironically, I don’t think Larison’s suspicion of NATO enlargement in general is all that unreasonable; I just think in this case it has been overtaken by events. Putin’s behavior has not earned him the benefit of the doubt, but you can certainly make the argument that the reverse was true with regard to Ron Asmus’s manic push to enlarge NATO as the Soviet Union was dissolving. Indeed, I asked Gorbachev’s adviser, Pavel Palazchenko, about that a few months ago, and he said their impression of that push for NATO enlargement was built on a misunderstanding of whether a new “union” of former Soviet republics might form, and that NATO’s eastward march made the transition more difficult for everyone involved. (I’m not endorsing the criticism; just noting that Gorbachev and Yeltsin had more credibility then than Putin does now.)

So I remain convinced that of the three options–bringing Georgia into NATO, permanently excluding Georgia from NATO, or forcing a more concrete resolution of Georgia’s breakaway provinces–Georgian inclusion in NATO (provided, of course, they meet democratization criteria) is the best.

UPDATE: Larison responds here.

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