NATO's Biggest Mistake

The Alliance Drifted From Its Core Mission -- And the World Is Paying the Price

Ukrainian soldiers at a checkpoint near the town of Slaviansk in eastern Ukraine, May 2, 2014.
Ukrainian soldiers at a checkpoint near the town of Slaviansk in eastern Ukraine, May 2, 2014. (Baz Ratner / Courtesy Reuters)

For 20 years, NATO and European security policy have been guided by four flawed strategic assumptions. First, Western leaders assumed that Russia had become a benign power and that inter-state threats to European security were therefore no longer a concern. Second, because NATO’s core mission -- collective defense -- was no longer a compelling reason to keep the alliance together, leaders argued that NATO needed to go “out of area or out of business.” NATO consequently expanded its membership and took on a new array of global missions. Third, Western leaders assumed that NATO expansion would not provoke a reaction from Russia. NATO’s leaders believed their own rhetoric about the benign nature of NATO expansion, and they assumed Moscow would see it this way as well. Fourth, they believed that the alliance would be successful in carrying out military and stabilization missions in far-off places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

In 2014, Western officials are learning about their strategic errors the hard way. They have come to realize that NATO’s collective defense mission in Europe is still vital because Russia is in the business of changing international borders by force, that NATO never had to go “out of area” for a compelling mission, that the Kremlin didn’t see NATO expansion to Russia’s borders as benign, and that NATO missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya cost a great deal in lives and money but they only achieved mixed results.

As U.S. and European officials scramble to devise a coherent, credible, effective response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, they must also undertake a fundamental strategic reassessment. Europe still faces inter-state security threats, in the form of Russian aggression. NATO’s core mission -- collective defense -- is still vital. Deterrence and defense are still needed in Europe. And, as in many great-power relationships, the challenge is to deter aggression and reassure allies without provoking escalation.

For U.S. and European leaders -- and for NATO -- it’s back to basics.

OUT OF AREA, OUT OF WHACK

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