The Magazine

NATO Is Still the Answer

Obama’s floundering Ukraine policy.

May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By JOHN R. BOLTON
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The continuing Ukraine crisis raises both a critical “what if?” question and a pressing policy issue. What if, in April 2008, the Europeans had not rejected President Bush’s proposal to bring Ukraine and Georgia onto a clearly defined path to joining NATO? And today, urgently, should we try again for NATO membership?

Gary Locke

Gary Locke

When the alliance’s 2008 Bucharest Summit rejected the U.S. plan for Ukraine and Georgia, the defeat was widely attributed to Bush’s unpopularity, stemming from the Iraq war, a convenient excuse for both Europeans and America’s media. The real reason, however, was Europe’s growing reliance on Russian oil and gas, and its barely concealed fear of Moscow’s response to NATO admitting two critical constituent parts of the former USSR. 

Moscow has long understood Western cowardice. Just four months after Bucharest, in a laboratory-like causal connection rare in global politics, Russia dramatically escalated its simmering conflict with Georgia, bombing its tiny neighbor and surging troops to within 30 miles of the capital, Tbilisi. Faced with a U.S. response that looks robust compared with our reaction today in Ukraine, Russia withdrew to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two provinces it most wanted to hive off, and hunkered down into the stalemate that Georgia still endures. 

Then-candidate Barack Obama initially called for both Russia and Georgia to exercise restraint, a form of blindness and moral equivalence the Kremlin noted. (After intense criticism, Obama tried to walk back his first reaction.) With its term waning, and facing a daunting economic crisis, the Bush administration did little more for Georgia or Ukraine. 

Obama, by contrast, entered office in 2009 on a wave of domestic and international popularity, shortly thereafter winning the Nobel Peace Prize for no apparent reason. He might well have contemplated the long-term significance of Georgia and Ukraine, but he did not. Instead, intent on blaming Bush for problems in the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship, Obama unveiled the “reset” button, exemplifying his new policy direction. Out went the national missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, and in came the lamentable New START arms control treaty (precisely the kind of Cold War thinking Obama would later deride). Other errors followed, including relying on Russian diplomacy to help oust Syria’s Assad regime and eliminate Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, neither of which Moscow had any intention of doing. After Obama induced Russia to support a Security Council resolution that led to the overthrow of Libya’s Qaddafi, Moscow concluded it would do Obama no more favors despite all his prior concessions.

Obama left Ukraine and Georgia to fend for themselves, ignoring the politico-military reality that Russia instinctively understood. He thereby left open the vulnerability that Bush had tried to close in April 2008. Many who now oppose robust U.S. efforts to protect Ukraine from Russian depredation and partition assert that we have no serious interests there, and accordingly also reject any hint we might once again consider NATO membership. Yet, in the long term, joining the alliance is the only strategy that can realistically secure Georgian and Ukrainian sovereignty and keep alive the option of joining the West more broadly. Modest NATO force redeployments to nearby countries, signing near-meaningless political declarations, and multiyear commitments to strengthen economic ties with the West will do little to shift today’s economic, political, or military advantage away from Russia and toward Ukraine and Georgia.

Some argue that NATO should never have admitted any ex-Warsaw Pact members, and most certainly should not have added former Soviet republics, because geography and history relegated these countries to Russia’s sphere of influence. That argument has the virtue of consistency, but nothing more. In fact, it proves too much. One could as easily argue that Poland is in Germany’s sphere of influence rather than Russia’s. That kind of dispute, in short form, is why Europe saw two world wars in the 20th century. It is precisely to prevent such wars, and thus further effusions of American blood, that we bring otherwise vulnerable countries into NATO, thereby simultaneously protecting U.S. interests and stabilizing Europe.

NATO rightly rejected the untenable view, amounting to appeasement, that Central and Eastern Europe fall naturally and inevitably into Russia’s sphere of influence, and that bringing them into NATO unnecessarily and unfairly provokes Moscow. NATO is and always has been simply a defensive alliance shielding those of like mind and interest. Russia has no claims strong enough or legitimate enough to justify its dominating unwilling neighbors. 

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers