During a recent policy conference in Europe attended by political and military participants from across NATO, speaker after speaker bemoaned decisions made in the 1990s and 2000s to bring post-Soviet states into the Transatlantic alliance. The tone of these remarks was “we couldn’t say no, but the world would now be better off if we had.” These expressions were also laced with remarks about Russia’s historical interest in Eastern Europe and its feelings of exclusion. The implication was that the “collective West” was the principal culprit in pushing the European constellation to the edge of the Ukrainian black hole. There was nary a voice to be heard suggesting that perhaps we are now drifting toward the abyss not because we allowed new democratic states into the alliance, but because Putin’s Planet Russia suddenly lurched back into an expansionary orbit.
These days, you don’t have to worry about finding an accompaniment if you’re signing this basic tune. This is especially true in Europe, where buyer’s remorse has replaced the original talk of a Europe whole and free. With the emergence of new fault lines in need of defense and reinforcement, and an escalating war in Ukraine, the mutuality of security obligation inherent in NATO membership is in full view, and the era of free political rhetoric reminiscent of the early decades is over.
NATO is struggling today not because the alliance has deficits when it comes to ready-made forces, airlift capability, and the like; these can all be remedied in short order given a modicum of political will in Europe’s capitals. The alliance, rather, is fragmented politically along the most fundamental lines of what constitutes its area of common responsibility. I am not speaking here of solidarity or common defense; the agreement on these topics is unequivocal. Rather, what is now in contention is how important the countries brought in after the Cold War are to their older western European allies. The dirty secret has been the enduring divisions within Europe as to who is really qualified to enter into the rarefied club of “true Europe”—that is, how much has really changed (or not) despite all of the real political and economic progress the post-Soviet democracies have made since the fall of the Iron Curtain. This isn’t about the Rumsfeldian Old Europe/New Europe dichotomy; rather, Europe today is once again fragmenting along cultural and historical divides, with “real Europe” ending on the Oder River, “semi-real Europe” extending from there to the Bug River and the Baltic periphery in the northeast (also including the Croatian-Bosnian border in the South), and “non-Europe” extending from Ukraine to the East and South.
This resurgent and deepening fragmentation would perhaps be of marginal interest to historians had it not been for the fact that it is an important variable hindering the building of unwavering consensus within NATO to defend its “new allies.” Some of the private conversation sounds eerily reminiscent of those almost a century ago in which leaders debated whether a chunk of Eastern Europe was worth the bones of a single British grenadier. The post-Cold War entrants into NATO are keenly aware of this, and although in public they forcefully assert their confidence that NATO remains as solid a foundation of their security as ever, in private they express their deepening doubt that they are more than Western Europe’s poor cousins. To soothe their worries, they are treated to warmed-over debates about building a “European Army”, as suggested by Mr. Juncker (an idea I had thought the Europeans dispensed with in the fifties), or suggestions that the European Security Strategy should be re-written to reflect changed realities. These are pitiful gestures in the face of the deteriorating security situation on NATO’s northeastern flank.
And so once again the United States is the only game in town for the countries of the large swath of allied territory running from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. This means it is once again time for Washington to get serious about building a renewed sense of purpose and resolve within NATO in order to reinforce its northeastern flank. The Obama Administration, distracted by the broader context of the relationship with Russia (primarily Iran, but other issues as well) has relied on Germany and the EU more broadly to take point on Ukraine. Its focus has been on limited exercises and symbolic displays of solidarity, such as the recent “Dragoon ride,” which saw a column of Stryker infantry fighting vehicles meander slowly from Estonia through Poland back to Germany. In this context, the mantra that “there is no military solution to Ukraine” is indicative of the alliance’s unwillingness to offer Kiev military aid, especially if one considers that isolating the question of military action from the larger political continuum belies the most basic notions of what constitutes a strategy.
There was a time during the Balkan wars in the 1990s when we all watched with growing frustration as the United Nations and the European Union twisted and turned while Belgrade accelerated its project to carve out a “Greater Serbia” from the dismantled Yugoslav Federation. Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s periodic trips for “consultations” during this time became a source of gruesome jokes in Washington. It wasn’t until the Clinton Administration decided to engage through NATO that the European allies proved capable of aligning their security optics and policies, and stopped treating the Balkans as tragically benighted land that “real Europeans” flew over en route to their vacations in Greece.
The Obama Administration has a decision to make about whether it intends to start a similar process of re-aligning the security optics and policies of its European allies, building a consensus on the next steps needed to reinforce the northeastern flank of NATO. The material means needed to stabilize Central Europe and the Scandinavian/Baltic seaboard are much less than what was required to deal with the Balkans. What is needed is a shift in the discussion within NATO from reassurance to reinforcement, with the goal being to restructure U.S. and NATO base structure in anticipation of the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw. If NATO’s northeastern flank is to be secured and an unequivocal deterrence structure established, there need to be permanent U.S. bases in the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania, and procedures for a faster response time should Russia stage another major Russian provocation, such as last December’s Baltic Sea naval exercises. These are simple steps, but they require clarity of vision and political determination in Washington. Once in place, they will go a long way toward stabilizing the flank. The bottom line is that Washington needs to make this project a priority.