NATO Owes Putin a Big Thank-You

Russia's aggression in Ukraine is making it easier for the bloated, aging alliance to pretend that it still matters.

If I were really cynical, I'd suspect some bureaucrats at NATO headquarters in Brussels are secretly glad about the crisis in Ukraine. Why? Because it gives the aging alliance something to do. This motive may also explain why hawkish Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen seems eager to defend Ukraine right down to the last Ukrainian and why the NATO members that lie closest to Russia are both worried by recent events and pleased that the rest of the alliance is finally paying attention to their concerns.

In fairness, NATO's survival after the Cold War remains something of an anomaly. Alliances normally arise in response to threats, and many previous alliances collapsed quickly once the external danger was gone. Mindful of this tendency, NATO's proponents have been searching for a convincing rationale for its continued existence ever since the Berlin Wall fell. But their efforts have been mostly stillborn; despite annual summits, earnest communiqués, and a lot of brave rhetoric, the alliance's capabilities, importance, and coherence have been visibly declining for two decades.

Things might have been different if the various "out-of-area" missions NATO took on had gone swimmingly, but they didn't. The Bosnian intervention in 1995* and the war in Kosovo in 1999 were at best partial successes; they took longer, cost more, and produced more ambiguous results than NATO's defenders like to admit. NATO's efforts in Afghanistan have been mostly a failure, and no member of the alliance wants to do anything like that again. The Libyan debacle now looks like a monument to Western hubris, even though its architects remain loath to admit just how wrong they were. The United States has been trying to "rebalance" to Asia in recent years -- an arena where NATO has little role to play -- and has been coping with the aftermath of George W. Bush's foolish attempt to "transform" the Middle East. Until the Ukraine crisis arose, NATO looked like a nearly extinct dodo that had somehow managed to last into the 21st century.

Yet NATO survived. This is partly because the alliance was heavily institutionalized, and no bureaucracy goes out of business without a fight. Its persistence also gave the United States some residual leverage in Europe and allowed Washington to pretend that its activities elsewhere had broad international support. Military bases in Europe and a long history of cooperation also facilitated U.S. interventions in other areas and didn't require Europeans to do much in return. Finally, liberal internationalists embraced NATO (and EU) expansion as a way to spread democratic institutions and values into the former Soviet empire, toward the ever-elusive goal of "one Europe, united and free."

But as George Kennan, Michael Mandelbaum, and other experts warned in the 1990s, NATO expansion turned out to be a fundamental strategic misstep. It alienated Russia without making NATO stronger; on the contrary, expansion involved extending security guarantees to mostly weak countries that would be the hardest to defend should Russian power ever recover. Instead of sticking with the early 1990s Partnership for Peace, an initiative that provided many of the same benefits as NATO expansion -- including military-to-military contacts, security dialogue, and support for civil society -- but also included Russia, Washington succumbed to hubris and decided to add to its defense burdens without getting much in return.

Undertaken, like the old British Empire, in a "fit of absentmindedness," NATO expansion rested on the assumption that these various guarantees would never need to be honored. It was not until the brief Russo-Georgian war of 2008 that a few Washingtonians (and a larger number of Europeans) begin to recognize that these commitments might actually involve some cost and risk. But by then it was too late, because any challenge in Eastern Europe would be seen as a test of U.S. credibility and NATO's resolve. Needless to say, this is precisely how most people -- including President Barack Obama, who has called the Ukraine crisis a "moment of testing" -- are now interpreting the tussle over Ukraine.

Yet even the current crisis cannot fully reconcile NATO's fundamental strategic problems. Even if one adopts a worst-case view of Russian intentions, today's Russia is nowhere near as threatening as the old Soviet Union. The USSR was a continent-sized superpower with a larger population than the United States and an economy roughly half as large; today's Russia is smaller and less populous, and its economy is roughly one-fifth the size of America's. The USSR outspent the United States on defense during most of the Cold War, but Russia today is a pipsqueak by comparison. Its only appealing products are oil, natural gas, and raw materials, and it no longer boasts an ideology that can rally supporters worldwide. It can be a regional spoiler and a local troublemaker, but it is not and will never again be a true peer competitor.

These realities also mean that Russia does not threaten the vital interests of most of Europe or the United States. It is a genuine threat to Ukraine's well-being, and it is also a potential problem for the small Baltic states, but Europe no longer has to worry about 90-plus divisions massing on the inter-German border. That's a very good thing, but the lack of a serious strategic threat is also why NATO has trouble marshaling the level of coherence and commitment that it did during the Cold War.

In fact (and in sharp contrast to the post-World War II period), Europe now has the latent wherewithal to deal with the Russian bear all by itself, if only it could get its act together. NATO's European members are notoriously reluctant to spend money on defense or create effective military forces, but it's not because they lack the basic resources. Even today, NATO Europe spends four times more on defense each year than Russia does. If these states were really worried, you'd think they would coordinate their activities more effectively, devote more money to the problem, and spend the existing amounts more efficiently, instead of maintaining militaries that are long on creature comforts and short on fighting capacity

The real challenge NATO faces is the classic dilemma of collective action, made all the worse by the modest nature of the threat to which NATO is now trying to respond. This problem is why NATO's new members are working overtime to convince others -- and especially Americans over in the Western Hemisphere -- that Russian President Vladimir Putin is History's Greatest (or Latest) Monster. If you're Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, or even Polish, you don't want to rely on British or French or Spanish help if trouble arises with Moscow. You want to make sure the White House is on your side, and you want hotheads like Joe Biden and John McCain calling for the United States to do everything it can. So these states (and countries like Georgia) spend a lot on lobbying politicians in Washington in order to convince Americans to care as much about their homelands as they do.

Unfortunately, the history of the past 50 years tells us that the more security Uncle Sam provides to others, the less the recipients will do for themselves. Confirmed Atlanticists like the late Richard Holbrooke liked to say that the United States was a "European power," but a momentary glance at the globe shows you that this is nonsense. America is located in the Western Hemisphere, folks, and the extent of its interests in Europe depend on circumstances. When a peer competitor emerges and threatens to dominate the continent, then America's vital interests are fully engaged. When no such rival exists (or when potential peer competitors are located elsewhere), U.S. interests are much reduced. Everybody knows or suspects this, of course, no matter how fervently U.S. officials proclaim their undying support for areas where few vital interests reside.

So what will NATO do at this week's summit? It has already announced plans for a new rapid-reaction force, and Obama has delivered a typically stirring speech pledging U.S. support for all the countries that managed to get themselves into the alliance before anyone thought too hard about the wisdom of this step. There will be the usually pious declarations about enhancing defense capabilities, and a new set of exercises will be planned, provided they don't cost too much. But eventually the war fever will break, and NATO Europe will return to its enfeebled military condition and diplomatic disarray.

Meanwhile, what about Ukraine? In theory, NATO could make a real contribution by forming a united front in favor of genuine diplomacy, something Germany seems especially eager to pursue. By "diplomacy," I mean a process of principled but flexible bargaining whose goal is to resolve the current crisis in a way that gives the various parties what they most need, instead of trying to obtain everything they might occasionally dream about. That process has to begin by recognizing that 1) Russia sees Ukraine's political alignment as a vital interest, 2) it has various cards to play to advance its goals, and 3) it is willing to wreck the country to prevent it from joining the West. You don't have to like those facts -- who would? -- but effective statecraft must begin by acknowledging unpleasant realities. As with most diplomatic efforts, the United States and Europe aren't going to get everything they want and should concentrate instead on getting what is most important.

As I've said before, the best possible outcome here is an agreement that reaffirms Ukraine's independence and sovereignty, ends the fighting, removes any Russian troops on Ukraine's territory, and guarantees Ukraine's status as a neutral buffer state. The status of Crimea is trickier, and I fear it won't be possible to get Russia to disgorge it. We may have to accept that change as the price Ukraine and the West must pay for our prior carelessness. To advance the ball, NATO's leaders should support Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko while simultaneously discouraging him from upping his demands. In particular, they should make it clear that their support is conditional on Ukraine cutting a reasonable deal. It's a bit like the conditional support the United States provides to Taiwan: The United States will defend that country if its independence is threatened by external military action, but all bets are off if Taiwan provokes trouble by crossing Beijing's "red lines."

Is this a perfect result? Hardly. But it is a lot better than prolonging the crisis, which will damage the still-fragile EU economy, poison East-West relations even further, and do further harm to Ukraine itself. I see little evidence that U.S. officials are thinking along these lines, but perhaps some of America's European partners can convince them otherwise. Isn't that what summit meetings are for?

*Correction, Sept. 5, 2014: NATO's intervention in Bosnia happened in 1995. An earlier version of this article said the year was 1996. (Return to reading.)

Photo by ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images


Running Toward the Danger

Sotloff, Foley, and the doctors fighting Ebola are part of a vital breed of first responders demanded by a new global reality.

In the wake of 9/11, the world developed a special appreciation for first responders, the men and women who ran toward danger when they saw it. They risked all to help others, and fittingly there was a surge of recognition for cops and firefighters and paramedics -- both those lost in the twisted metal of lower Manhattan and those who carried on in the same tradition.

Neither James Foley nor Steven Sotloff wore a badge or a uniform. Nor did Mbalu Fonnie, Alex Moigboi, Alice Kovoma, Mohamed Fullah, or Sheik Umar Khan. But they embodied the first-responder spirit as truly and fully as any of those whose courage inspired us and whose sacrifices broke our hearts at the World Trade Center. For precisely that reason, out of genuine respect for them and their contribution to the world, it is essential we not make the same errors we did amid the anger and grief that marked the earliest days of what we once called the War on Terror.

Foley and Sotloff, the two American journalists who were recently brutally murdered by terrorists, chose to run into the flames of Syria even as the rest of the world looked away. They, like other journalists covering that country's civil war, knew that the risks they faced were grave. But they made a calculation that letting the slaughter in that country go unrecorded, unnoted, or uncommented upon would be compounding those battlefield atrocities with indifference. That would be inhumane and was so intolerable to them that they made their way into a country that many of the world's great and powerful leaders were doing their best to avoid and ignore. What does it say about a person who chooses to go on their own into mayhem that has already claimed almost 200,000 lives and do so without a weapon, without an army, without a congressional resolution? How deep must be their conviction that bearing witness is essential, the only possible human reaction, the one that might motivate others to action, to actually caring? 

Fonnie, Moigboi, Kovoma, Fullah, and Khan were all health-care professionals, doctors, nurses, and technicians who were affiliated with the Kenema Government Hospital's Lassa fever facility in Sierra Leone. All five, described in a moving Washington Post article from late August by Abby Ohlheiser, were co-authors of an important new Ebola study who died of the disease before their work could be made public. By virtue of their work, they were more acutely aware of the risks they faced from the current outbreak, the worst by far of its kind to date, one that has claimed more than 1,500 lives and may infect as many as 20,000 before it has run its course. Khan acknowledged this in late June by telling Reuters, "I am afraid for my life, I must say, because I cherish my life.... Health workers are prone to the disease because we are the first port of call for somebody who is sickened by disease. Even with the full protective clothing you put on, you are at risk." But it was precisely because they knew the risks better than others -- better than those who were infected and spreading the disease -- that they chose to remain on the front lines of the efforts to combat the epidemic. Like other first responders, they too felt that the right response to a crisis is to run toward it rather than away from it.

Of course, Foley and Sotloff were not the only journalists to die in Syria, nor were they the only ones to be lost to the depravity of terrorists. Because they were Americans and because their murders were so gruesomely fed to the media and the grotesque appetites of the Internet, their stories have gained the most attention. But estimates as to the number of journalists lost in Syria alone range from 71 to more than 150. And, according to the World Health Organization, the number of doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers to have succumbed to this current Ebola outbreak was, as of late August, more than 120, with over 240 estimated to have contracted the disease.

Both of these totals pale to insignificance when weighed against the greater tolls of the crises that claimed the lives of these heroes. And other wars and genocides and epidemics are claiming their own fair share of such heroes, the first responders to these humanitarian catastrophes that many would prefer to ignore. All deserve the kinds of thoughts, attention, and prayers that we have offered on behalf of Foley and Sotloff, as well as our gratitude, because these are the people who, by risking their lives, make it impossible for the rest of us to look away. These are the people who risk their lives in order to offer a human touch to those whom most of humanity has abandoned. These are the people who demand that we cut through the impotence of high-minded political rhetoric and the incomprehensible mountains of statistics to reveal and serve the human beings at the heart of these problems.

That is why out of respect for their lives and for the spirit of what they do, we must consider our reactions carefully. It is easy for tabloid newspapers to offer up headlines demanding revenge or promoting scare stories. When infected American doctors returned home to the United States to be treated for Ebola, social media erupted with a debate about the risks this entailed, ignoring how hard it is for this disease to spread when properly contained, not to mention the plight of the health workers seeking treatment. This week, the bottom feeders of the American political commentariat sought to use the Sotloff tragedy as an opportunity to bash U.S. President Barack Obama for his inaction in Syria and to call for tough strikes against the journalists' murderers. For them, the death was just a prop, and their railing reflected their own character flaws more than those of any of the people they were decrying.

No, an appropriate response to these tragedies lies not with the empty rhetoric of politicians going through the motions of seeming to care or with the histrionics of hotheads and opportunists. It lies with the ideas that motivated all of these first responders to action: compassion, getting to the facts -- and then taking action even when the risks were high. In the case of Sotloff and Foley, not only does this mean that the world must heed their message that this crisis demands our attention, but it means knowing that spasms or showpieces of revenge are not enough. 

Nor is it enough simply to target the Islamic State. The entire Middle East and much of Africa and Asia are now at risk because of the spread of Islamist extremism, and as we learned with our too narrow focus on "core al Qaeda," targeting one group only ensures that others will assume its place. We need a comprehensive strategy to confront all such groups and to cut off their sources of funding and those who would give them comfort. And we must recognize that only through finding successful alternative political solutions to the problems on the ground can we fill the governance void that currently is the breeding ground and preferred environment for extremists. In the case of the Ebola battle, we must similarly not only contain and treat this disease, but recognize that the infrastructure, education, and resource gaps that enable an epidemic like this one to spread as it has threaten the world in ways that are greater than any one disease could.

Indeed, in both cases, what these first responders have shown are the costs of our indifference and inaction to date. And in both cases they demand a response that is not the narrow, crowd-pleasing "deliverables" of a political class that just wants ugliness off the front pages. Both crises are symptomatic of greater threats that demand long-term, global commitments to contain and eliminate them. Both require, in fact, governments, international institutions, and their leaders to act with something like the courage and humanity that defined the lives of Foley, Sotloff, the other journalists who have been lost bearing witness, the health-care workers fighting Ebola, and their colleagues fighting less well known but equally serious battles worldwide.

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