You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 59: NATO Expansion Past, Present, and Future

NATO Expansion Past, Present, and Future

Since its inception in 1949, NATO has expanded both its size and role to keep up with a changing world. Its initial role as a counterweight to the Soviet Union was both reenforced and updated when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor and former dean Jim Goldgeier joins us to discuss the enlargement and role of NATO from its inception to today.

Professor Goldgeier discusses the thought process behind his latest book about NATO enlargement and explains what he hoped to accomplish by bringing together a group of scholars with diverse opinions and viewpoints (2:12). He also walks us through pivotal moments related to NATO’s enlargement in the 1990s (5:43), including Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s warnings to President Bill Clinton (8:30).

Was there ever a moment when Russia might have joined NATO (10:49)? And moving into the 2000s, what was the rhetoric within Russia about NATO (13:28)? Does Russian President Vladimir Putin truly believe that pro-democracy protests borne of popular uprisings are really just puppet protests engineered by the US and other NATO countries (16:10)? Professor Goldgeier answers these questions and describes Russia’s aggression toward Georgia and Ukraine since 2008 (20:01) and the impact of NATO enlargement as it grew ever-closer to Russia’s borders (23:26).

During the Trump administration, some Americans began to buy into the rhetoric that NATO was obsolete. So what should Americans understand about the continued importance of NATO (25:40)? Closing out the episode, Goldgeier discusses why the likely prospect of Sweden and Finland joining NATO doesn’t seem as problematic in the eyes of Putin as when countries once part of the former Soviet Union have desired to join (29:58).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Goldgeier shares the policies and practices he would institute for the transatlantic community (17:44).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was established in 1949 with 12 members, 10 European nations, the US and Canada. It's been enlarged through new members eight times over the decades and has grown far beyond its initial role as a counterweight to the Soviet Union, engaging in different types of humanitarian and political situations since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. To some Americans, NATO may have come to seem obsolete, especially given the rhetoric of former President Donald Trump between 2016 and 2020. However, its relevance became undeniable in February of 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine, and it was made clear that NATO—and NATO's growing size—had all along been very important, indeed, to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

1:07 So today we're talking about NATO enlargement. I'm Kay Summers and I'm joined by Jim Goldgeier. Jim is a professor and a former dean here at the School of International Service. He's a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Center on International Security and Cooperation and a visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, in addition to many other appointments he's held past and present. Jim's also previously served as director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs on the National Security Council staff. He's authored, co-authored, or edited numerous books including "Evaluating NATO Enlargement From Cold War Victory to the Russia-Ukraine War," which will help inform our conversation today. And Jim, thank you for joining Big World.

1:53      Jim Goldgeier: Oh, thanks for having me.

1:55      KS: It's really good to hear your voice. I haven't talked to you in a while. Jim, your new book, "Evaluating NATO Enlargement," is a collection of articles by scholars related to NATO enlargement. What was your goal in selecting the authors, and overall, what do you want to accomplish with this book?

2:12      JG: Well, this was a book that started with an idea in early 2019. I have long been frustrated by the debate over NATO enlargement. It runs to the extremes. People are either saying, "Oh my gosh, this is the worst thing ever, and it's the reason why US Russia relations are terrible." Or people arguing, "This is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and thank God we enlarged NATO." And there wasn't a lot of nuance to the debate. I always would say to people who would argue one extreme position or the other, "You've got to think about it compared to what. All policies have cost and benefits, and that includes NATO enlargement. And choosing some other policy would have had different costs and benefits."

3:04 So long frustrated, and I decided to call a colleague who is now at the University of Maryland. He was then at Boston University, Josh Shifrinson, who is a professor of international relations and who takes a very different view of NATO enlargement than I do. I've long felt that it was the right thing to do, even with some of the costs, and Josh has long been skeptical of NATO enlargement, even though he recognizes some of the benefits. So I said to him, "We should work together. If we could write something together, maybe we could improve the debate." And he actually came up with the idea of a special issue of a journal, which appeared in 2020, the Journal of International Politics. And we had worked on some other things.

3:49 And then what happened was with the war expanding in February of 2022, about a few months later, an editor at Palgrave Macmillan called and said, " We own the Journal of International Politics. Do you think you could get the authors to update their pieces in light of the war and Finland and Sweden seeking to join NATO?" So we were very excited about it. All the authors said yes. We had picked these authors for the range of views. They have very different perspectives on NATO enlargement. Some of them think it's terrific. Some of them think it's not so terrific. And different aspects of it—impact on US-Russia, impact on European security, impact on NATO as an institution, and a mix of early career scholars and more senior scholars. And so we had the authors update their original pieces. We added four new pieces, and then the edited volume has just been released basically in late February, coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the expanded war.

5:02      KS: And in the opening chapter, you and Josh Shifrinson take the reader on a journey through the past, specifically the 1990s. You walk us through the thinking in the early days after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, including those initial steps that were taken to secure a unified Germany's place in NATO, which may be a surprise, especially to students who have little knowledge of this time in history, that it wasn't a given that that would happen, that a unified Germany would join NATO. There are so many important moments in that decade, but if you had to point to one pivotal moment related specifically to NATO enlargement from the '90s, what would it be and why?

5:43      JG: Well, it's great that you mentioned a united Germany being a full member of NATO because that's really the first enlargement at the end of the Cold War, adding Eastern Germany, which was becoming part of a united Germany, and adding that to NATO. And then, of course, NATO went on to expand throughout Central and Eastern Europe. I think it's really important for people to understand that probably the most pivotal decision was the one that was made by the George H.W. Bush administration to support NATO's continuation at the end of the Cold War, because that also wasn't a given. And it was done primarily to ensure that the United States would still remain in charge of European security.

6:29 The lessons for the Bush administration of the 20th century can be boiled down very simply to post-1919, bad, post-1945, good. The US left Europe at the end of World War I, and there was another World War II decades later. And the US stayed after World War II, helped foster a very prosperous and secure Western Europe. And so there they were faced at the end of the Cold War, what should they do? Did NATO need to continue to exist with the Soviet Union gone? There were a lot of people saying no, but they felt, given that history, that the United States should stay, should remain engaged. And that meant focusing on NATO because that's where the United States' leadership role in Europe comes from.

7:13 The other options could have been what became the European Union and the organization for security and cooperation in Europe, but that was not what the Bush administration wanted. And so once they made that decision to stick with NATO, the likelihood that NATO would enlarge into Central and Eastern Europe was pretty high because the Central and Eastern Europeans really wanted to join. And we saw that Europe, after the end of the Cold War, did need the United States. And we see it today. We started with reminding everyone about the role of NATO with the expanded war against Ukraine by Russia in February of 2022. The US is clearly still needed in Europe, and the US made that decision decades ago that it should remain in charge of European security, and it remains in that position today.

8:12      KS: Jim, continuing in the 1990s, Russian President Boris Yeltsin reportedly warned US President Bill Clinton repeatedly against the expansion of NATO in those early days. What were his warnings, and why were they disregarded, and were there, in fact, warnings?

8:30      JG: Well, Yeltsin was never very happy about NATO enlargement, and he did make that clear, and the Clinton libraries some years ago posted the declassified memoranda of conversation. The phone calls between Clinton and Yeltsin, the meetings between Clinton and Yeltsin, you can see there Yeltsin expressing his concerns. Prior to his reelection in July of 1996,

9:00 He was mainly concerned about the NATO enlargement giving a tool for Russian nationalists that might affect his chances of reelection. And Clinton did not disregard those warnings. Bill Clinton was very eager that Boris Yeltsin be reelected in 1996. And so Clinton made sure that NATO didn't do anything specific on enlargement until after Yeltsin was reelected. So Clinton took the warnings on board. The issue is the US was trying to do multiple things. It wanted to integrate central and Eastern Europe into the west. It wanted to provide a zone of stability and security across Europe. And it was also trying to create a new partnership with Russia. And those things were intention. But Clinton and Yeltsin basically managed those pretty well in the 1990s. And the real tensions over NATO would not emerge until later.

10:04      KS: And as you said, this book has lots of different authors. One of the authors in your book, Vladislav Zubok, writes about initial Russian leanings toward joining NATO, kind of conversely. Even writing that Yeltsin asked the Americans that Russia be "the first" to be admitted to the alliance post-Soviet Union dissolution. And then Zubok quotes Lord Ismay, NATO's first secretary-general, who said that NATO existed for Europe 'to keep Americans in [Europe], Germans down, and Russians out.' So was that, keep Americans in, Germans down and Russians out, was that still the prevailing view of NATO in the early nineties, or was there ever a moment during which Russia might really have joined NATO?

10:49      JG: Well, it's interesting. One of the other authors in the book, Tim Sale, who's a historian and has written a fantastic book called Enduring Alliance, which is a history of NATO, he does in fact build his book around Lord Ismay's quote and argues that that did continue to be NATO's focus even after the end of the Cold War. But it is worth noting that the idea of Russia joining NATO was discussed on and off between 1991 and 2001. And I think the most dramatic moment occurred right at the very beginning of the post-Soviet era. There was a meeting at NATO in December 1991. All the representatives from the former Warsaw Pact were there. And the Soviet representative left the room, came back in and announced that he was no longer representing the USSR, but he was representing an independent Russia and his president, Boris Yeltsin, wanted to join NATO.

11:45 And during the '90s, Yeltsin would occasionally express an interest. Putin himself in 2001, expressed an interest in joining NATO. The Clinton administration was always very clear during the '90s that Article 10 of the NATO Treaty, which keeps the door open to any European state that can meet the criteria and contribute to alliance security, would also apply to a democratic Russia. Now, did anyone believe that? I don't know that anyone believed that it would ever really join. The last moment I know of when it was taken seriously was summer of 2001. Professor Angela Stent from Georgetown has this in her book, "The Limits of Partnership." She was working at the policy planning staff at the State Department. And her boss, Richard Haass, asked her to write a memo for Secretary Powell arguing that it was time to invite Russia to join. I don't know whether that was seriously discussed at the time. Certainly it was hard enough to see how it was going to happen then. It's impossible today to imagine Russia joining NATO. So that debate's over, but it was there for a period of time.

13:00      KS: Yeah, looking back now, it's almost like some alternate timeline from a sci-fi novel where there's this other world where Russia joined NATO and it just completely different world order. As we move into the aughts, though, with the timeline that we actually have, countries geographically closer and closer to Russia begin to seek NATO membership in the early aughts. What was the Russian response and what was the rhetoric within Russia like about NATO?

13:28      JG: Well, the Russians, they were never really very happy about enlargement. All along, the biggest issue was really what was going to happen with Georgia and Ukraine, former Soviet republics that mattered a lot to Russia. Russia did not want to see them join. I think prior to that, things went pretty smoothly. Again, the Russians were never happy about enlargement. But if you look at the first two rounds, which were in 1999 and 2004, at the time those rounds of enlargement were taking place, there were far bigger issues for the Russians than NATO enlargement. In 1999, when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined, NATO was at war with Serbia over Kosovo. And if you look at those declassified memorandum conversation that I mentioned before, you can just see Yeltsin's anger over the NATO bombing of Serbia was just way beyond anything he ever expressed about NATO enlargement.

14:29 And then in 2004, when you had seven countries join, including the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, you had at the same time the color revolutions taking place in places like Ukraine. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine was a much bigger deal to Putin because he was blaming the US for instigating it. He could never really understand these bottom up movements demanding change. And so he was looking at this as a threat to his rule over Russia.

14:59 And so I think those were okay. And in fact, Bill Burns, who's the current Director of the CIA, wrote a memoir a few years ago, "Back Channel." And he was the ambassador in Moscow in 2007, 2008. And he writes about... On his website for the book he has some of his cables declassified. And he writes about the debate within Russia. And says very clearly that Ukraine and Georgia would be a red line for Russians across the political spectrum from left to right. And so he was warning the George W. Bush administration not to move forward with Ukrainian and Georgian membership in NATO. And I think that really became the huge sticking point.

15:50      KS: Jim, you said Putin can never understand these bottom up movements. Is that genuine? Does he really, really cannot conceive of popular uprisings and really believes that all these types of protest movements are puppet protests that are having the strings pulled by the US and NATO countries? Is that a real belief or is that rhetoric?

16:10      JG: I think it's a real belief. I think he's just, he sees US plotting around every corner. And I think we see this with this miscalculation when he went to war against Ukraine. I think he genuinely believed that there would be lots of Ukrainians supporting the Russian troops coming in. And of course, that was not the case. The Ukrainians wanted to preserve their own country. They don't want to be part of Russia. And he just can't conceive of these populations seeking something for themselves and seeking change. And if you look back, for example, 2011, 2012, there were protests when he made plans to come back to the presidency after he'd taken a turn out as Prime Minister. And Hillary Clinton made some comments about the protests. And he really reacted angrily. Accused her of fomenting them. And I think was a primary reason why he wanted to make sure she wasn't elected president in 2016.

17:17      KS: Which yeah, was a whole nother weird narrative.

17:20      JG: It was a whole nother narrative.

17:30      KS: Jim Goldgeier, it's time to take five. You, our esteemed guest, get to daydream out loud with five policies or practices you believe would change things for the better. What are five policies or practices you'd institute for the Trans-Atlantic community?

17:44      JG: Well, first of all, Turkey and Hungary have got to finish with the ratification process for Finland and Sweden's accession to NATO. We've just seen Hungary do this for Finland. Needs to do it for Sweden. Turkey needs to do this for Finland and Sweden.

18:00 That needs to get done this year. Second, Europe really needs to develop greater military capacity of its own, so that the United States does not have to play such a large role on the continent. This really means, particularly, Germany really has to get serious about doing more. Three, we have to continue to support Ukraine, so that it can defend itself against Russian aggression. Even if this war, somehow there's a ceasefire and somehow the fighting stops, the threat of Russian aggression, particularly as long as Vladimir Putin is in power, will continue. So the Transatlantic community has to continue to support Ukraine so that it can defend itself.

18:43 At the same time, I think we cannot give up on a post-imperial Russia emerging. A Russia that gave up on its imperial designs against its neighbors would be the most important thing that could happen for European security. Then number five, I think everyone who's at a university that subscribes to Springer books should download, "Evaluating NATO Enlargement" to learn more about the key debates.

19:10      KS: Thank you.

19:16 So you mentioned Bill Burns, speaking about Georgia and Ukraine earlier on, looking at it really generally. Russian aggression against Georgia and Ukraine began in 2008, continued in 2014, and certainly has culminated with Russian's invasion of Ukraine last February in 2022.

19:37 In talking about what motivates the man, do you draw a direct line between this escalating aggression and the stated desire of both Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO, or is it more complicated than that? Are there really issues of what some in Russia perceive as the Russian identity and people who are actually Russian living in these different countries? Is it more complicated than just NATO?

20:01      JG: Well, it is more complicated than just NATO, but it's important to note, the Bucharest NATO Summit declaration of 2008, April, 2008, had a compromised language. The Georgia W. Bush administration wanted to put Ukraine and Georgia on formal paths to membership, something known as the Membership Action Plan, and France and Germany opposed that. What they ended up with was this language, a declaration that said Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO, which really was a disaster because it didn't give those two countries a path to membership, but it did anger the Russians. So it made a mess. It didn't solve anything. Russia did go to war with Georgia a few months later.

20:51 I think it's important to remember that in 2009 we had the Obama reset and there was some cooperation that was pursued in that first Obama term. I also think Ukraine and Georgia never really had any chance of joining NATO. Putin understood that it gave him a great rationale for the things he's done, which I think are more attributable to the imperialist views that he holds, that these territories belong to Russia, that they don't belong to an independent Ukraine. Certainly, that's true with respect to other territory in the area as well.

21:37 In the evaluating NATO enlargement book, we have a great chapter by Barnard College professor, Kimberly Marten, who looks at the Russian military thinking about NATO enlargement, and argues that enlargement was always more a symbol of the deterioration in relations rather than a cause. There were lots of other things that helped to create the downturn in US-Russia relations. Certainly enlargement was an issue in the relationship. I think absent the imperialist attitudes that Putin and a lot of Russians hold, that these territories, the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, Crimea, that these are Russian territories, absent that, I think we could have had a much different outcome here.

22:27      KS: It seems like some of this does tie back to this idea of empire and of having buffering and bordering from the other power. A lot of this talk about NATO enlargement has centered around the reaction to, as it gets closer and closer to Russia, when these geographic borders are eliminated, when there are no buffer states separating NATO and Russia, and the NATO border is right at Russia.

22:52 With that conversation, you write, "Enlargement skeptics have consistently challenged the logic of these moves. Questioning in particular whether NATO could meet its security obligations under such conditions." What is it that skeptics are questioning? Are they questioning whether all members would really act on Article Five, if it was a very small country that was attacked that they didn't have a vested interest in? Are they questioning whether NATO could defeat a Russian incursion or are they questioning something else completely?

23:26      JG: Well, I think people mainly, were mainly, previous to the expanded war of 2022-2023, I think people were mainly focused on the Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. They came in 2004. There was no clear plan for how NATO would defend them if necessary. The thinking was Russia could overwhelm them within a 48 or 72 hours. Now, of course, Russia's so weakened militarily that the security concerns are much less salient. Russia can't defeat Ukraine, so it certainly can't afford to attack a NATO member.

24:02 We see Putin deterred from doing that. I think it's important to recognize in this war, Putin is not attacking NATO members because he doesn't want to get into a war with NATO, just like NATO is not directly attacking Russia because it doesn't want to get into a war with Russia. So I think that's important to note, but enlargement did have a big impact on NATO's evolution as an institution and we have several chapters in the book on that subject. I spent a lot of time looking at the US Russia relationship looking at the impact on European security. I learned a lot from these chapters in the book on the impact of enlargement on NATO as an institution. I think they're really helpful to get beyond the focus on just US-Russia or on central Europe, and in thinking about the broader implications of enlargement. Certainly, NATO has grown in size. It's taken on more obligations. It is a very different institution than it was when the Cold War ended.

25:07      KS: When I mentioned that about smaller countries, it's not intended to be flip. It's more about the US. I said earlier, it's undeniable that there was definitely a subset of the American populace who began to buy into a rhetoric that NATO was obsolete or that NATO was just an organization where a bunch of freeloading countries in Europe depended on the US to defend them. Wat is it that people in America should understand about the importance of NATO that you don't think they currently get?

25:40      JG: I think actually people do pretty much get NATO, because we've seen consistently broad bipartisan support for NATO, and we've seen broad bipartisan support for support for providing assistance to Ukraine. So I think people do get that, that having allies helps the United States.

26:03 You do rightly point out that a lot of the enlargement that took place in recent years, certainly after the first two rounds of enlargement, there was the inclusion of countries that are quite small and are not really capable of enhancing NATO as a military alliance. I think that's one of the prominent features of Sweden and Finland, hopefully joining soon, which is that they are major countries, serious capabilities, particularly Finland, I think contribute a lot to the alliance.

26:42 You do raise a broader issue, and certainly Trump sought to tap into this, which is a sense that the Europeans haven't done as much as they should to prepare for their own defense. That they still rely too heavily on the United States. But that's why I made the point at the beginning that a pivotal decision was George H. W. Bush administration deciding that they wanted NATO to continue because they wanted the US to continue to be in charge of European security. The US made that choice in the early '90s. It didn't want alternatives to develop, it didn't want the EU to develop as an alternative institution. The US wanted to stay in charge, and that has meant the Europeans could continue to be dependent. We see with this expanded war against Ukraine, just how dependent they are. I mean, if it weren't for US leadership, if it weren't for the US provision of military assistance, yes, there are European countries that are doing everything they can. The Baltic countries, Poland, the United Kingdom, Germany is participating in ways that people might not have thought possible. Still without US leadership, Europe would not have been able to respond to this war in the way that it has.

28:06 I think what you see over the course of the last three decades is every time it seems that maybe NATO is obsolete, that maybe we don't need NATO anymore. Russia finds a way to make sure NATO is relevant again, and Russian aggression puts NATO back in focus as a key institution. But I do think it really is not sustainable for the United States to continue to shoulder this heavy a burden, especially as the US wants to focus more and more on the Indo-Pacific and on China. Europe does need to do more. The United States should welcome Europe doing more, and that really means Germany is going to have do more. But that's a big change for Germany and it's a big change for how we viewed Europe over time.

29:00      KS: You mentioned Finland and Sweden, and obviously they're the next two countries who are on track to join NATO. And we had at SIS a few weeks ago, the ambassadors from Sweden and Finland to the US. That was a really interesting discussion. I do find it curious, just as an intense news consumer but not somebody who's really close to these issues, that there hasn't been a lot of talk from Russia, at least not that's percolated up in the headlines about Finland. That's an 830-mile border that they share. Yet most of the talk about Sweden and Finland joining NATO has been about Turkey's objections to Sweden rather than Russia and Finland. So can you just shed a little light on that particular situation? It's a long border and it doesn't seem to be as problematic in any way as the countries that were part of the former Soviet Union.

29:58      JG: Well, I think this helps us understand what the real issues are. Putin really isn't worried that NATO's going to attack Russia. What we've seen since February of 2022 as Russia has put everything it can into this war against Ukraine, is that Russia has moved its forces away from those northern areas, away from Kaliningrad, away the border with Finland. Russia has left itself wide open, but Putin doesn't worry about that because he knows NATO's not going to attack Russia. Otherwise, he would maintain those fortifications up in the north.

30:42 So I hope that has helped clarify for people that Putin's not afraid of NATO enlargement. What he doesn't like is the idea that countries like Ukraine and Georgia, especially Ukraine, would become a successful democracy, would be oriented toward the West, would seek to join the European Union in NATO. Again, not because it's a military threat to Russia, but because it's a threat to him as the leader of an authoritarian state, to have this major country next door that was part of the Soviet Union, succeed as a democracy and succeed in a Western orientation. To me, that's the real issue, and that's what this has been about. He doesn't believe Ukraine has the right to exist as an independent state, and he certainly doesn't want to see it be a successful western oriented democracy.

31:45      KS: Jim Goldgeier, thank you for joining Big World and talking about NATO enlargement. As always, it's been a pleasure to speak with you.

31:52      JG: So great to be with you.

31:54      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like cherry blossom peak bloom that lasts for a whole month. Our theme music is "It was Just Cold" by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Jim Goldgeier,
professor and former dean, SIS

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