A few weeks ago, in our first blog of the academic year, Steven Male compellingly argued for a more ethical foreign policy, and posited several suggestions as to how this may be achieved under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Within this piece however, there was one aspect that I found myself fundamentally disagreeing with – the idea that membership, and unquestioning support, of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), was absolutely key to any ethical foreign policy. I felt this played into the common, and flawed, assertion that Putin’s Russia is an expansionist, imperialist power bent on world domination, and that only NATO’s expansion could stop it. I, and in fact many pre-eminent scholars on Russia, including McCgwire, Rynning, and Karabeshkin, disagree with this, both on the idea that Russia is indulging in unprovoked expansion, and that NATO is either a protector of European security or an ethical body. This author believes that if NATO is to perform as an ethical body in foreign policy, or represent a genuine protector of European security, it must undergo a process of self-examination of its actual effectiveness, and a reappraisal of its behaviour.
If one actually glances objectively at areas of conflict in Europe, NATO is in fact a threat to, rather than a purveyor of, security. In Eastern Europe for instance, an area that has for centuries been seen as within Russia’s sphere of influence, NATO’s expansion has caused threats to sovereignty rather than alleviated them. One only has to look at the frozen conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine. In both cases, Russia has deemed these countries’ accession to either the EU or NATO as an unacceptable threat to its borders and its trade in the region, and so has launched limited frozen conflict campaigns. That these are not conquests but rather defensive moves is illustrated by their limited scale. They are tailored to fit two criteria. First, that they should destablise the country in question’s economy and national sovereignty just enough to prevent their accession to the transnational organisations. And, secondly, that they should not overextend Russia’s forces (who could not reasonably maintain a Ukraine sized colony anyway), nor cause enough damage for the West to intervene meaningfully. That these are provoked, rather than imperial actions is further illustrated by their timing. These incursions did not come out of the blue, but rather as a direct response to proposed NATO and EU expansion, which, it is important to note, was in direct contradiction of the Founding Act of 1997, in which NATO promised to expand no further than into Central Europe. This is not to excuse the actions of Putin’s Russia, but rather to be realistic about their causes.
Neither, in fact, does NATO enhance the wider European goal of ethical security. NATO’s expansion is, inevitably, causing increased Russian isolation. As the European Union and NATO become more involved within their own spaces and build stronger relationships between member states, Russia naturally feels and is in fact left out in the (Siberian) cold. This is preventing two major superpowers, the US and Russia, from dealing with cross-continental security issues. The key example of this lies not in Europe itself, but in the Middle East. For one, the frosty relations between Russia and the US, primarily caused by the expansion of NATO, are preventing any kind of unified response to the threat of the Islamic State, and without a unified response, no solution will be found. Perhaps even more concerning, the deteriorating relationship with Russia is preventing cross-continental aid for Russia in dealing with its decaying nuclear security systems, and this month, as a result, several Moldovans were arrested attempting to sell stolen Russian radioactive material to police officers posing as Islamic State members. This has terrifying potential.
Clearly then, NATO needs to pursue a different approach, both in order to protect the national sovereignty of those nations which border both it and Russia, and in order to enlist Russia in their cause against greater ethical threats. This approach, in this author’s opinion, needs to be characterized by a series of basic behavioural changes by NATO. Unfortunately, the boat has rather sailed on the best way to prevent Russian isolationism and defensiveness – including them in the first place, but there are other things that can be done. First, NATO has to be realistic not ideological. This needs to be based on the fairly obvious understanding that, although self-determination is a nice idea and that it would be lovely if all our friends could come and join NATO, the reality is that geopolitics is still alive and well and that if you go and put nuclear capable armed forces on the doorstep of a country that still considers itself a superpower, you are likely to be enhancing the threat to those countries’ sovereignty rather than decreasing it. This is exacerbated by the reality that Russia is aware of the fact that NATO’s bark is significantly worse than its bite. Any person that honestly thinks the Western alliance would go to war with Russia over any of the Baltic States need only look at the Munich Agreement to have some sense knocked into them. Encroaching on a superpower is a bad geopolitical idea in any peaceful circumstance, but if you’re not even willing to protect the nations in your treaty, then really there is no upside to NATO expansion whatsoever. It is simply an unnecessary and self-indulgent aggravation of Russia in the name of Western ideological supremacy. So firstly, this needs to stop. No more expansion.
The other key thing the West must do to bring Russia back on side is to actually stick to its terms. Vladimir Putin is widely held by the Western media to be unpredictable. In Russia, it is NATO that is seen as unpredictable. This is because at every expansion in NATO’s history, including the Founding Act of 1997 (NATO’s first proper relationship with Russia), NATO has promised to Russia that this will be the last one, but, like the last drunk in a bar, always comes back for just one more. This also, has to stop. If we expect Russia to crawl out of its isolationism, defensiveness and infringements on national sovereignty we must give it clear and long-term agreements that it knows it can trust.
It is crucial that the West has a good relationship with Russia in order to pursue ethical aims in its foreign policy, because without one, the national sovereignty of East European states will still be at risk and IS will remain unbeaten. The only way to secure this is a significant reevaluation of NATO’s role.
George Houghton, Spectrum Editor-in-Chief