Exit Strategies



Ukraine's announcement that it will pass a law that will bar the country from joining NATO has been greeted with barely concealed relief in Moscow, Paris, Berlin and Rome. It is also good news for the security interests of the United States. The time has come not only to give up on NATO expansion, but also to abolish the Alliance altogether.

Encouraging an impoverished, practically defenseless nation such as Ukraine to join a military alliance directed against the superpower next door, thereby stretching a nuclear tripwire between them, had never been a sound strategy. Article V of the NATO Charter states that an attack on one is an attack on all, and offers automatic guarantee of aid to an ally in distress. The U.S. would supposedly provide its protective cover to a new client, right in Russia's geopolitical backyard, in an area that had never been deemed vital to America's security interests.

From the realist perspective, accepting Ukraine into NATO would mean one of two things: either the United States is serious that it would risk a thermonuclear war for the sake of, say, the status of Sebastopol, which is insane; or the United States is not serious, which would be frivolous and dangerous.

President Clinton tried to evade the issue, over a decade ago, by questioning the meaning of words and asserting that Article V "does not define what actions constitute 'an attack' or prejudge what Alliance decisions might then be made in such circumstances." He claimed the right of the United States "to exercise individual and collective judgment over this question."

Such fudge cannot be the basis of serious policy. It evokes previous Western experiments with security guarantees in the region -- leading to Czechoslovakia's carve-up in 1938, and to Poland's destruction in September 1939 -- which warn us that promises nonchalantly given today may turn into bounced checks or smoldering cities tomorrow. After more than seven decades, the lesson of is clear: security guarantees not based on the provider's resolve to fight a fully blown war to fulfill them, are worse than no guarantees at all. It would be dangerously naïve to assume that the United States, financially and militarily overextended, would indeed honor the guarantee under Article V, or assume responsibility for open-ended maintenance of potentially disputed frontiers (say in the Crimea) that were drawn arbitrarily by the likes of Khrushchev and bear little relation to ethnicity or history,

A necessary and successful alliance during the Cold War, NATO is obsolete and harmful today. It no longer provides collective security -- an attack against one is an attack against all -- of limited geographic scope (Europe) against a predatory totalitarian power (the USSR). Instead, NATO has morphed into a vehicle for the attainment of misguided American strategic objectives on a global scale. Further expansion would merely cement and perpetuate its new, U.S.-invented "mission" as a self-appointed promoter of democracy, protector of human rights, and guardian against instability outside its original area. It was on those grounds, rather than in response to any supposed threat, that the Clinton administration pushed for the admission of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary in 1996, and President Bush brought in the Baltic republics, Bulgaria, and Rumania in 2004.

Bill Clinton's air war against the Serbs, which started 11 years ago (March 24, 1999), marked a decisive shift in NATO's mutation from a defensive alliance into a supranational security force based on the doctrine of "humanitarian intervention." The trusty keeper of the gate of 1949 had morphed into a roaming vigilante five decades later.

The limits of American power became obvious in August 2008. Saakashvili's attack on South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, was an audacious challenge to Russia, to which she responded forcefully. Moscow soon maneuvered Washington into a position of weakness unseen since the final days of the Carter presidency three decades ago. The Europeans promptly brokered a truce that was pleasing to Moscow and NATO's expansion along the Black Sea was effectively stalled, with no major Continental power willing to risk further complications with Russia. They understood the need for a sane relationship with Moscow that acknowledges that Russia has legitimate interests in her "near-abroad."

America, Russia and NATO -- The Soviet Union came into being as a revolutionary state that challenged any given status quo in principle, starting with the Comintern and ending three generations later with Afghanistan. Some of its aggressive actions and hostile impulses could be explained in light of "traditional" Russian need for security; at root, however, there was always an ideology unlimited in ambition and global in scope.

At first, the United States tried to appease and accommodate the Soviets (1943-46), then moved to containment in 1947, and spent the next four decades building and maintaining essentially defensive mechanisms -- such as NATO -- designed to prevent any major change in the global balance.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has been trying to articulate her goals and define her policies in terms of "traditional" national interests. The old Soviet dual-track policy of having "normal" relations with America, on the one hand, while seeking to subvert her, on the other, gave way to naïve attempts by Boris Yeltsin's foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev to forge a "partnership" with the United States.

By contrast, the early 1990s witnessed the beginning of America's futile attempt to assert her status as the only global "hyperpower." The justification for their project was as ideological, and the implications were as revolutionary as anything concocted by Zinoviev or Trotsky in their heyday. In essence, the United States adopted her own dual-track approach. When Mikhail Gorbachev's agreement was needed for German reunification, President George H.W. Bush gave a firm and public promise that NATO wound not move eastward. Within years, however, Bill Clinton expanded NATO to include all the former Warsaw Pact countries of Central Europe. On a visit to Moscow in 1996, Clinton even wondered if he had gone too far, confiding to Strobe Talbott, "We keep telling Ol' Boris, 'Okay, now here's what you've got to do next -- here's some more [sh-t] for your face.'"

Instead of declaring victory and disbanding the alliance in the early 1990s, the Clinton administration successfully redesigned it as a mechanism for open-ended out-of-area interventions at a time when every rationale for its existence had disappeared. Following the air war against Serbia almost a decade ago, NATO's area of operations became unlimited, and its "mandate" entirely self-generated. The Clinton administration agreed that NATO faced "no imminent threat of attack," yet asserted that a larger NATO would be "better able to prevent conflict from arising in the first place" and - presumably alluding to the Balkans -- better able to address "rogue states, the poisoned appeal of extreme nationalism, and ethnic, racial, and religious hatreds." How exactly an expanded NATO could have prevented conflicts in Bosnia or Chechnya or Nagorno Karabakh had remained unexplained.

Another round of NATO expansion came under George W. Bush, when three former Soviet Baltic republics were admitted. In April 2007, he signed the Orwellian-sounding NATO Freedom Consolidation Act, which extended U.S. military assistance to aspiring NATO members, specifically Georgia and Ukraine. Further expansion, according to former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, was "historically mandatory, geopolitically desirable." A decade earlier, Brzezinski readily admitted that NATO's enlargement was not about U.S. security in any conventional sense, but "about America's role in Europe - whether America will remain a European power and whether a larger democratic Europe will remain organically linked to America." Such attitude is the source of endless problems for America and Europe alike.

President Obama and his foreign policy team have failed to grasp that a problem exists, let alone to act to rectify it. There has been a change of officials, but the regime is still the same - and America is still in need of a new grand strategy. Limited in objectives and indirect in approach, it should seek security and freedom for the United States without maintaining, let alone expanding, unnecessary foreign commitments.

The threat to Europe's security does not come from Russia or from a fresh bout of instability in the Balkans. The real threat to Europe's security and to her survival comes from Islam, from the deluge of inassimilable Third World immigrants, and from collapsing birthrates. All three are due to the moral decrepitude and cultural degeneracy, not to any shortage of soldiers and weaponry. The continued presence of a U.S. contingent of any size can do nothing to alleviate these problems, because they are cultural, moral and spiritual.

NATO: unnecessary and harmful -- In terms of a realist grand strategy, NATO is detrimental to U.S. security. It forces America to assume at least nominal responsibility for open-ended maintenance of a host of disputed frontiers that were drawn, often arbitrarily, by Communist dictators, long-dead Versailles diplomats, and assorted local tyrants, and which bear little relation to ethnicity, geography, or history. With an ever-expanding NATO, eventual adjustments -- which are inevitable -- will be more potentially violent for the countries concerned and more risky for the United States. America does not and should not have any interest in preserving an indefinite status quo in the region.

Clinton's 1999 war against Serbia was based on the his own doctrine of "humanitarian intervention," which claimed the right of the United States to use military force to prevent or stop alleged human rights abuses as defined by Washington. This doctrine explicitly denied the validity of long-established norms -- harking back to 1648 Westphalia -- in favor of a supposedly higher objective. It paved the way for the pernicious Bush Doctrine of preventive war and "regime change" codified in the 2002 National Security Strategy.

The Clinton-Bush Doctrine represented the global extension of the Soviet model of relations with Moscow's satellites applied in the occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Ideological justification was provided by the Brezhnev Doctrine, defined by its author as the supposed obligation of the socialist countries to ensure that their actions should not "damage either socialism in their country or the fundamental interests of other socialist countries." "The norms of law cannot be interpreted narrowly, formally, in isolation from the general context of the modern world," Brezhnev further claimed. By belonging to the "socialist community of nations," its members had to accept that the USSR -- the leader of the "socialist camp" -- was not only the enforcer of the rules but also the judge of whether and when an intervention was warranted. No country could leave the Warsaw Pact or change its communist party's monopoly on power.

More than three decades after Prague 1968 the USSR was gone and the Warsaw Pact dismantled, but the principles of the Brezhnev Doctrine are not defunct. They survive in the neoliberal guise.

In 1991 the Maastricht Treaty speeded up the erosion of EU member countries' sovereignty by transferring their prerogatives to the Brussels regime of unelected bureaucrats. The passage of NAFTA was followed by the 1995 Uruguay round of GATT that produced the WTO. The nineties thus laid the foundation for the new, post-national order. By early 1999 the process was sufficiently far advanced for President Bill Clinton to claim in The New York Times in May 1999 that, had it not bombed Serbia, "NATO itself would have been discredited for failing to defend the very values that give it meaning." This was but one way of restating Brezhnev's dictum that "the norms of law cannot be interpreted narrowly, formally, in isolation from the general context of the modern world."

Like his Soviet predecessor, Clinton used an abstract and ideologically loaded notion as the pretext to act as he deemed fit, but no "interests of world socialism" could beat "universal human rights" when it came to determining where and when to intervene. The key difference between Brezhnev and Clinton was in the limited scope of the Soviet leader's self-awarded outreach. His doctrine applied only to the "socialist community," as opposed to the unlimited, potentially world-wide scope of "defending the values that give NATO meaning." The "socialist community" led by Moscow stopped on the Elbe, after all. It was replaced by the "International Community" led by Washington, which stops nowhere.

The subsequent Bush Doctrine still stands as the ideological pillar and self-referential framework for the policy of permanent global interventionism. It precludes any meaningful debate about the correlation between ends and means of American power: we are not only wise but virtuous; our policies are shaped by "core values" which are axiomatic, and not by prejudices.

The Axis of Instability -- The mantra's neocon-neolib upholders are blind to the fact that, after a brief period of American mono-polar dominance (1991-2008), the world's distribution of power is now characterized by asymmetric multipolarity. It is the most unstable model of international relations, which -- as history teaches us -- may lead to a major war.

As I wrote in takimag.com a year ago, during the Cold War the world system was based on the model of bipolarity based on the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). The awareness of both superpowers that they would inflict severe and unavoidable reciprocal damage on each other was coupled with the acceptance that each had a sphere of dominance or vital interest that should not be infringed upon. Proxy wars were fought in the grey zone all over the Third World, most notably in the Middle East, but they were kept localized even when a superpower was directly involved. Potentially lethal crises (Berlin 1949, Korea 1950, Cuba 1963) were de-escalated due to the implicit rationality of both sides' decision-making calculus. The bipolar model was the product of unique circumstances without an adequate historical precedent, however, which are unlikely to be repeated.

The most stable model of international relations that is both historically recurrent and structurally repeatable in the future is the balance of power system in which no single great power is either physically able or politically willing to seek hegemony. This model was prevalent from the Peace of Westphalia (1648) until Napoleon, and again from Waterloo until around 1900. It is based on a relative equilibrium between the key powers that hold each other in check and function within a recognized set of rules. Wars do occur, but they are limited in scope and intensity because the warring parties tacitly accept the fundamental legitimacy and continued existence of their opponent(s).

If one of the powers becomes markedly stronger than others and if its decision-making elite internalizes an ideology that demands or at least justifies hegemony, the inherently unstable system of asymmetrical multipolarity will develop. In all three known instances -- Napoleonic France after 1799, the Kaiserreich in 1914, and the Third Reich after 1933 -- the challenge could not be resolved without a major war. Fore the past two decades, the U.S. has been acting in a similar manner. Having proclaimed itself the leader of an imaginary "international community," it goes further than any previous would-be hegemon in treating the entire world as the American sphere of interest. Bush II is gone, but we are still stuck with the doctrine that allows open-ended political, military, and economic domination by the United States acting unilaterally and pledged "to keep military strength beyond challenge."

Any attempt by a single power to keep its military strength beyond challenge is inherently destabilizing.  Neither Napoleon nor Hitler knew any "natural" limits, but their ambition was confined to Europe. With the United States today, the novelty is that this ambition is extended literally to the whole world. Not only the Western Hemisphere, not just the "Old Europe," Japan, or Israel, but also unlikely places like Kosovo or the Caucasus, are considered vitally important. The globe itself is now effectively claimed as America's sphere of influence

The U.S. became the agent of revolutionary dynamism with global ambitions, in the name of ideological norms of "democracy, human rights and open markets," and NATO is the enforcement mechanism of choice. That neurotic dynamism is resisted by the emerging coalition of weaker powers, acting on behalf of the essentially "conservative" principles of state sovereignty, national interest, and reaffirmation of the right to their own spheres of geopolitical dominance. The doctrine of global interventionism is bound to produce an effective counter-coalition. The neoliberal-neoconservative duopoly still refuses to grasp this fact. Ukraine's decision to give up its NATO candidacy makes a modest but welcome contribution to the long-overdue return of sanity inside the Beltway "foreign policy community."