by Gordon M. Hahn
Western, especially NATO, officials and analysts are fond of telling Russians and others that Moscow has nothing to fear from NATO expansion and that it is or at least until the Ukraine crisis was not targeted at Russia. They insist that Russian national security remains unaffected by the expansion of world history’s most powerful military alliance along its borders. NATO expansion in fact is said to be a source of stability and a guarantee of Russian national security, since the expansion of a security zone for the Western democracies reduces fear in Eastern Europe and thus consolidates peace for both Europe and its neighbors. These claims in addition to being deceptive also rest on shaky theoretical and empirical ground.
Despite the Western assumption, democracy is not a permanent state once it is consolidated. Therefore, NATO’s claim that is creating a security zone by expanding its military alliance to democratizing states is unfounded. It was in this long-term context that Russia and many others elsewhere perceived NATO expansion as a potential threat to Russia, if Moscow’s interests were not taken into account in lieu of Russian membership in NATO first.
Two interdependent memes of American foreign policy are: (1) NATO expansion is not aimed at, and does not threaten Russia and (2) democracies, according to the ‘democratic peace’ theory, do not go to war with each other; hence the spread of democracy is an American national security interest. These two elements are interdependent in that NATO expansion allegedly expands the ‘community of democracies,’ precluding the possibility of war on the territories to which the military alliance expands.
Russia naturally is suspicious of the first, given the long history of repeated invasions of Russia by Western states. The second is a hypothesis with too small ‘N’—number of cases—for it to be considered a rule in the functioning of world politics. Democratic peace theory depends on the permanence of states’ intentions after they have consolidated democracy. As former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Schultz once noted, states should base their foreign and national security policies not on the intentions of other actors in the international system but rather on their capabilities. In other words, if an international actor—whether it be a state, an alliance, or a non-state actor—has a great military and other capacities, they constitute a threat. Intent should not be a guiding principle. If strong capacity remains constant while a democracy backslides into authoritarianism, benign intentions become malign, and a relationship shifts from one of comity to antagonism, the capacity which constituted a latent threat becomes operationalized and becomes a kinetic threat.
History shows that democracy can be as ephemeral as time. States in the process of democratization can experience economic difficulties, be plagued by inter-communal (interethnic and inter-confessional) strife, or pressured by external threats. Any one of these can undermine even long-consolidated democracies, not to mention recent democracies and democratizers. Democracies and republics can weaken, de-democratize, and devolve into authoritarianism. Ancient Greece and Rome, Weimar German and now NATO members Turkey and Poland are but a few examples.
Turkey: Sickman of NATO
Turkey has been headed in the wrong direction for more than a decade, and experienced military coups twice before since Ataturk’s revolution from above at the end of the First World War. In recent years under the rule of the Tayyip Erdogan’s and Justice and Development Party (JDP) the Turkish state has become more repressive, corrupt, and ideologically Islamist. Repression of free speech and media are under attack, with tens of journalists imprisoned. Most recently, the editor and journalist of major Turkish paper were charged with treason for exposing Erdogan’s transfer of weapons to jihadists in Syria. Erdogan has refused the Kurds autonomy and allows his military and security organs to carry out often brutal attacks on Kurdish villages. Corruption has mounted in and around Erdogan and his JDP for years, highlighted most recently by the involvement of Erdogan’s son in the oil trade between the Islamic State and Ankara.
Under pressure from the rise of the global jihadi revolutionary movement in the region and the opposition-oriented, quasi-Islamist Gulen movement, Erdogan has increasingly demonstrated support for radical elements including Hamas and more recently Syrian opposition groups such as Al Qa`ida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadi groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria, buying oil from IS and sending weapons and training rebels from other jihadi groups. Turkey is thus the main terrorist transit point for the Syrian and Iraqi jihadi theatre, and Ankara has made little to no effort to apprehend suspected and known jihadists from the Islamic world, Europe, Russia, and elsewhere in Eurasia who have taken refuge in, or transit through the country. Erdogan has attacked the most effective force in the fight against IS, the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq and Syria, and chose to shootdown a Russian fighter jet because of Moscow’s intervention on the side of the Bashyr Assad regime in Syria. More broadly in foreign policy, Erdogan has conducted a nationalistic, neo-Ottoman policy of seeking to maximize Turkish influence in territories formerly of the Ottoman Empire and belonging to Turkish-speaking peoples from Syria to Uzbekistan. None of Erdogan’s reactionary policies provoked so much as a dirty look from Washington or Brussels.
Poland’s Echoes of Pilsudski
Now Poland is following the path paved by the sick man of NATO. Having been one of the first three countries to accede to NATO membership after the Cold War’s end in 1997, Poland under Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) in recent weeks has subordinated Poland’s highest court to the executive branch and President Andzrej Duda, a crude violation of the basic democratic principle of the separation of powers. The government has nationalized public media, putting them under state control, and it has rewritten civil service law to allow political appointments to state bodies up through the highest level. It has also adopted increasingly nationalistic rhetoric on a series of issues from the immigration issue to EU centralization to foreign policy. The most radical elements seek a return of formerly Polish territories in western Ukraine. Others would prefer NATO more aggressively challenge Russian interests in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Even Poland’s long-time friend and supporter, Timothy Garton Ash, recently raised the alarm in a recent opinion peace, warning that the PiS intends to do “the dirty work of transforming the political system rapidly, even brutally” in order to bring a “dangerous turn in Poland” “with grave implications for the whole democratic west” (www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/07/polish-democracy-destroyed-constitution-media-poland?CMP=share_btn_fb). There is a precedent for such a devolution in Poland. After winning its independence after the First World War, Poland made a sharp turn away from democracy towards the militarist and ultra-nationalist rule of Marshal Josef Pilsudski. Poland’s recent turn is but a first step in this direction, but it nevertheless underscores the ultimate instability of all societies over in the long-term perspective.
In addition, recent violence connected with the refugee invasion into Europe is strengthening nationalist and even ultra-nationalist parties across Europe. These parties range from having less, little or no commitment to democracy, risking a general European backslide towards authoritarianism.
Therefore, if one buys the democratic peace hypothesis, then creeping re-authoritarianization in Turkey, Poland, and Europe—that is, in NATO—indicate a trend toward greater potential for conflict between NATO and other actors—most likely of all Russia.
As we can see NATO expansion does not necessarily guarantee increasing democracy and very likely not even permanent democracy among its member-states. Unlike American and most Western leaders, Russian decisionmakers have a long-term perspective both back and forward in time.
Both Turkey and Russia, moreover, have long histories of conflict with Russia. There have been some ten Russo-Turkish wars. In the early 17th century Poland became the first Western state to mount an invasion of Russia. The Poles were followed by Napoleon’s France and Hitler’s Germany, putting all the caveats of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and other aside.
Thus, there was not, is not, and realistically could not have been a guarantee that once NATO members democratized and joined NATO and the EU, all would be sunshine and roses. There could be no guarantees that there would be no conflicting interests between east and west. Indeed, the very policy of NATO expansion (most strongly championed by Warsaw) helped create the Ukrainian crisis and civil war that has brought Russia and NATO to the brink of conflict. The ‘unexpected’ (for some) Islamist wars of the Islamic ‘Spring’ have put Russia and NATO on another road to potential conflict, with a focal point becoming Turkey’s role in Syria and Iraq and its recent shootdown of the Russian war plane.
The eternal risk of conflict created by competing interests is precisely required taking into account Russia’s interests and perceptions when attempting to expand NATO. In leiu of such, conflict of some kind was inevitable. The growing meltdown in Europe is growing the risk of Russian-NATO conflict, with proxy wars already underway in Ukraine—at present rather latent—and Syria. If direct conflict occurs, Poland and/or Turkey are likely to be the flash points.
And the chief background cause? NATO expansion. In fact, by providing a perceived ‘security zone’ to member-states, NATO could very well encourage them to take unilateral military risks against Russian interests, such as occurred with nationalistic regimes such as Mikheil Saakashvili’s Georgia, Maidan Ukraine’s declaration of an ‘anti-terrorist’ operation against Donbass rebels (before they became Russian-backed), and Turkey’s shootdown of the Russian Su-24 fighter jet. Thus, rather then preventing conflict and war, NATO and its expansion are one of their main drivers.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Adjunct Professor and Senior Researcher, Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; a Contributor for Russia Direct, www.russia-direct.org; and an Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics. Dr. Hahn has taught Russian politics and other courses at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, St. Petersburg State (Russia), and San Francisco State Universities as well as the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, California. He also has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute. His website is http://www.gordonhahn.com.