The “North Atlantic” Treaty Organization (“NA”TO), otherwise known as NATO, continues to expand. I do not mean expanding its membership to the former USSR and its bloc necessarily, though I wrote years ago about the dynamic of alliance expansion once begun practically forced to do so eternally by the logic of protecting its ever new flanks (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/05/21/the-internal-logic-of-eternal-nato-expansion/). That ongoing process remains in limbo or a nascent state, rather than an imminent or kinetic one because of Russian resistance. Expansion in this direction is now but a NATO desire, an intent requiring an opening for it to become possible. Nevertheless, NATO expansion remains eternal, and the alliance finds new ways to expand in the interim.
Standard is the unending partnership programs with countries from across the globe, involving training, officer education, joint maneuvers, and the like. NATO has extended its expansion efforts from across Europe and into Eurasia, and it is now extending them to global scale. The old debate about whether world history’s most powerful military alliance should conduct ‘out-of-area’ military operations seems rather quaint nowadays. This is being driven by the US’s proclivity to regard any place on the planet to be a sphere of American vital interests needing military methods of various kinds for reinforcement
This end game is the result of a crawling mission creep. From the end of the Cold War, NATO claimed the entire post-Soviet space as its purview, and NATO carried out military operations in Yugoslavia, Serbia, and Kosova. It created partnerships and carried out military exchanges, training and maneuvers with states all across Eurasia. Moreover, it recruited and accepted 14 new members across Eastern and Southeastern Europe [Greece and Türkiye (1952), Germany (1955), Spain (1982), Czechia, Hungary and Poland (1999), Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia (2004), Albania and Croatia (2009), Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020)], moving persistently ever closer to Russia’s borders and then from the Baltics in the north moving to expand all along Russia’s western and southwestern borders from Ukraine to Georgia. Make no mistake about the fact that Moldova, Azerbaijan, and Armenia are on NATO’s dating list.
NATO expansion of its membership – NATO expansion proper – was delayed and then halted (temporarily Washington and Brussels hope) as a result of Russia’s strong resistance first rhetorically under Boris Yeltsin and actively under Vladimir Putin, respectively. In other words, NATO wishes but cannot begin bringing Ukraine or Georgia into NATO because of Russian actions in Georgia in August 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014-2023. The Ukraine war is about NATO expansion, as Russia’s pre-February 2024 demand of the West to renounce plans to incorporate Ukraine into NATO and the West’s refusal to do so then and going back decades.
At the same time, NATO quickly got over its Cold War era reluctance to engage in out-of-area operations. This happened with no public debate and little internal debate, decided in Washington by the Clinton and yunger Bush admonistrations and accepted by later administrations and the US’s NATO allies. NATO began to fight wars far outside the North Atlantic region and community: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and for all intents in Syria and Ukraine.
But NATO is now expanding in a newer way and direction now that Washington sees China as ultimately its main challenger. NATO seems poised to be deployed worldwide, supplemented by a series of other international military structures.
In June NATO declared China a security threat falling within its purview, bringing NATO’s scope squarely into Asia, a Pacific power, not an Atlantic one (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/30/nato-leaders-voice-concern-about-threat-china-poses-to-world-order-for-first-time). This coincided with US discussions to place the China threat at the center of its national security strategy. At the same time, NATO’s Madrid summit in June – with the leaders of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea — in attendance for the first time – declared: “Our common resolve in responding to Russia’s war against Ukraine highlights the strength of this unique and essential partnership. The participation of our partners from the Asia-Pacific region, alongside other partners, demonstrated the value of our cooperation in tackling shared security challenges. … “We will now move ahead with strengthening our engagement with existing and potential new interlocutors beyond the Euro-Atlantic area. … We will also enhance our capacity-building support to partners from the South. In addition, it announced “new measures to step up tailored political and practical support to partners, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and the Republic of Moldova” and its decision to invite Finland and Sweden to become members of NATO (https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_196951.htm?selectedLocale=en). Simultaneously, NATO produced a new 2022 Stratetic Concept, in which it noted: “The 2022 NATO Strategic Concept identifies the Indo-Pacific as important for the North Atlantic Alliance, given that developments in that region can directly affect Euro Atlantic security, and so the evolution of the international security system will require the Alliance to adopt its global outlook and approach” (https://www.act.nato.int/articles/strategic-foresight-regional-perspectives-report-indo-pacific#:~:text=The%202022%20NATO%20Strategic%20Concept%20identifies%20the%20Indo-Pacific,Alliance%20to%20adopt%20its%20global%20outlook%20and%20approach).
In February, NATO’s General Secretary kicked off an effort to make new “friends” for the alliance in Asia, in Japan. “Security is not regional but global.” “NATO needs to make sure we have friends.” “It is important to work more closely with our partners in the Indo-Pacific” (https://thediplomat.com/2023/02/nato-chief-wants-more-indo-pacific-friends-as-russia-china-move-closer/). Clearly, NATO will move to cooperate with new ‘Asian NATOs’ such as AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US), a military alliance formed in September 2021, and QUAD (India, Japan, Australia and the United States) a military and diplomatic alliance formed in 2007, with Australia withdrawing from it in 2008 because it excluded China and rejoining in 2021.
NATO’s operational and, who knows, perhaps membership expansion into Asia and the South marks a reinforcement and further militarization of the global schism dividing the West writ large (Japan, Australia, South Korea) and the Sino-Russian alliance meeting growing success in gathering more and more of the ‘rest’ against the West.
Mission creep continues to yield more mission creep. Now, with the Hamas-Israeli war in Gaza threatening to break out into a regional, even more global war, NATO has new opportunities in the Muslim world, with a foot in the door already set by the presence of US troops in Syria.
When NATO began its post-Cold War expansion, pro-Western Russian President Boris Yeltsin objected, once telling US President Bill Clinton that he “saw nothing but humiliation for Russia” if Washington and Brussels broke those promises US and other Western leaders had made to the USSR at the time of German reunification not to expand “one inch” beyond East Germany. Like former US State Department Russia hand George Kennan, he warned it would “sow the seeds of mistrust” and “be interpreted, and not only in Russia, as the beginning of a new split in Europe.” The Duma (the Russian parliament) declared NATO expansion to be “the largest military threat to our country over the last fifty years.” We can expect both Russia and, more dangerously, China to react in a similar way to the formation of powerful military alliances around its periphery.
EUROPE BOOKS, 2022
MCFARLAND BOOKS, 2021
MCFARLAND BOOKS, 2018
About the Author –
Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu
Dr. Hahn is the author of the new book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored five previous, well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group.