August 29, 2017

In his new Brookings Marshall Paper, Michael O’Hanlon argues that now is the time for Western nations to negotiate a new security architecture for neutral countries in eastern Europe to stabilize the region and reduce the risks of war with Russia. The core concept of this new security architecture would be one of permanent neutrality. 

beyond nato












Why did you write this book and why now? 

I’ve been a skeptic on NATO expansion frankly ever since the early post-Cold war years. In a sense, I put my marker out there early on the subject and advised against it, but as time went on NATO did a lot of enlargement rounds and became very popular in a bipartisan sense. We had the big rounds of expansion in the late Clinton years and then in the early Bush years. We also had the 911 attacks and focused largely on the Middle East for security challenges. Much of that period of time I was doing other things myself, and it didn’t seem as urgent to try to stop the NATO expansion.

The Ukraine crisis reintroduced U.S.-Russia relations as a top tier security issue and also made it possible to consider writing this kind of a book. I didn’t want to sympathize with Putin or justify his aggression against Ukraine because of this whole historical narrative. Nonetheless, he did raise the visibility of the issue and made it possible, and arguably necessary, to rethink our basic assumptions about what we were doing with European security.

I began to write when Donald Trump was elected president, which was a coincidence. I didn’t think that Trump would win when I started the book, and I would’ve wanted to make the argument anyway. One way or another Trump’s presidency may sort of reflect a more fundamental questioning of our basic assumptions about American foreign policy.

I’m not sure if that makes my idea any more realistic now but it creates a little bit more of a conversation. Now, unfortunately, the Russian role in the 2016 elections has made it harder to talk about this issue because people think you are apologizing for Putin or taking Russia’s side and that’s the last thing I want to do. In that sense, it’s not easier to have this debate in 2017 and I believe it’s going to be hard to get the debate going.

The key principle that you outline in your book is the concept of permanent neutrality. Could you outline this concept in further detail? 

The idea on permanent neutrality is a part of the main idea in my book but it’s not the only part of the idea. If it were the only main idea, then this would be essentially a concession to Putin. By saying that Sweden and Finland, ideally, but certainly Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and then perhaps Cyprus, and the Balkans, or the part of the Balkans not currently in NATO, these areas and these countries would be permanently neutral. They would not join NATO and if they did join the European Union they would agree that the security provisions of the European Union would not apply to them in a literal sense, like Article 5. That’s part of the main idea and so it is sort of like Sweden in its current state, or Switzerland or Austria. Permanent neutrality, negotiated, first to get all the NATO countries to agree, this is a good idea then to reach out to the neutral countries, and only then to reach out to Russia to try to negotiate this.

My concept would require that Russia negotiates acceptable terms for disengagement from Ukraine and Georgia in particular, and probably pull its troops out of Transnistria region of Moldova as well. Although, on that issue, and even some of the others, I’m not suggesting that the only acceptable outcome would be for Russia to leave. If Russia could negotiate some kind of understanding with these countries, then we could live with that too and I don’t expect that Russia is going to leave Crimea.

I’ll acknowledge that I’ve had more critics than supporters by a long shot from the countries that I’m talking about. I think some of those countries need to ask if they really think it’s realistic they’re going to get it to NATO. I would argue that the current policy is not giving these countries a very good deal and that we have actually gotten ourselves stuck in a very unfortunate place and we’re not likely to get unstuck. We’re not likely to offer them membership anytime soon so my proposal is better for them than the current policy. That’s why it’s more than just permanent neutrality that I’m talking about.

One of the most pressing contemporary challenges for Europe and the U.S. is effectively dealing with Russia’s digital intelligence playbook known as “active measures,” that includes tools and techniques to influence the affairs of nations across the globe. What makes you think that Russia will not interfere in the affairs of the neutral states once the new security framework is established?

Russia is indeed doing a lot of things around the world to try to influence countries through digital electronic propaganda purposes. We have to expect that Russia will continue that even if this new security architecture were somehow negotiated. One of the things I say very quickly to anybody who’s asking me about this concept and if I’m going to trust Putin, I say of course not. I don’t even think that I would trust Putin after this was negotiated, should it ever be possible. I don’t want to stop doing anything that we’re doing now.

For example, the European reassurance initiative, the greater NATO military presence in the Baltics and in Poland. I think that needs to continue and our cyber defenses need to improve. Our ability to counter Russia’s disinformation campaigns needs to improve, including using the same kind of tools back against Russia that they might use against us.

You are suggesting that the West should be willing to move beyond Crimea. Do you think Russia’s transgressions in Crimea should be forgiven?

I’m not suggesting we forgive this by any means. In fact, one of the fundamental reasons why I expect it to take a long time for the U.S. and Russia to get along well, it is precisely because I don’t think my proposal could undo the Crimea mess. Nor do I think it could undo the fact that Putin has suppressed, and maybe even killed off some of his own domestic political opposition. I think Putin is fundamentally an anti-democratic leader and an aggressive leader abroad.

However, if we can reduce the ongoing catalyst for further deterioration of the relationship, then we will have made the world a safer place. That’s my goal. It’s somewhat more modest. I think we probably have to, at a minimum, refuse to recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea and never attend meetings or other events that would be officially held there. We may even need to keep some limited sanctions on Russia over Crimea as a reaffirmation of principle.

What is your response to the advocates of the NATO expansion and how would you define the future role of the alliance?

Most alliances do not see it as their raison d’etre to expand. I’m not suggesting that NATO is imperialistic, but the ideology of expansion as an inherent goal or purpose of the alliance, strikes me as bizarre. Other alliances are created within a group of countries that have a common purpose and set of goals, and purpose for operating together. Whether it’s our Middle Eastern association with the Gulf Cooperation Council, or the RIO pact, or the way in which we’re trying to more strongly link the existing bilateral alliances in East Asia together. Those all have specific members associated with them, and we’re not typically trying to increase the membership.

Somehow with NATO, we’ve deluded ourselves. I think it’s just a delusion into thinking that the alliance must expand. People will go back to Article 10 of the 1949 Washington treaty which says that “should it be conducive to the improvement of the European security other members could be brought in.” Well, yes, “should it be conducive to the Improvement of European security” – that is the key phrase–Article 10 doesn’t say we shall expand because expansion is good. It says it shall expand if expansion would be stabilizing and good for the security of the continent and it was also obviously written during the Cold War.

Presumably, when circumstances changed so fundamentally, you might rethink this phrase. But even if you interpreted it literally, what it says is that you must ask whether an expansion is going to strengthen Western security.

I would submit we all need to go back to our original documents, go back to original basic logic, and rethink our assumptions. It’s not because I want to leave any of those countries out in the cold. They are sovereign countries that should have every right of a sovereign nation. But alliances are not part of that list of choices. There’s nothing in the UN Charter that says nations shall have the right to join alliances of their choosing if they wish. Alliances are constructed for specific purposes and they’re different than any other organization or any other kind of sovereign state right, and that’s what I’m trying to get at in my argument.

How do you respond to arguments that Russia is a revanchist power that seeks to reclaim its areas of influence? Do you consider the possibility that Russia might view the new proposal as a temporary agreement that can be rejected or violated later?

I do agree that Russia is a revanchist power and that any kind of willingness by Moscow to negotiate this kind of an agreement might be only temporary. One of the things I suggest in the book as a counter to that concern is that NATO might state that once this new architecture was in place, it would no longer have the same policy of expecting countries to resolve territorial disputes with neighbors before bringing them into the alliance.

In the future, if Russia slices off a piece of Georgia, then I could imagine a very rapid NATO decision to invite the rest of Georgia into NATO. Perhaps Putin wakes up overnight to find that we’ve got the 82 Airborne Division in central Georgia, just like we woke up overnight to find that he had “little green men” in Crimea. Obviously, I’m not hoping for that outcome. The whole spirit of what I’m proposing is designed to work in the other direction.

But to counter the concern here, we might need to clarify that if Russia violates the terms of these negotiations in the future, then not only would we re-impose the sanctions and tear up the treaty and our promise to respect future neutrality, but we might hasten the NATO membership of the very countries that Putin no longer had any excuse for messing around in. One may say today in his mind he has an excuse, because he thinks that we want to bring his part of the world into NATO.

It’s not just a question of insisting on keeping his own sphere of influence; we’re trying to take his country into our sphere of influence in his mind. I’m proposing a neutrality concept that would have them being in neither sphere of influence. If he violates that whole set of assumptions, and having been promised that we will respect that neutrality, he is the one that violated with no plausible pretext or rationale.

I’m not justifying what he’s doing today. But, in his own mind, there is a narrative that justifies it in the future. This security architecture would’ve taken this narrative away, and if then a future Russian leader, or Putin himself, were to violate the sovereignty of one of these countries, then, if we decided it’s in our interest, we can not only impose even tougher sanctions, but consider the idea of expedited NATO membership for the country that’s been otherwise attacked.

It might be too late if he takes the whole country, but right now we’re not offering those nations Article 5 guarantees anyway. I don’t really think we should because I don’t think it helps our security to promise a tiny Caucasus country of three or four million people airtight Article 5 protection. I just don’t see why that makes the world a safer place. It may make some Georgians feel a little better, but it may also increase the risk that Russia wants to prove to us that we can’t do that and therefore put Georgia in the crosshairs again.

Right now we don’t have an Article 5 promise to Georgia, we have anything but. With my concept, I think not only do we reduce the likelihood that Putin will feel the need to attack Georgia out of opposition to us, but even if he does attack it in the future, then we have other mechanisms that we can more quickly justify employing because it won’t be ambiguous whose fault it was at that point.

Read the full interview here.

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