Much ado about not doing much

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NATO is mostly defined by what its members won’t do. Leave well enough alone

This week’s NATO summit in Washington was unofficially dominated by the expectation of another gaffe that might end for good President Biden’s candidacy for reelection – and of course by the war in Ukraine.

Since Ukraine has dominated these annual summits ever since Russia invaded it in 2022 (and in some ways since 2014) without even being a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it is striking how much of the agonized discourse at them is about whether it should be made a member.

As we know, some believe Vladimir Putin attacked his neighbor mainly for fear that it might indeed otherwise become a member – bringing the alliance to within a day’s brisk drive from Moscow. So it seems worth examining, in honor of the summit ending Thursday, whether joining the 75-year-old alliance of 32 nations is such a big deal.

When people argue that it most certainly is, they are usually thinking of the treaty’s Article 5, which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Here’s exactly what it says: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them … will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.”

Read that carefully. If you take words as seriously as ChatGPT might, you’ll conclude that it’s saying this: If a NATO member is attacked, the other members shall be very cross indeed, and will take action “deemed necessary” which could include armed force. Does anyone have to take armed action? No, they do not. Conversely, is any NATO member prevented from taking armed action to help a non-NATO member? No, they are not.

So while there is no doubting the symbolic value of all this, or the declaration of potential willingness to intervene, it is mainly symbolic – while offering the members an organization for training, planning and collaborative execution whenever such is deemed needed.

Indeed, in the 1990s NATO bombed Yugoslavia, where no party to the conflict was a NATO member. And NATO did not go that far but still went pretty far indeed in the case of Ukraine, without Ukraine’s being a NATO member either.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent invasion in 2022, Western countries and NATO members have offered military assistance, training, financial aid, and diplomatic backing. The United States, European Union, and other NATO allies have provided Ukraine with advanced weaponry, ammunition, and crucial military equipment. Western military advisors have been integral in training Ukrainian forces, significantly enhancing their operational capabilities and effectiveness.

Moreover, substantial financial and humanitarian aid has been extended to support Ukraine’s economy and civilian population. These actions mirror the type of assistance that could be anticipated under NATO’s Article 5, emphasizing – obviously – that significant support is feasible even without formal alliance membership.

This support is driven by geopolitical interests, a commitment to upholding international norms, and a recognition of Ukraine’s strategic importance in the broader context of European security.

Indeed, Article 5 was invoked only once – in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. And even that instance reflected the messiness of geopolitics.

It was the reason NATO found itself embroiled in Afghanistan for 20 years, remaining there well after the Al Qaeda terrorist group that had found refuge there was smashed; in the end the Taliban, provider of that refuge, returned to power as the Western forces turned tail. The only invoking of Article 5 was basically a failure.

While NATO may nonetheless deter outside enemies – because of the ambiguity – the main effect is on its own members, and what they do not do: NATO members seem extremely unlikely to attack each other. That’s less trivial that may seem, considering that the two World Wars of last century were fought between members of the current alliance.

Putin probably understands all this – but much of the world does not. So when he makes a big deal of NATO membership for other countries, he is taken seriously and wins some sympathy.

That’s a shame, since his goal is nothing other than the vulgarity of making the world’s largest country by land mass bigger still, and reconstructing as much as he can of the Soviet empire. There is no reason to give him more pretexts for this project by making Ukraine a member of NATO, adding very little to what it already has.

The alliance is unwieldy enough as it is – for example including Turkey, which is usefully located geographically but is no longer the Western-leaning reliable partner it was when it was admitted.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an authoritarian who foments trouble in his region, plays a double game on Russia and tried his best to block Finland and Sweden from joining the alliance. This NATO member is not much of a friend of NATO.

Nor will the US president be a friend, should that president be Donald Trump again as of next January. He’ll just be looking to disrupt whatever came before or that cannot be controlled.

So with all of that in mind, I say leave well enough alone when it comes to the alliance. Make Ukraine instead a member of the European Union, which already reaches its borders and can make a serious difference for its people. That will offer a prosperity which is otherwise unattainable to them. No treaty can do that.

And as they observe the difference in quality of life between them and their future EU neighbor, Russians may stirred to useful action as well. They will certainly feel a serious incentive to cast off the specter that still haunts them.

 

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