Stephen Walt and a ‘realist’ take on NATO membership for Ukraine

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It's true that if Ukraine was added to NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin would be much less likely to send troops into Eastern Ukraine, knowing that it would tantamount to declaring war on NATO.

Writing for the journal Foreign Policy, international relations scholar Stephen Walt of Harvard lays out the way “realists” should look at the idea of adding Ukraine to NATO.

In my own previous post on the Crimea portion of the Russia/Ukraine problem, I argued that it would not be worth risking a U.S.-Russia war over the Crimea, especially considering that most residents of Crimea preferred to be under Russian sovereignty. But I also mentioned in passing the idea, which was already coming under discussion, of whether Ukraine should be brought into the NATO alliance, which would require the United States and its European allies to come to the aide of Ukraine if Russia committed future acts of aggression.

Realists are a school of relatively unsentimental foreign-policy thinkers who reduce most questions to power and interests. Nations are inherently more concerned about their interests, especially economic and military, and use their power to advance their concrete interests much more than they care about abstractions like spreading democracy or promoting peace or international law. Much of what reaches the general public about international relations suggests that it is a morality play about good and evil. Realists do not.

Walt delivers a realist appraisal of the idea of adding Ukraine to NATO. It includes this hard-headed paragraph:

When the United States supports letting another state into NATO, therefore, it is saying that it is willing to send its citizens to fight and possibly die to defend that foreign country. Any commitment of that sort should immediately make one stop and think carefully. Just because a country’s leaders or its people want an alliance with the United States does not mean it is in the U.S. interest to let them have it.

It’s true, on the one hand, that if Ukraine was added to NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin would be much less likely to send troops into Eastern Ukraine, knowing that it would tantamount to declaring war on NATO. But Walt wants Americans to think carefully because while providing a disincentive to Putin, such a change in NATO membership also provides one more, and an especially dangerous way, to get into a war with Russia.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/26/2014 - 10:27 am.

    The game’s already over

    Western Europe gets 40% of their oil and natural gas from Russia’s pipelines that run through Ukraine.

    Do you think Angela Merkel, et al. are going to risk losing that oil and gas in a dispute with Putin? I don’t.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/26/2014 - 01:51 pm.

      And Russia

      gets most of its income form that trade.
      Do you think that the oligarchs are going to let Putin risk their income?
      A lot of public woofing, and a lot of back channel agreements to keep mutually profitable trade going.

      And note that the Eurozone’s economy is about six times the size of Russia’s.
      So if you eliminate all of the Europe/Russia trade, Europe has most of its economy left, while Russia is wiped out.

      Europe is dependent on Russian gas right now, but this is a relatively recent development. All Saudi Arabia (still by far the world’s biggest petroleum reserves) has to do is open the spigot a bit (since they deliberately limit their production) and they can make up for any Russian cuts. Again, it will cost Europe, but it will cost Russia a lot more.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/26/2014 - 11:09 am.

    In other words

    Admitting Ukraine to NATO vastly increases NATO’s stakes in the international game of chicken.
    At the present, if Putin invades Ukraine, we have the option of assessing the situation and our costs and benefits, and deciding whether Russia’s specific action is worth a military reaction.

    Once Ukraine is a NATO member, not defending it would weaken NATO’s credibility to the point where it might no longer be a viable deterrent to Russian aggression. Do we want to back ourselves into that corner?

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/26/2014 - 11:27 am.

    It was all about the naval base–it was cheaper and faster to hold a snap referendum in Crimea than to build a comparable facility on Russian territory across the Sea.

    There was absolutely no way Russia would let the naval base fall under NATO or near-NATO control. It is the only possible service base for their navy in that portion of the world now that the future of Syria (other base location) is uncertain.

    I doubt that their conquest interests extend further because it is clear that Russia has huge and sufficient leverage in ALL of Europe due to their energy supply monopoly.

    War is so “last-century”. Why use your guns when you have popular votes and economic leverage?

    However, now that Putin has confirmed the power of democracy look for similar tactics in other areas where they might have interests. Look for higher penetration of RT into ALL media markets–propaganda all the time.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/26/2014 - 01:05 pm.

      to strengthen your point

      Russia’s Syria base has no direct land link to Russian territory.
      Russia has land on the Black Sea coast, but not harbors.
      Crimea provides Russia’s ONLY warm weather port.

    • Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 03/26/2014 - 03:32 pm.

      Just like

      Fox News?

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/26/2014 - 05:04 pm.

    Another issue: “who’s the new NATO member of the week?”

    The U.S. and NATO should have fundamental long-standing interests in common amongst its members, across the spectrum of political, economic, and cultural compatibility.

    If a new NATO membership is contemplated for every ephemeral crisis, pretty soon people will clamor to bring Malaysia or the Phillipines into NATO, to oppose Chinese interests.

    This is not a good idea.

  5. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/26/2014 - 08:30 pm.

    Who is Walt

    The question of bringing Ukraine and other countries into NATO is complicated and can be debated forever. I personally do not have a strong opinion and therefore will not get into that debate. However, I want to correct Stephen Walt’s definition as a “realist.” He, along with people like Pat Buchanan, is an isolationists but with a twist. People like him always defend, and advocate engagement with, despotic and dictatorial regimes such as Russia and Iran despite their killing freedom and people. On the other hand, they view Israel as the worst country ever despite its being the only free one in the Middle East which makes me think that they have some hidden reason for that.

    The main idea of people like Walt is to let the strong in the world do and have what they want so America doesn’t get involved. Obviously, letting Iran and Russia have what they want is absolutely not realistic from the point that it will be very detrimental to America’s future. And we are not talking about moral issues here – I also think that in international relationships moral should not have much of a say – we are talking about security and prosperity of America. So this is the way I would characterized Walt: An isolationist who doesn’t understand how the world works.

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