Recently, Adam Twardowski of the Center for a New American Security wrote a piece arguing that NATO is not a threat to Russia. His argument that “NATO has never been an existential threat to post-Soviet Russia” is mostly conjecture and has been answered by Ted Carpenter here. But both pieces fail to discuss why Russia considers NATO a threat, and that is the security’s alliance role in the larger liberal project lead by the United States.
Since 1945, the United States has embarked on what John Ikenberry calls an “open and ruled based” international order characterized by multilateral institutions, market based economies, and democracy. The variety of western institutions which define this order are open to all yet membership is with conditions. It’s expected that states that join adhere to liberal values both politically and economically. This means being democratic with a market economy. The American strategic vision of the post Cold War era has been to make our liberal hegemonic project more inclusive. Exceptions are made as geopolitics demand, but the assumption is that once states integrate into the American led ruled based order they will be pressured to become politically liberal states if they are not already there.
How does NATO fit into this grand strategy? It is the security apparatus that provides the regional stability and breathing room to secure these liberal gains and to further support this political evolution. The original goal of NATO was to “keep American in, Germany down, and the USSR out.” This would allow for Western Europe to rebuild its market economies uncompromised by security concerns associated with a rising Germany or a meddling Soviet Union. Along with the Marshall Plan, the Atlantic Charter, and the various Bretton Woods institutions, NATO served to make Europe political and economically liberal. Since 1989, that mission has not changed. As noted by their own study, NATO enlargement will contribute to enhanced stability and security for all countries in the Euro-Atlantic area by “encouraging and supporting democratic reforms, including civilian and democratic control over the military;”
The promotion of liberal values abroad combined with an unprecedented amount of power raise concerns inside Russia. Russia considers NATO a threat because it is part of a larger trend of promoting the western liberal ideology abroad. As Michael Mandelbaum states in Mission Failure, after the Cold War “the main focus of American foreign policy shifted from war to governance, from what other governments did beyond their borders to what thy did and how they were organized within them.” This reorientation of American foreign policy lead to a host of American advancements into Russia’s former sphere of influence with three American lead interventions (twice in former Yugoslavia and one in Afghanistan) and involving itself in the color revolutions of the region. American advances in Ukraine are especially alarming to Moscow as the area has been deeply intertwined with Russian history. When it was not part of Russian territory, it served as the buffer against foreign invasion and gave Russia access to its only warm-water port in Crimea. Despite the high level of strategic interest Russia has in its neighbor, the United States has interfered in their domestic politics for most of Ukraine’s 23 years of independence. As Ted Carpenter correctly notes, how tolerant would the United States be if Russia or China were incrementally pressuring America’s immediate neighbors to reconfigure their political economies to resemble their centralized illiberal models?
Promoting democracy and a respect for human rights abroad are admirable, but not from the perspective of the Russia’s ruling regime. From Moscow’s perspective, American support for democracy and human rights in their neighborhood is considered to compromise their own regimes influence. The original purpose of NATO was to provide enough security so that the strategically important region would not fall into the orbit of a hostile power. Today, its purpose is to spread liberalism beyond Western Europe and remake the political economies surrounding Russia to be less styled as Russian and more western. When you also include EU expansion, the revanchist Russian foreign policy should not come as a surprise.