SINCE the end of World War II, American officials have had an overly broad view of what constitutes valuable strategic allies for the United States. In too many cases, the “allies” Washington touts are small, weak, often militarily useless addicts. Worse, some of them are on bad terms with more powerful neighboring states. In these circumstances, the so-called allies are major liabilities rather than assets for the United States. Indeed, these are potential pitfalls, which can drag America into unnecessary military confrontations.
Washington would do well to become much more selective about which nations it includes in its list of allies, and America’s leaders should stop elevating people dependent on security to the status of allies. When US officials described the regimes that Washington has installed by military force in Afghanistan and Iraq as allies, it became clear that they had lost even a minimal understanding of the concept. This point became quite evident when their Afghan client collapsed almost overnight in the face of the Taliban military offensive. It is time for US policymakers to do better.
The TROUBLE PROMISCUIT of acquiring weak US security partners was evident even during the Cold War, and the trend became even more pronounced in the post-Cold War era. As the fiasco in Afghanistan (and its horrific predecessor in South Vietnam) confirmed, this problem with US foreign policy has existed in several regions. However, the flaw has become more acute when it comes to Washington’s campaign to expand NATO to Eastern Europe. Since the mid-1990s, US administrations have struggled to add a menagerie of new NATO members, and this with even less selectivity and judgment that some people use to acquire friends on Facebook.
Many of these new members have very little to offer the United States as security partners. Indeed, some are mini-states, bordering on micro-states. Such lightly armed Lilliputians would add little or nothing to Washington’s own capabilities, especially in a confrontation with another major power.
As economic assets their importance is decidedly limited, and militarily they are even less valuable. It is difficult to see how new NATO allies such as Albania, Slovenia, Montenegro and North Macedonia are bolstering the power and security of the United States. This point should be apparent on the basis of population size alone. Albania’s 2.87 million inhabitants, North Macedonia’s 2.1 million and Slovenia’s 2.07 million inhabitants place these countries squarely in the category of mini-states, while the 628,000 inhabitants of Montenegro hardly deserve this label. The situation is hardly improving in terms of annual gross domestic product or the size of military forces. Even Slovenia’s $ 52.8 billion GDP ranks Slovenia only eighty-sixth in the world. Even less impressive are Albania’s $ 15.2 billion (125th), North Macedonia’s 12.26 billion (135th) and Montenegro’s $ 4.78 billion (159th).
The military forces that our new NATO allies can deploy are unlikely to create fear in Russia or any other potential aggressor. The Albanian armed forces consist of 8,500 active service personnel, Slovenia’s 8,500 and North Macedonia’s 9,000. Montenegro’s active force stands at 2,400. Austin, Texas Police Department has 2,422 in its ranks.
True, NATO’s Cold War edition also had a few mini-states among its members, notably Luxembourg and Iceland. However, these members were located in a stable and democratic Western Europe. Their defense was also geographically inseparable from Washington’s mission to protect important military and economic players, such as West Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Great Britain, from what appeared to be a totalitarian superpower with expansionist ambitions. This situation was qualitatively different from Washington’s gratuitous post-Cold War decision to manage the security of quarrelsome mini-states in the chronically unstable Balkans. Since the mid-1990s, the United States has become entangled in parish wrangling in the region, but the membership of some countries in NATO has intensified the United States’ exposure to unnecessary risks and burdens.
The RISK-BENEFIT calculation is even worse for some of the other small countries that joined NATO in the post-Cold War era. These partners are not simply irrelevant from a US security perspective; they are potentially dangerous trigger wires that could spark a conflict between the United States and a nuclear-weaponized Russia.
This point highlights a very important difference between individuals who casually amass friends on Facebook and the United States who add new beggars to security. Facebook friends do not have the capacity to involve anyone in armed conflict; irresponsible security dependents can certainly do it. Indeed, there are many examples throughout history of such clients leading their clients into devastating and unnecessary wars. A notable example is how the fateful decision of Tsarist Russia to firmly support Serbia in the latter’s growing feud with Austria-Hungary following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand helped start the First War. world and caused the total ruin of the Russian Empire.
The United States today flirts with a similar danger vis-à-vis its small customers in Eastern Europe. President George W. Bush’s decision to support the three Baltic Republics’ candidacies for NATO membership was – and remains – highly provocative for Russia. A crucial way to reduce the risk of armed clashes between great powers is to show mutual respect for the respective spheres of influence. Washington has repeatedly violated this principle by pushing NATO to expand to the Russian border.
The addition of the Baltic republics in 2004 was the most dangerous step in this process. As in the case of the later addition of the smaller Balkan nations to NATO, the three Baltic countries have little to offer in terms of military capabilities. Estonia’s 6,700 troops, Latvia’s 5,500 and even Lithuania’s 20,500 would not really be a factor if war broke out between NATO and Russia.
However, the downsides of making the Baltic republics dependent on American security go far beyond their uselessness as military actors. These three countries were once part of both Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, and significant Russian ethnic minorities still live in Estonia and Latvia. The Kremlin has complained on numerous occasions since the Baltic republics became independent in late 1991 that the Russian population suffers from discrimination and other ill-treatment. Indeed, this allegation arose long before Russian President Vladimir Putin became the leader of Russia. Relations between the Kremlin and its former territories remain strained because of this issue.
Perhaps even more troubling, Washington’s Baltic allies are now feuding with Moscow’s main client in the region, Belarus. In the summer and fall of 2021, Latvia and Lithuania (along with the European Union) accused Belarus of attempting to use a flood of refugees from the Middle East as a form of “hybrid war” . The Lithuanian government has even asked its border guards to use force if necessary to prevent the continued entry of migrants. Soon after, Latvia imposed a state of emergency to deal with the same problem. A few weeks earlier, Lithuania had reinforced its border barrier by erecting a fence with razor wire. Latvia quickly followed suit. A new round of large-scale Russian-Belarusian military exercises (held every four years) in September exacerbated tensions.
Because of their size and location, the Baltic republics are not credible strategic assets for the United States. Indeed, they would be practically powerless if Russia took a military decision against them. A 2016 study by the RAND Corporation concluded that a Russian offensive would invade their defenses in about three days. These countries are not “allies” of the United States in a significant sense; they are vulnerable dependents who could spark a war between NATO (primarily the United States) and Russia.
Washington’s patron-client relationship with the Baltic republics is risky, and US leaders have been reckless to push for their inclusion in NATO. However, beginning with the administration of George W. Bush, officials engaged in even more reckless conduct regarding the possible alliance membership of two other countries, Georgia and Ukraine. They did so despite repeated warnings from the Kremlin that making either country (especially Ukraine) a NATO member would cross a red line that Moscow cannot tolerate.
BUSH HAD a true geopolitical love affair with Georgia and Ukraine, portraying them as role models for emerging democracies and repeatedly calling them America’s allies in the most glowing terms. Only strong French and German opposition thwarted Bush’s lobbying efforts to get Tbilisi and Kiev to join NATO. Berlin and Paris were troubled by evidence of rampant political and economic corruption in both countries, but they were even more concerned that further NATO expansion could create a crisis with Moscow. Their continued opposition has so far prevented the addition of Georgia and Ukraine to NATO ranks, even as the alliance has added several mini-states from the Balkans.
However, the United States Actions have increasingly made the issue of formal membership an indistinguishable distinction, and the results indicate that even reckless informal security relationships with client states can cause serious problems. Bush urged Georgia to take a stronger stance against the continued presence of Russian “peacekeepers” in two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In addition, the United States was busy equipping and training Georgian military forces. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has apparently read too much of Washington’s expressions of support. In August 2008, its forces launched an attack on Russian units in South Ossetia, and Moscow responded with a full-scale offensive that quickly invaded much of Georgia. When Saakashvili pleaded with the United States and NATO to repel Russian “aggression,” Bush expressed strong support for Georgia’s sovereignty, but he also indicated that American troops would not come to Tbilisi’s aid. . An American client had attempted to create a military confrontation between NATO and Russia for his own parochial purposes, but he had misinterpreted Washington’s signals. Clumsy US policies, however, were at least in part responsible for this dangerous episode.