Accessibility links

Could France's View Of Moscow Help, Or Hurt, NATO?

  • Andrew Tully

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (L) with his French counterpart Herve Morin at a press conference in Washington, D.C. on March 3

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (L) with his French counterpart Herve Morin at a press conference in Washington, D.C. on March 3

As NATO prepares to mark its 60th anniversary next month, France's defense minister, Herve Morin, has made what some observers might regard as some counterintuitive suggestions: Consult Russia before any further expansion of the alliance, and abandon any idea that NATO's role could become global, rather than Eurocentric. Is this the right vision for a military alliance that was created to confront the once-growing sphere of the Soviet Union? Or is it a capitulation to Moscow? RFE/RL discussed France's vision of NATO's future with two veteran observers of international security affairs.

To France's Morin, it seems crystal clear: No matter how NATO began or what it used to be, today it has become what he calls "an instrument of peacekeeping and security" outside the alliance's borders.

Morin recently said that he opposes the so-called "global NATO" dynamic. James Phillips, who studies international security issues at the Heritage Foundation, a private policy-research center in Washington, agrees with Morin.

Phillips told RFE/RL that he believes NATO has lost its way, and that it should return to its original status as an alliance meant to physically fend off any foreign encroachment, such as was originally anticipated by the Soviet Union.

Now, Phillips says, NATO seems to have become anything but military.

"NATO is a war-fighting alliance founded to preserve the collective security of its members. In recent years, most of its operations have been peacekeeping and post-conflict security building," Phillips says.

"However, I think it would be dangerous to neglect the original purpose of NATO, which is to defend its members against outside aggression."

Like Morin, Phillips also agrees that if NATO continues its so-called "global" approach, it will become weaker.
Imagine how Americans would feel if the United States had gone into a tailspin following the end of the Cold War, and Japan had led the creation of a military alliance that brought in countries in the Caribbean and Central America, and talked about bringing Mexico and Canada into that alliance


"I think, unfortunately, many European countries have so downgraded their defense establishments that they see their own armies primarily as social workers. And I think if this is carried to an extreme, it unfortunately weakens the defense efforts of the NATO alliance," Phillips says.

Of course there's no longer a Soviet threat, which reached westward from Moscow through its client states in Central and Eastern Europe. But since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has used its economic muscle, not its military, to get its way with the West.

Morin says cooperating with Moscow is more likely to keep NATO strong, while antagonizing it could weaken the alliance.

On this point, Philips disagrees, saying such a position plays into the hands of Russia, which doesn't just want NATO to expand, but ultimately to be dismantled. Phillips called Morin's suggestion "counterproductive."

Treading Carefully

But in fact, the notion that NATO should cooperate with Russia has been gaining strength in Western Europe, according to Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute, another Washington think tank.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Carpenter said that for the past decade or so, Europeans have been reluctant to antagonize Russia, believing that such behavior could lead to a new confrontation similar to the Cold War.

Carpenter says the first two rounds of NATO expansion badly damaged relations between the West and Russia, and a third round to bring in Georgia and Ukraine would only make matters worse.

"Imagine how Americans would feel if the United States had gone into a tailspin following the end of the Cold War, and Japan had led the creation of a military alliance that brought in countries in the Caribbean and Central America, and talked about bringing Mexico and Canada into that alliance -- but it was clear that the United States would never be a member. Certainly most Americans would regard that as an extremely unfriendly act," Carpenter says.

During the 1990s, Russia was led by President Boris Yeltsin, a man who, if nothing else, harbored a seemingly benign view of the West. But he named as his successor Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who believes in a strong, tightly controlled state.

Given the West's often patronizing attitude toward Russia during the 1990s, Carpenter says, as well as the expansion of NATO on Russia's border, Putin's rise was inevitable.

"All of this undercut democratic, pro-Western elements in Russia and played into the hands of the most authoritarian nationalist elements. To me this was a tragedy that could have been avoided, and we made the rise of the Putin-style nationalists more likely than it would have been," Carpenter says.

"Certainly NATO expansion was not the only factor -- I don't want to imply that. But it was not irrelevant either."

In fact, Carpenter says because many in Western Europe want to avoid unnecessarily antagonizing Russia, the way in which the United States has orchestrated NATO expansion has created not only a split between Russia and the West, but also within NATO itself.

In Carpenter's view, this newly articulated French approach may get Washington to understand that its approach to Russia must change -- if it isn't already too late.
XS
SM
MD
LG