NATO Summit: Old Dogs Do Not Learn New Tricks

At the end of the 1980s – beginning of the 1990s many people, in the East as well as in the West, had a dream – a dream about a world where peace-dividends would benefit most of the people in the world. The decades long Cold War was declared to be over. Even those who had serious doubts about the prospect of an eternal peace à la Immanuel Kant believed in the possibility of the world without a great power confrontation threatening the survival of the humankind. 

The author of these lines, heading at that time the Department of International Law in the Institute of State & Law of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, and Lori Damrosch, starting then – after a stint in the State Department – her prominent career at Columbia University, co-edited a book Beyond Confrontation, produced jointly by young Soviet and American scholars, who hadn’t been tarnished by the Cold War ideology and rhetoric. However, these dreams of the world without great-power confrontation, besides neglecting lessons of history, testifying that geopolitics and interstate rivalry have existed even without ideological confrontation, had another fault. If many – both in the East as well as in the West – dreamed of the world where societies with different traditions could peacefully co-exist while remaining diverse (even if through voluntary borrowing also becoming in some important respects gradually more and more similar), there was a different version of the world without confrontation. Quite a few in the West, particularly among the American political elites, dreamed of a uniform world led from one centre. The recognition of Washington’s leadership in international relations and liberal-democracy at home were declared to be the conditio sine qua non of being accepted into the category of civilised nations. The politics of regime change led by the US, which was justified, inter alia, by abstract theories of democratic peace (democracies, supposedly, don’t fight each other and are even reluctant to use force against non-democracies), created a multitude of conflicts, particularly in the Greater Middle East that was supposed to undergo the birth-pangs of democracy, using the words of Condoleezza Rice.[1] Instead, Islamist fanatism, jihadism and terrorism surged and spread far beyond the region.

In parallel and being to an extent prompted by this scramble for ‘the end of history’, a great power rivalry re-emerged. If smaller countries, some happily, others somewhat reluctantly as if accepting inevitable, practiced the politics of bandwagoning by joining the winning side, bigger states, which had played historically a more prominent role in international affairs, started, as should have been expected, counter-balancing. They were not content with the role of the followers of the Big Brother, as was expected from them.

In Europe, the single most important factor that has contributed to the revival of the great power competition has been NATO’s expansion to the borders of Russia. Kremlin’s responses to such an encirclement was predictable, if not in details (e.g., the annexation/reunification of the Crimea), then at least in general terms. Many Americans, including prominent experts such as Henry Kissinger and George Kennan, and others warned against such reckless and complacent behaviour vis-à-vis the erstwhile enemy. There were also those across the Atlantic who purposefully sought to weaken Russia. So, Dick Cheney, who at the beginning of the 1990s was the United States Secretary of Defence, openly encouraged the dismemberment of Russia, arguing that ‘if democracy fails, we’re better off if they are small’. [2] However, this all turned out to be counter-productive even to American interests. Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University is right observing that ‘the expansion of NATO over their [Russians] objections taught Russians two lessons that it was not remotely in the American interest for them to learn: that American promises were not to be trusted; and that the West would take advantage of a weak and accommodating Russia’.[3]

This all led to the point where NATO – a Cold War relic, whose very continuation and expansion, notwithstanding assurances given to Michael Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze, to the borders of Russia – seems to have found its raison d'être. As Professor Richard Sakwa eloquently put it, ‘in the end, NATO’s existence became justified by the need to manage security threats provoked by its enlargement’.[4] However, notwithstanding this continuous expansion the future of the North-Atlantic alliance does not look at all so rosy and this isn’t only due to the Russian countermeasures.

The latest issue (6 July 2018) of The Economist opines that while the ‘mood before the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11th and 12th is poisonous’, the following meeting between Presidents Putin and Trump in Helsinki on 16th may ‘produce an unspeakable spectacle of an American president treating his Russian opponent better than he has treated his allies’. I am not sure about who Donald Trump would treat better; moreover, this is not a particularly useful term in international relations, but one thing seems to be sure: the American President will, and has to, treat his Russian counterpart with due respect. Otherwise the meeting simply would not take place, to say nothing about possible results of the meeting. One is usually treated as one lets herself to be treated.

It is not only President Trump’s blunt letters to several members of the North Atlantic alliance, whose defence budgets irritate the American President, that is the major problem. There are, indeed, much more serious questions. What for goes this all money? Although US military budget is a lion’s share ($686 billion) of NATO members’ overall military expenses ($957 billion), the share of the rest ($271 billion) [5] by far exceeds Russia’s defence budget ($61 billion in 2017 [6]). Excluding also the Canadian contribution ($21,3 billion), we find that the European members of NATO spend much more on their military than does Russia, whom NATO considers to be the major threat. And this is going on in the world where the US dominance is threatened first of all by China’s rise, and the Old Continent’s stability is undermined by the upsurge of Islamic terrorism, massive migration from Africa to Europe and the consequent identity crises.

The same edition of The Economist also refers to NATO’s operation in Afghanistan, also allegedly in dire need of extra funding. It would have been better not to mention this clear ‘mission failure’ at all. Not only are things going from bad to worse in this long-suffering country but let me refer to my fellow countryman – the former Estonian Ambassador to Afghanistan, as quoted in the book by the former British Ambassador to the same country. In November 2008, Harri Tiido was being given a tour of Helmand province. Estonians were stationed in Nawzad, which had once been a town of 30,000 people, but was then deserted, ‘with the two sides dug into first world war-type trenches with their lines 300 yards apart’. After receiving the usual PowerPoint briefing, Tiido was asked by his British hosts if he had any questions: ‘I have only one,’ he said. ‘What the fuck are we doing here?’ [7] And enough has been already written about the disastrous consequences of NATO operations in Libya (2011) and Kosovo (1999).

This all indicates that the lack of money should be the least of NATO’s concerns. It is its failure to find any positive role in the post-Cold War world. The North Atlantic Alliance has had a ‘mission failure’ both in Europe as well as in the so-called ‘out of area’ operations. And this had to be expected. The continuation of mechanisms created for the Cold War could only help revive a new tension. One can hardly teach old dogs to perform new tricks.

[1] Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Special Briefing on Travel to the Middle East and Europe, 21 July 2006, US Department of State (

[2] D. S. Foglesong, The American Mission and the ‘Evil Empire’: The Crusade for a Free Russia since 1881’, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 205.

[3] M. Mandelbaum, Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era, Oxford University Press, 2016.

[4] R. Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, I.B. Tauris, 2015, p. 4.

[5] The Economist, 6 July 2018, p. 25.


[7] S. Cowper-Coles, Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Campaign, Harper Press, 2011; see also Christina Lamb, Farewell to Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World, William Collins, 2016.  

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.