By Robert Moore
Long before the official announcement that Ambassador John Bolton would be the new national security advisor to President Trump, experts were expressing grave concerns about the possible appointment. What would such a hardliner mean for delicate negotiations with countries like Iran and North Korea? How would our diplomatic relations fare under a unilateralist who disdains international organizations? And most important—what influence would this notably hawkish advisor have on President Trump, the most inexperienced foreign policy president in generations?
Yet of all of Ambassador Bolton’s well-known stances and opinions, the one that carries the largest risk for the United States is the one that is least controversial in Washington: support for the continued enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In fact, on this issue, Ambassador Bolton fits comfortably within the bipartisan mainstream consensus of the last 25 years, joining the Clintons, John McCain, Madeline Albright, and Condoleezza Rice.
It would be easier to make a list of leaders in the past decades who actively opposed NATO enlargement. Last year’s stand by Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee against Montenegro’s accession into the defense organization was merely an annoyance in the ritualistic rubber stamping. Granted, increased attention is being paid to the long-standing problems of NATO-member defense spending due to President Trump’s consistent rhetoric, but politicians conveniently consider burden-sharing and enlargement issues separately.
When it comes to the issue of NATO enlargement, lofty words and quixotic arguments in support are often used to appeal to American’s belief in freedom and representative democracy. Ambassador Bolton has often been on the front row of this chorus, pleading the case of the downtrodden that only desire western ideals and protection. And while idealistic tropes can be inspiring, the leaders at the top of the decision chain should be more realistic in their policy appraisal.
The eastward push of the NATO alliance has never sat well with Russia. In the 1990s, the fledgling and ineffective post-communist government in Moscow was unable to do more than raise protest of NATO enlargement to areas that had been in the Soviet “sphere of influence.” But the Russian government was consolidated and strengthened under Vladimir Putin, who undertook military and economic modernization initiatives at the same time that NATO started extending membership plans to countries with deeper historical and cultural ties to Russia. The inevitable friction boiled over in 2008 when Russia invaded a western-friendly Georgia to force a settlement that suited their concerns.
Any lingering doubt that Moscow would take military action in order to defend their vital interests should have been dispelled six years later in Ukraine. While the historical record has yet to be settled regarding what happened there in 2014, what is clear is that the Russian government deemed Ukraine’s potential realignment with the West a significant enough threat that drastic and provocative intervention was deemed warranted, including the unprecedented annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
Russia recognized the limits of Washington’s idealism in foreign policy—despite the rhetoric about democracy and freedom, Ukraine means more to Russia than to the West. As such, the U.S. wisely did not challenge Russia in a proxy war we were not willing to win. Our misgivings about the morality of Russian activities and way they define their interests are simply not that relevant at the end of the day; there are certain boundaries that Russia won’t abide the West crossing without a response, and in those areas, the issue usually means more to them than it does to us. This isn’t a moral judgment or a statement on military power—it’s a realistic assessment based on historical and political precedence.
Yet for most in the Washington foreign policy circles, the acceptable response was to double-down on calls to guarantee these countries’ security without any regard for our own security and interests.
Despite having no existing defense agreements with Georgia and only secondary or tertiary interests there, Ambassador Bolton castigated the Bush administration that he previously served in as “paper tigers” for America’s failure to intervene in 2008. In the aftermath of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ambassador Bolton repeated the call for Ukraine to join NATO and put pressure on Russia to retreat.
If the United States chooses to follow the counsel of Ambassador Bolton and others in the idealism-driven foreign policy establishment on NATO enlargement, we will be playing a risky game with an opponent who has stronger incentives to win on the issue—a worrying circumstance to find ourselves in. There may well be danger in the appointment of the president’s new national security advisor, but it certainly is more perilous to have an entire ruling class in unquestioning support of his most reckless policies.
Robert Moore is a policy advisor for Defense Priorities. He has spent nearly a decade working defense and foreign policy issues on Capitol Hill. He most recently served as the lead staffer for Sen. Mike Lee on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He previously worked as part of Sen. Jim DeMint’s national security team and for Rep. Sue Myrick.
This piece was originally published by NBC.com on April 9, 2018. Read more HERE.