NATO paradox and other American miscalculations

As the conflict in Ukraine begins to look like a key marker paging the end of unipolarity, one cannot help but look back at two of the four big miscalculations of the USA

| Updated: 29 March, 2023 11:09 pm IST
Post 1990, NATO morphed into a system that survived on a negative feedback loop

As the conflict in Ukraine gradually turns into one of the most crucial events in terms of impact, perhaps for the foreseeable future, and as it begins to look like a key marker paging the end of unipolarity, one cannot help but look back at two of the four big miscalculations of the USA.

When the Russian army began concentrating around their western borders with Ukraine, and when a section of the Western media – already quite vocal when it came to villainizing Russian President Vladimir Putin – cranked up their rhetoric about how they were right all along about Russia being the enemy number one, there were a few that pointed out the obvious: the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

NATO, created to act as the European counter to the USSR, was not disbanded after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. On the contrary, it began expanding eastward soon afterwards. To some (the foremost being US Foreign Policy architect George Kennan), this was the initiation of a major imbalance.

At one end, while the eastern security system ‘dissolved’, its western opposite began intensifying into that vacuum. The EU expanded too, often preceding NATO. But the economic integration of willing members was not that big an issue, especially if those new members were among those who were disillusioned with the erstwhile experiments with a communist model. It was the concept of the Western ‘security’ system and alliance that remained the primary issue.


From the Russian perspective, once the Cold War ended and the USSR ceased to exist, the very rationale for Europe’s or the West’s ‘need for security’ disappeared. What then, they thought, was the logic behind the continuation or expansion of NATO?

No one listened. The West moved ahead with NATO. Because of that, as Richard Sakwa brilliantly puts it, “NATO’s existence became justified by the need to manage the security threats provoked by its enlargement. The former Warsaw Pact and Baltic states joined NATO to enhance their security, but the very act of doing so created a security dilemma for Russia that undermined the security of all.”

Post 1990, NATO morphed into a system that survived on a negative feedback loop – it existed and expanded to provide a cover against the threats that evolved due to its existence and expansion.

And what about the Western perspective? Considering what Francis Fukuyama had to say or write about the ‘end of history’, and how the West celebrated his work and held that to be the final verdict that called for global liberal hegemony and a unipolar world order, the perceived necessity to expand a security alliance that was ideally meant to be phased out when history ended remains lined with remarkable hypocrisy. But then, they had all the liberty; after all, they were the ‘victors’.

This is the second miscalculation. To take the help of Richard Sakwa again, the West declared victory in 1989, but the other side was not so sure if they were defeated. “Unlike Germany and Japan in 1945, who acknowledged that they had been at fault and used the moment of destruction as the starting point of their transformation into Western-style liberal democracies, Russia did not in the least consider itself a defeated power.”

For Moscow-Kremlin, a massive spending misbalance had upended their economy, and they needed to restructure the same. It was also a time when several of their satellite states wanted to go their way. To this Russia had no issues since they were not the USSR any more. There were no treaties, no peace conferences and no formal summit that separated the winners from the losers, “As far as Russia was concerned, the end of the Cold War had been a shared victory: everyone stood to gain from overcoming the end of the division of Europe, symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.”

And this was indeed visible in their outreach. From Gorbachev and Yeltsin to Medvedev and even during the initial days of Vladimir Putin, there were multiple efforts made by Russia looking for ways to integrate with Europe as an equal member of the West. These efforts were continually rebuffed by the USA.

There is no way of knowing for sure if the US wanted to keep the concept of an ‘enemy’ alive to maintain their enormous security budget, but I doubt if there would be other valid explanations.

Robert Jervis, in his theory about a Spiral Mode, explains it as a stage “when the increase in one state’s security leads other states to fear for their security”.

Finally, the NATO paradox bore fruit in 2008, when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia. Continuing that, he intervened in Syria, took possession of Crimea, and in 2022, he attacked Ukraine.

Today, Russia is rebuilding its defence industry while redesigning its army at the same time. While the Western media remains busy publishing how the Russian reserve is no match for the West’s stockpile, the Russian media keeps writing about how the West can never supply the ammunition that Ukraine needs.

The point that no one highlights is that the NATO paradox has probably ushered in a new era of the arms race. An era that promises to be quite complex, with regional aspirants like Turkey or Iran joining in, emboldened by the US’ indecisions in the Middle East.

If the mindless expansion of NATO and the inability to consider Russia as anything other than their main enemy were two of the biggest miscalculations, what were the other two that catalysed the coming of a multipolar world?

According to John Mearsheimer, one was the inclusion of China in the WTO for profit maximisation through cheap labour; the other was the popular expectation that China, impressed by the ‘end of history’ and its brush with the global liberal order, would transform into one large liberal and inclusive democratic state.

The WTO act transformed China into a global giant. The expectation that China would ‘embrace liberal democracy’ did not age well, but we should keep them for a separate occasion.

Arindam Mukherjee is a geopolitical analyst and the author of JourneyDog Tales, The Puppeteer, and A Matter of Greed.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are the author’s own.

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