You’ve probably seen some coverage of the NATO summit in Vilnius this week. With that meeting we’ve seen an acrimonious debate over whether Ukraine should be allowed to join NATO now, arguably when it needs to most. Ukraine wants it. Indeed, it’s demanding it. Many of Ukraine’s most ardent supporters in Europe and North America are too. So I wanted to take a moment to go on record as saying this is unwise, unnecessary and, to a non-trivial extent, borderline insane.
The arguments I’ve at least seen come down to versions of “moral clarity,” the importance of making a clear and emphatic statement about Western commitment to Ukraine and the unacceptability of Russian behavior. These are important goals. But it’s a good rule of thumb that when people lean too hard on “moral clarity” there are good reasons to believe it’s because more considered and logical arguments can’t sustain the idea.
First, of course Ukraine wants to join NATO now. If I were in their position, I would too. There’s no contradiction in seeing this as a totally reasonable and understandable position for Ukraine to take and also being opposed to it.
NATO is a defensive alliance that pledges each member to the defense of every other member. In theory this applies to attacks from any direction, figurative and geographical. In practice it pledges every member to resist a Russian military assault which would begin in frontline states like the Baltics, Poland, etc. To be really specific, it pledges the United States to treat a Russian attack on Lithuania or Poland like an attack on New York or Texas. That is a big, big commitment when you consider that Russia is a nuclear state and that Russia has long viewed both countries either as within its sphere of influence or even within its imperial borders.
Let me detour for a moment to note that these considerations were why I was at least skeptical of the initial rounds of NATO enlargement. It’s also why, Russia’s claims to the contrary, Ukraine joining NATO was at least far off in the future when Russia made its decision to invade. In both cases, we’re now dealing with very different realities. But let’s jump back to our main topic: why now is not the time.
Ukraine has already been attacked. A substantial amount of its territory is under occupation and a significant part has been for almost a decade. Russia considers a big chunk of that territory (Crimea) as formally part of Russia. On paper, if Ukraine joined NATO, NATO — and particularly the United States — would immediately be at war with Russia.
No one is saying it would actually work like that. But the fact that it wouldn’t work like that but actually should begins to explain why this makes no sense. The cornerstone of NATO and any alliance is single-class membership. Everybody gets the identical commitment. Muddying that principle is bad for NATO. NATO is also a defensive alliance. Its treaty commitments are activated when someone is attacked. Ukraine was attacked but not as a NATO member state. Beyond this broad conceptual framework, you don’t start treaty commitments when it’s not clear what you’re committing to. We know what Ukraine’s borders are. But we can’t be certain what future borders it will agree to or how much of its territory it will be able to reconquer.
One part of the post-Cold War settlement that paved the way for the initial waves of NATO enlargement was that key countries had outstanding claims from the First and Second World Wars that they wanted to settle. Key to this was the relationship between Germany and Poland. While Germany was of course the aggressor in World War II, the post-War settlement involved land transfers, “population transfers” and campaigns of denationalization for both countries. (Put simply, Poland was moved west at the expense of Germany while the Soviet Union gobbled up a substantial amount of eastern Poland. At the end of the Cold War, both sides agreed that their current borders were their legitimate and permanent borders.
My point here isn’t that Ukraine can never join NATO or never join without what is in effect Russian permission. But it has to wait until this conflict is resolved and there is some level of settlement, even one that will inevitably fall short of the early ’90s agreements between Germany and Poland.
Just as important, it’s simply not necessary. The U.S. and NATO can provide any level of support for Ukraine without Ukraine becoming a member state. It’s just not necessary. It’s a bad idea. And you can think this while being the most ardent supporter of Ukraine’s war effort.