Widgets Magazine


On NATO and the European Union

The two defining institutions of postwar Europe have been the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. Both of them are originally Western European entities, and their expansion into Eastern Europe was one of the foundational changes that solidified the end of the Cold War on the map and in the public mind.

Although the expansion of these institutions has seemingly gone hand in hand, popular perceptions of each have trended in opposite directions. Having survived a series of financial crises culminating in the bailout of Greece, the European Union seems more robust than ever. At the same time, the demise of the Soviet Union has led people to consistently question the point of NATO’s military alliance, even as France reintegrates with NATO’s military command and — more recently — Eastern European states request America to reaffirm its security guarantee.

If NATO is viewed as a relic of the Cold War in the public eye, then the EU is supposed to be Europe’s future — an integrated Continent where nations that share the same economic and moral principles can enjoy collective policies of mutual benefit and assistance. The EU is explicitly not a military organization, whereas NATO by definition is. So, in a time of relative peace it is hardly surprising that NATO is being questioned.

In reality, however, we tend to confuse events with potential, especially when alliances are generally formed in peacetime and rarely in the midst of war. The potential for conflict is why the Atlantic Alliance exists in the first place. NATO does not become more important in reality because Russia is flexing its muscles right now: It has always been important because Russia has always had the ability to flex its muscles, and now that Russia’s strength is recovering (although not invincible), it is all the more important at present.



Russia has invaded a country, and America has flexed its muscles too. Nobody thinks that a 600-man commitment to Eastern Europe in the wake of the Russian invasion of Crimea will stop an army, but they carry the American flag and the implicit protection of the United States.

But do 600 men make an army? Certainly not.

If Russia invades the Baltic States, the Americans won’t be able to stop them. The point of the Americans is to make any invasion an act of war, but that’s a domestic political tactic. The definition of an “act of war” is blurry because it is the American government that decides what constitutes an act of war against the United States. And America doesn’t need to declare something an unacceptable provocation if it doesn’t want to.

What if Russia plays to the American crowd, one that is weary of war? The Economist cites that 52 percent of Americans would like America to “mind its own business.” The nations in question have long-held ties to Russia, especially Ukraine, as highlighted in this very paper: What if Russia offers America and the EU a split of Ukraine? To many, the calm certainty of a peaceful split might be preferable to a civil war with an unpredictable outcome.

Indeed, we may well be seeing this happen right now. NATO’s top military commander in Europe points out that Russian special forces are operating in eastern Ukraine, supporting the pro-Russia revolts. Russian regular troops have not formally invaded Ukraine, but right now they don’t need to. While it’s eminently possible that the Ukrainian government is trying to accentuate its failings in order to generate American support, it seems reasonably accurate for the president of Ukraine to admit that his defenses are “hopeless.” A split might be achieved without international bloodshed.

And he has his own considerations at hand that have solidified his own resolve. One only needs to remember the chaos of the Cuban Missile Crisis to imagine how Americans would respond if Russian influence extended to America’s doorstep. Even if the European Union — again, not a military organization — is extending its hand to Ukraine purely as a sign of friendship, it’s hard to imagine how Russia could possibly be happy about that. And now America has placed boots on the ground, right on the Russian border. No matter how well-meaning towards America’s allies this action may be, it has also upped the tensions in the region.



As America engages in a kind of brinksmanship itself, we need to ask the hard question: What would we do about our 600 men in Eastern Europe? NATO commits the United States and the rest of the alliance to defend its members from attack, but as I’ve said, in the short run the Baltic States would be immediately overrun. President Obama would be presented with a fait accompli, unless he does the unthinkable and uses nuclear weapons — and that idea is so out of the question that it’s just silly. The American commitment would then be to not only conventionally defend the other NATO states but to retake the territory of the Baltics, either by treaty or by force of arms.

Let’s apply the Ukraine question to NATO, then. Imagine that President Putin chooses to go further. What if Russia promises freedom for captured POWs and some kind of Hong Kong-style autonomy for the Baltic States? But that implies that Russia would think it could go further and still remain in the international system’s good graces, which is unlikely. Far more likely: What if Russia extends control over the Baltics and simply promises to stand pat?

Through his admittedly bold actions, Putin has already proven that he is willing to defy conventions of international conduct in order to achieve his goals. Russia may not even need to invade in order to bully other nations into entering the Russian sphere. If Russia is capable and willing to invade — regardless of the consequences — and America is not capable of liberation, then Baltic acquiescence to their larger neighbor would only be natural. The Baltics would have to formally withdraw from NATO and, as Friedman remarks on Ukraine, “cut the best deal with Putin that [they] can.” That deal would involve Russian guarantees of Baltic security. It would also deny them the European Union.



The events of the last few months have shown that social and economic attitudes and military force aren’t separate worlds at all. The European Union attempted to deepen links with Ukraine; Russia responded with a counteroffer. Euromaidan erupted in revolt; Russia responded with force.

Lest we think that the West is different: This relationship extends to the so-called “Western sphere” as well. The European Union exists as a framework for European cooperation, but it doesn’t exist as a framework for the application of military force, and it won’t. As French NATO ambassador Francois de Rose pointed out, the EU exists in its form because the American military guarantee to the Continent lessens the longstanding geopolitical differences that would cause a NATO-less EU to fragment. Put simply, the EU organizing by itself for its common defense is difficult to imagine. As de Rose wisely said, “The frequently sterile arguments within the European Community on subjects like agricultural policy or budget contributions scarcely incline one to believe that governments would be inclined to hand over to anyone else the defense of their truly vital interests.”

These words are true, and they don’t stop being true because the nations of the EU are now worried about a potentially common enemy; rather, they reinforce it. The EU has been helpful in many ways, working towards energy independence — specifically, the breakup of dominant, vertically integrated energy producers like Gazprom that can threaten the economy of the entire continent.

But even if the EU is united within, the only issue that could force the EU together militarily outweighs its nations’ military power. The EU’s commendable measures need to be backed with the force of arms — arms that the EU cannot by itself provide, except at a terrible cost to its own way of life. Europe needs the United States, and it needs NATO. And if America will be a part of NATO, it needs to honor its own commitments, work with the EU to secure fair treatment given its military assistance, and above all make sure that its military commitments do not outpace its own capacity for projecting power.

We’ve seen that NATO is as important as ever. But we should have known that all along. Hopefully, this time we won’t forget the lessons we have learned.


Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 “at” stanford.edu.

About Winston Shi

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.