IR Today Perspectives: NATO Expansion – Success or Failure?

In the second installation of IR Today Perspectives, second-year students Sebastian Beyenburg and Maximilian Tkocz discuss NATO’s evolution since the end of the Cold War, with a particular focus on the alliance’s controversial eastwards expansion in light of unprecedented media scrutiny during this week’s 70th anniversary summit in Watford. Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the authors’ but are meant more to be food for thought. 

Debates on NATO are, again, in full swing. Not only is the annual NATO summit coming up, which will be held in London from the third to the fourth of December, French President Macron has only recently lamented that NATO as an organisation is, in fact, brain-dead. In all of the debates surrounding NATO, its role and its efficacy, one discussion that seems to be omnipresent is that on its expansion. Was the expansion of NATO following the end of the Cold War successful? Or has the alliance’s expansion in reality created more threats and dangers than peace?

NATO’s expansion has been a success – Sebastian Beyenburg

The year 2019 marked the 20th anniversary of the first NATO eastward expansion (and the 4th overall expansion since NATO’s conception in 1949) when the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland became members. Since then, there have been 3 further expansion, the last one being Montenegro in 2017. NATO has often been described as the most successful military alliance in history, long enduring and surviving the loss of its initial purpose, which was to defend European states against the USSR, only to redefine itself and turning into a community of like-minded states following the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the end of the Cold War marked a turning point in the role of NATO, which was accompanied by heated debates about whether to expand its membership. Seeing NATO expansion as a success is certainly not the conventional point of view. Many, especially those that are part of the Realist school of thought, see NATO expansion as a mistake, some even as a fateful one. Why then, can one claim that one should see NATO’s expansion as a success both for the organisation and for its member states?

Firstly, with regards to the above, it is quite important to debunk the myth that NATO’s eastward expansion has created a threat for Russia only because Russia was promised in 1990 during the reunification of Germany that NATO would never move even an inch eastward. Vladimir Putin has repeatedly used this claim for his foreign policy purposes, not the least to help justify the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Relatively recently released archival documents, however, have shown that there was never such a promise. Most scholars now agree with historian Mary Sarotte, who argues that contrary to Russian allegations often made, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev ‘never got the West to promise that it would freeze NATO’s borders’ (Shifrinson, 2016). One can, therefore, rightfully argue that Russia’s perception of NATO expansion as a betrayal that is now causing a threat is largely self-constructed to achieve foreign policy aims that are questionable under international law.

Quite a few points can be made when putting forth that NATO’s expansion has been a success.

Firstly, a significant part of the more recent debate about NATO expansion has revolved around the membership of the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), all of which joined NATO in 2004. Critics of this decision have pointed out that Russia would feel threatened by this inclusion of three states bordering its territory, unnecessarily provoking Russia. But both sides have fears, as the Baltic states have always been wary of their powerful and significantly bigger neighbour. Therefore, as Mike Sweeney puts it, the Baltic states have come to act as a balancing force in the region, which in turn helps to ease tensions between the West and Russia (2019). Indeed, it is when the situation is left ambiguous, as is the case with Ukraine, that the probability for conflict increases (Sweeney, 2019). In addition, this movement of the dividing line between Moscow and the West further to the East has acted as a security guarantor that helps to keep Moscow (and Putin) at bay. What speaks in favour of this expansion is that, while Putin’s Russia has definitely intimated countries in its approximate region that belong to NATO, it has not invaded these countries as it did in Ukraine and Georgia, both of which are non-NATO states (Brands, 2019). Furthermore, both Sweden and Finland, which traditionally have been neutral powers, have expressed their interest in becoming NATO members as the perceived security threat from Russia grows. This shows how NATO has effectively created a security belt in the East and in the Baltics that has made traditionally neutral states interested in joining the alliance. This continuous interest in joining NATO from non-member states speaks for itself and shows that the alliance continues to be appealing.

Lastly, it is a common misconception to see NATO expansion as only beneficial to the alliance if the newly admitted member states have significant military capabilities. Critics of the NATO expansion have claimed that the inclusion of most non-members was a mistake because these members did not bring significant military capabilities into the alliance. However, the NATO alliance is not only about military power. For example, Iceland’s primary contribution to NATO for the last seven decades has been its geographic location (Brands, 2019). Iceland’s role is about it being a base for NATO forces, which would be tasked with the protecting of re-supply convoys in the North Atlantic. As is the case with the admittance of the Baltic states into NATO outlined above and with the inclusion of Montenegro in 2017, inclusion of these newer members, and prospective members, is mostly about increasing regional stability and contributing to the prevention of conflicts, rather than their specific military power.

It is for these reasons, serving as examples, that one should look at NATO expansion as a success, rather than as a failure for both the organization and its member states.

Why NATO’s expansion has not been a success – Maximilian Tkocz 

According to Andrew Wolff, the Ukraine Crisis in 2013 “has created the deepest rift between” NATO and Russia since 1990. However, the Ukraine Crisis marked the climax of a development that has been going on for 25 years.

After the end of the Cold War, proponents of NATO expansion have argued that enlargement would promote democracy. It was hoped that NATO would become a “continent-wide security community” (Wolff, 2015; Kissinger, 1994). In reality, NATO enlargement did none of those things. Instead, it provides the perfect case study of a blinded, victorious West that–in John Gaddis’ words– violated every single basic “strategic principle”.

If we have learned one thing from history, it is this: the moment of victory can be a chance for exceptional strategic behaviour. Alternatively, it can mark the starting moment of a massive blunder. There are many cases in history: 1815 after Napoleon’s defeat, in 1918 after the defeat of the Central Powers, or in 1945 after the end of WWII. According to Gaddis, we can draw the following lessons from these references.

Lesson 1: Treat former enemies generously; do not take on new, unnecessary enemies.

Unfortunately, the West failed spectacularly in regards to the first lesson. Russian policy after the Cold War was relatively easy to understand: Rooted in a defensive attempt “to safeguard its security”, Russia’s position made it possible to reach out and ensure peaceful coexistence, as Alexander Thalis (2018) argues. However, even before the enlargement debate evolved within NATO in 1994, Russia made it clear that NATO enlargement will be regarded as a threat (Sergounin, 1997). Many Western scholars like Michael Mandelbaum (1995) or Jonathan Dean (1997), criticised the pro-expansion approach of the Clinton administration and pointed to the fact that this would unnecessarily provoke Russia. Even so, President Putin remained relatively conciliatory towards the West throughout the early 2000s. In the meantime, NATO welcomed ten new members (1999-2004), which is more accessions than during the previous 40 years of NATO’s existence combined (7 new members).  In 2007, when the Bush administration revealed its plans for a missile defence shield in Eastern Europe, Putin abandoned his policy: In his 2007 State of the Nation Address, he described NATO as “a real threat” (Thalis, 2018).

The argument here is not that Russia has been a dovish, innocent country and that the West is the only one to blame. However, it is striking how little the Atlantic Alliance has adhered to the most fundamental strategic lessons mentioned above. Ultimately, the West has given Russia a good reason to adopt an aggressive policy.

Thus, if we criticise the implementation NATO enlargement, it makes sense to examine the appropriateness of the policy and its motives. This links into Gaddis’ next strategic principle.

Lesson 2: Balance ends and means; avoid emotion and isolation in making decisions.

There are two points to make here. Firstly, the dimension of NATO’s enlargement is in no way appropriate to the degree that Russia actually poses a threat. As Dan Reiter (2001) argues, post-1990 Russian capabilities were “not what they were feared to be during the Cold War”. Similarly, Russia’s power in the 2000s has not risen to the extent that it justifies an expansion which minimises the distance of the NATO-Russia borders from 12.000 miles to 0.

Secondly, enlargement has largely been driven by the idea that NATO will foster Western values and make the transition towards democracy easier in Eastern Europe. This hope, however, was based on utopian premises. Dan Reiter argues that NATO has contributed little to democratising processes in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. It has had little impact in Romania and Slovakia. Further, Turkey and Greece have both experienced “reversions to autocracy” before 1990. Yet, this did not have significant “effect on their status within NATO” (Reiter, 2001).

In sum, we have seen that NATO enlargement has jeopardized a possible improvement of the Western relationship with Russia. On the one hand, it has created a security threat to Russia and unnecessarily triggered a more aggressive approach. On the other hand, it has not accomplished the desired promotion of democracy.

As early as 1997, former US diplomat George Kennan has expressed his doubts about Western adventures: “Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold-War era”. His warning was not taken seriously. Now, more than 20 years later, we see the implications. In this way, the only thing that we can hope to come out of NATO enlargement policy is a lesson for the future. The lesson not to repeat these blunders again.


Brands, H. (2019). If NATO Expansion Was a Mistake, Why Hasn’t Putin Invaded?. Bloomberg. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019].

Clark, C. and Spohr, K. (2015). Moscow’s account of Nato expansion is a case of false memory syndrome. The Guardian. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Nov. 2019].

Cohen, S. (2017). Have 20 Years of NATO Expansion Made Anyone Safer?. The Nation. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019].

Dean, Jonathan, et al. “The debate over NATO expansion: A critique of the Clinton administration’s responses to key questions.” Arms Control Today 27.6 (1997)

Gaddis , John Lewis. “History ,Grand Strategy ,and NATO Enlargement ,”Survival,Vol. 40 ,No. 1 (Spring 1998)

Jacoby, J. (2019). A bigger NATO has been a better NATO. Boston Globe. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019].

Kennan , George F. . “A Fateful Error ,”New York Times,February 5 ,1997

Kissinger, Henry A. ‘Expand NATO now’, Washington Post, 19 Dec. 1994

Michael Mandelbaum, ‘Preserving the peace: the case against NATO expansion’, Foreign Affairs 74: 3, May–June 1995, pp. 9–13;

NATO’s purpose after the Cold War. (2001). [online] Brookings Institution. Available at: [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019].

Reiter, Dan. “Why NATO enlargement does not spread democracy.” International Security 25.4 (2001): 41-67.

Sergounin, Alexander A. ‘Russian domestic debate on NATO enlargement: from phobia to damage limitation’, European Security 6: 4, Winter 1997

Shifrinson, J. (2016). Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer to Limit NATO Expansion. International Security, 40(4), pp.7-44.

Sweeney, M. (2019). NATO Expansion Got Some Big Things Right. [online] War on the Rocks. Available at: [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019].

Thalis, Alexander. Threat or Threatened? Russia in the Era of NATO Expansion. 03 Jun 2018. Australian Institute of International Affairs.

The New York Times (2018). Why NATO matetrs. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019].

Wolff, Andrew T. “The future of NATO enlargement after the Ukraine crisis.” International Affairs 91.5 (2015): 1103-1121.




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