Pro: Formed to halt Soviet expansion, NATO useless in current crisis
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, “Should the U.S. consider withdrawing from NATO?”
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In the small Baltic country of Estonia, the easternmost county, called Ida-Viru, has a population of 150,000. Of these 150,000, only 20 percent are ethnic Estonians, while upward of 70 percent are Russian.
Suppose the following were to happen in Ida-Viru County. A referendum is held, asking whether the population wants to pull out of Estonia and join Russia. The referendum passes. The county government asks Russia to send troops. The Russian army enters and occupies the county.
Estonia, whose army can deploy no more than 700 soldiers, charges Russia with aggression. President Barack Obama announces that the United States will engage Russia militarily to defend Estonia.
An incredulous White House press corps asks President Obama if he is really going to war with Russia over Ida-Viru county, which one of their number has just managed to locate on a map.
Reporter: “But the people in Ida-Viru want to be with Russia.”Obama: “It’s still aggression.”Reporter: “But we didn’t go to war over Crimea.”
Obama: “That was different. Ukraine is not a member of NATO. We have an obligation to defend Estonia.”
NATO was created in 1949 by the North Atlantic Treaty. The United States is a founding member. Estonia joined in 2004. Article 5 of the treaty says that an armed attack against any member state is “an attack against them all.” The other NATO members must act “forthwith,” using armed force if necessary. So, says the president, we had no choice if we were to live up to our commitment.
Reporter: “But wasn’t NATO set up for the Cold War, communism was going to overrun Europe?”Obama: “Yes, but the treaty doesn’t say anything about communism.”
This scenario is not likely to be played out in reality, at least any time soon. But if Estonia were attacked by Russia, or by anyone else, we would have a legal obligation to defend it.
The rationale behind the North Atlantic Treaty was that the knowledge that the major powers would intervene to deter a westward military attack by the U.S.S.R. into Europe. But the deterrence might not work if all we are talking about is a Russian military incursion of a few miles when ethnic Russians are begging it to take them.
The obligation we took on in 1949 to defend Western Europe is now an obligation to defend a huge number of countries in central and Eastern Europe, many of which have ethnic issues like those of Ukraine or Estonia.
Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has taken into its membership not only Estonia, but Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Albania and Romania. If any one of them is attacked by anyone else, it’s our war.
Of course, a U.S. president could decide to ignore the NATO obligation. But then it would be another red line we have drawn that we are not willing to back up. We need to think—and think before a situation develops—whether we are really willing to go to war in all the circumstances that might fall under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
NATO has outlived its usefulness. The Russian army might go into Crimea, but it will not go into Belgium. The doomsday scenario that brought about NATO has faded into history.
There is no need for an organization that requires us to police Europe, regardless of the circumstances that might bring about a military confrontation there. Europe has its own ways of dealing with its problems.
To be sure, aggression is not a pretty thing and should be discouraged. But as we saw with Crimea, what one country calls aggression another calls the expression of the right of self-determination. The North Atlantic Treaty is too blunt a weapon.
John B. Quigley is a professor of law at Ohio State University. Readers may write to him at Moritz College Law, 55 West 12th St., Columbus, Ohio 43210.