In Hindsight, Bush was Right to Try and Expand NATO | Matt Snape
In his memoir, Duty, Robert Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense under the Bush and Obama administrations, wrote that trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO ‘was truly overreaching’, and ignored ‘their own vital national interests’.
Like with many long-term foreign policy decisions, it is all too easy to blame the Bush administration for any incidents of global instability post-Iraq, but Gates’ claim ignores the historical context that led the former US president to offer Ukraine and Georgia NATO membership in the first place, and why his decision to support NATO expansion in general was the right one in hindsight considering Putin’s invasion of Ukraine this year.
Many former Soviet republics wanted NATO protection following the end of the Cold War in 1991. In 1999, Eastern European countries like Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia lobbied for NATO membership, and they eventually joined the alliance in 2004, toward the end of Bush’s first term in office – a move which his administration proudly supported. If he vetoed their membership applications and left them vulnerable to Moscow, who knows how many more countries the Russian President could have invaded to this day? That we will never know.
Arguably, if Ukraine and Georgia had joined NATO in 2008, as Bush intended, Putin would have been more reluctant to invade those nations, and NATO members would have been obliged under the alliance’s Article V to intervene if he did.
The Bush administration’s response to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia might not have been so timid if they would have been allowed to join NATO that same year, because the former U.S. President would have been legally obliged to protect them.
But go back further to 2001-04 and that period of time represented a missed opportunity for Putin to take advantage of his cordial relationship with the West. The Russian President and Bush enjoyed a mostly friendly relationship during the early 2000s, and Putin once lamented in 2001 that America was very lucky to have Bush ‘at its helm’ following 9/11.
As Dr. Simon Sweeney said, Putin stated in 2004 that ‘each country has the right to choose the form of security it considers most appropriate’, and he did not specify that this principle did not apply to Ukraine and Georgia.
Former NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said the Russian President asked to join NATO in the early 2000s ‘as an equal’, but he gave up on the idea in 2004. Russia’s bid for NATO membership would not have been successful back then due to hostilities between Moscow and Chechnya following the 1999-2000 Chechnyan war, and countries have to be free of internal conflicts to join the alliance. But the fault there lies with Putin, not Bush, and if he had bothered to resolve his internal disputes, Russia could have joined NATO and served as a useful ally in the fight against China, which became an issue after Bush left office.
Also, it is all too easy to ignore the benefits that Bush’s drive to expand NATO in 2004 brought to Eastern European nations. As Rachel Epstein for Denver Dialogues argues, NATO pushed aspiring members toward democratic civil-military relations. Eastern Europe had little experience of democracy before 1990 and NATO reappropriated authority away from executives and enfranchised militaries of defence and parliaments. It also trained civilians and military personnel alike in the desirability of broad-based supervision. NATO may not have been perfect at keeping Russia out of conflict since 2008, but it has succeeded in securing former Soviet republics against Moscow. Of course, this is down to the work of NATO itself, not Bush, but it was under the former U.S. President’s watch that the alliance expanded further and these outcomes started under his presidency. They were also preserved under his successors’ watches.
To add to the above argument, Mike Sweeney wrote in War on the Rocks that the Russian communities in Estonia and Latvia have been integrated into the communities of those respective nations and have never turned against the Estonian and Latvian governments. They are not a threat to stability in those nations. And considering Latvia and Estonia are on Russia’s doorstep, Putin has not threatened to invade those countries because NATO would have to defend them under Article V. This just shows NATO membership provides many former Soviet republics with the protection Ukraine could have enjoyed today, and that Bush was right in hindsight to offer them NATO membership.
NATO’s failure to expand all the way to Moscow lies with Putin, and NATO membership could have provided Ukraine and Georgia with protection during the 2022 and 2008 invasions respectively, but today’s events should not overshadow the benefits of Bush’s push to expand NATO in the 2000s brought to Eastern Europe, and this is one aspect of his foreign policy that does not receive enough credit.
So instead of blaming all of today’s events on Bush, it is important to remember the reasons why he chose to enlarge NATO, and that Eastern Europe is far more stable today because of NATO enlargement.