The expansion of NATO into Eastern European states was predominantly fueled by the desire to expand American imperialism and hegemony. That is the argument made on these pages by Nandito Oktaviano in an article titled ‘NATO, Europe, and Ukraine: American Imperialism and Its Geopolitical Turn.’ Regardless of the public justifications made by NATO officials or the arguments made by liberal and realist scholars, NATO expansion was primarily driven by American imperialistic considerations.
However, his analysis is particularly flawed in two important aspects. Firstly, his arguments negate the agency of Eastern European countries. Secondly, he failed to consider the role of France and Germany in halting Ukrainian accession to NATO in 2008, which could prove that the US ‘imperialist’ influence in NATO is not as far-reaching as claimed.
Stooge or Independent Countries?: Considerations of Eastern European Countries in Joining NATO
Oktaviano’s analysis does not consider one crucial point of contention: No country has ever been forced to join NATO under the sheer weight of ‘American imperialism.’ On the contrary, Eastern European countries could decide for themselves whether they want to join the alliance. According to NATO’s study on enlargement in 1995, when a country wants to join NATO, it should formally notify the alliance to start the accession dialogue. When the time is ripe and other NATO members consider that the aspiring country has fulfilled the requirements, it would be invited by a unanimous decision to join the alliance. Consequently, it is the aspiring states themselves that have to apply to join NATO under their own free will. Oktaviano fails to consider this extremely vital element of NATO membership. His article leaves an impression that akin to the playable fish in the video game Feeding Frenzy, the United States ‘eats’ and forces Eastern European countries to join NATO. He should bring the evidence to light if he believes that coercion is involved in NATO enlargement.
This brings us to another issue: What makes Eastern European states want to join NATO? They were members of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself, which one could argue was a group of ‘anti-Western imperialist alliance.’ Why would these countries, after the demise of the Soviet Union, want to join the ‘Western imperialists’ (to use Oktaviano’s words)? The answer lies in the fact that, from the point of view of Eastern European countries, the Soviet Union was also an imperialist that plundered their lands similar to the way the British plundered African lands.
The Warsaw Pact is the only military alliance in history that invaded one of its members when, on August 21, 1968, 175,000 Warsaw Pact troops occupied several locations in Prague without the consent of the Czech government (Goodman, 1969, p. 42). In the three Baltic states, the Soviet Union extracted their resources and told Russian people to inhibit the area so that Russian people could exert more influence in the puppet states (Annus, 2012, p. 31). In Ukraine in the mid-1930s, the Moscow government forcefully extracted Ukrainian wheat and grain to be sold and fund Soviet modernization while leaving little for the Ukrainians themselves, resulting in a tragic famine (Stark, 2010, pp. 23-4). Oktaviano fails to bring to light the motivations of former Soviet states to join NATO.
After looking at the relevant evidence of Soviet practices in Eastern European countries, no wonder that they regard NATO and the West as a force that could prevent a repeat of Russian aggression and occupation of their territories. Consistent with the Balance of Threat theory proposed by Stephen Walt (1987, 5), those former Soviet states see the new Russian Federation as a more significant threat than the so-called Western Imperialism, and this consideration prompts them to apply to join NATO to benefit from the perceived protection of Article 5 of the 1949 Washington Treaty which considers an attack on one member as an attack on the entire alliance that could entice an American military response. For Eastern European countries, the fact that they are joining the ‘Western imperialists’ does not matter if the ‘Western imperialists’ can guarantee their security from the more significant threat of Russian imperialism. Is it wrong for Eastern Europeans to determine their own fate and take necessary actions to guarantee their own security?
However, after reading this proposition, Oktaviano could argue that Western hegemony has zapped into the minds of Eastern European leaders and that they are being ‘seduced’ by NATO and the United States. This is similar to the Gramscian argument of cultural hegemony in which the masses consent to be subdued by the bourgeoisie due to the widespread influence of their thinking (see Lears, 1985). Still, such a counter-argument fails on the count that the Soviet Union has occupied the lands of Eastern Europe since the end of the Second World War and, for over four decades, it has failed to build a cultural hegemony on Eastern Europeans and, to the contrary, the Soviet Union did an excellent service to the ‘Western imperialists’ by mistreating them and giving the ‘Western imperialists’ a more positive look. Therefore, if there is anyone to blame for these countries’ flirtation to join NATO, the blame lies with the Soviet Union.
Finally, Oktaviano would have to clarify what he means by the word ‘imperialism.’ He uses the word 17 times in his article yet does not explicitly define the word in the way that he sees fit. Does it mean the forceful inclusion of countries within the sphere of influence of a hegemon? Or can the mere existence of a hegemon be qualified as ‘imperialism’? He seems to tilt towards the latter, given that, according to Peter Gowan’s conceptualization, he “defines American imperialism loosely as a world order which is designed to put America as the hegemon.” However, perhaps it is best if he further clarifies the usage of this word due to its centrality in his argument. He would also have to grapple with whether NATO can be qualified as an imperialist endeavor if the Eastern European countries themselves want to join it. In simpler terms, is coercion a necessary part of being an imperialist? If the countries themselves want to join NATO voluntarily, can NATO still be qualified as an imperialist endeavor?
Not-so-Imperialist: Germany, France, and Turkey in Impeding NATO Enlargement
Lastly, Oktaviano does not look into the intricacies, behind-the-scenes negotiations, and compromises in NATO enlargement, specifically during the 2008 Bucharest Summit that promises Ukraine and Georgia eventual NATO membership without specifying the details, as well as the recent Turkish refusal to let Sweden join NATO. If he had looked into the intricacies behind NATO enlargement, he would have realised that the United States does not exercise much power in compelling other NATO members to support its policies.
Firstly, let us look into the 2008 Bucharest Summit, which many argued has laid the basis for the current war in Ukraine. At that summit, the United States aimed to convince the other NATO members to approve a Membership Action Plan (MAP), the formal steps before becoming a NATO member, to Ukraine and Georgia (de Grossouvre & de Gourdon, 2008, p. 84). Suppose US imperialism was rampant and put enormous pressure on NATO members. In that case, the logic goes that the other NATO members should have acquiesced to US demands and approved the MAPs for Georgia and Ukraine.
However, this was not the case. Given that, according to the 1949 Washington Treaty, a NATO invitation for a state to join its alliance must have the unanimous approval of all current NATO members, one state could have enormous influence to reject or, at least, delay the accession of a NATO member wannabe. During that summit, France and Germany refused US demands due to the fear of Russian aggression (Mearsheimer, 2018, p. 172). Consequently, a compromise was reached in which the final joint statement would stipulate that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members without specifying the details. Therefore, given that NATO members can successfully defy the United States, can it still be deemed an imperialistic organization that only serves the interests of the United States?
Of course, this analysis does not attempt to put rose-tainted glasses on NATO and exonerate NATO from any responsibility for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, one could argue that NATO deserves part of the blame for not admitting Ukraine in 2008 and leaving Ukraine in the worst of both worlds: perceived by Russia as under NATO protection while not actually under NATO protection (Walt, 2022). If Ukraine had been admitted to NATO in 2008 when it was still weak, perhaps it would be safe from Russia’s invasion today, like the Baltic States are safe from Russia’s aggression. Given that it did not happen, the problem would be too little ‘American imperialism’ in NATO, not too much, given that France and Germany opposed the United States, and it was forced to compromise. Alternatively, NATO should not have promised Ukraine any NATO membership at all, and the United States would capitulate to France and Germany. It would signify the capitulation of the US to France and German demands. At any rate, this episode illuminates that other NATO members can successfully oppose the United States and that the US does not have an “overwhelming leadership” in NATO, as claimed by Oktaviano.
We can also see these dynamics play out during the recent Turkish filibuster to Sweden’s accession into NATO. Traditionally, Turkey has always been supportive of NATO enlargement. However, with Finland and Sweden, Turkey believes those countries harbour Kurdish groups that Turkey considers terrorist groups. Consequently, Turkey decided to use the fact that Finland and Sweden need Turkey’s approval for their admittance into NATO as a bargaining chip to extract political concessions from both countries in the form of more heightened security cooperation. For Sweden, the problem is even worse, as the Swedish police have permitted groups to burn the Quran (Coskun, 2023). If the United States is indeed the ‘big boss’ of NATO, theoretically speaking, it could have forced Turkey to approve Finland and Sweden’s accession as soon as possible. Instead, Turkey is allowed to delay Finnish and Swedish NATO accession to achieve its own interests despite US objections. Eventually, Turkey allowed Finland to join NATO on April 2023, and Turkey greenlit Swedish accession into NATO in July.
The two episodes of the Bucharest Summit in 2008 and the saga between Turkey and Sweden, as well as Finland in 2023, concerning their NATO accession, have shown that perhaps NATO is not an organisation where the United States could force its members to do its bidding. Instead, its members have considerable agency within the organization, an element missing from Oktaviano’s overly simplistic view of NATO as merely a vehicle for American imperialism.
While Oktaviano has made an insightful analysis of the role of the United States within NATO, his analysis suffers from the lack of two crucial elements: the agency of Eastern European countries and the role of other NATO members in pursuing their interests and derailing NATO enlargement. As I have demonstrated above, the topic of NATO enlargement is not as simplistic as depicted by Oktaviano. It is full of political tugs-of-war between its members and the aspiration of Eastern European states. Therefore, he should consider at least those two elements in refining his arguments regarding NATO expansion and US imperialism.
Trystanto is an undergraduate student of international relations at Universitas Gadjah Mada. From January until May 2023, he was an exchange student at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) in Reims, France. He can be found on Twitter with username @Trystanto2