The Geopolitics of NATO’s Expansion

Salman Rafi Sheikh

What was, until a year ago, a “brain dead” organisation according to the French President has suddenly found not only a working brain but also a conflict to revive itself. The Russia-Ukraine conflict, while originally pushed by the US/Western insistence on expanding NATO to include Ukraine to encircle Russia, has become a direct source of oxygen for the organisation to expand further to include countries like Finland and Sweden. While the organisation’s expansion via the Russia-Ukraine conflict is a setback for those in Europe – including France and Germany – who favoured a European security infrastructure independent of NATO, it is good news for those in Europe who have been advocating a further strengthening of the organisation against emerging threats, including terrorism, migration and far-right supremacists, and last but not least, geopolitical pressures i.e., Russia. But the geopolitics of NATO’s expansion is a recipe for disaster, not stability.

A simple way of understanding this is a question: how will bringing forces of war to the border of Russia help deescalate geopolitical pressures? With Western troops and weapon systems on its border, there is only one potential way left for Russia to respond. It involves its own military build-up, including, as Moscow recently warned in view of Sweden’s and Finland’s bid to join NATO, deployment of nuclear and hypersonic weapon systems in the East European exclave. How the geopolitics of NATO’s expansion will not contribute to peace is evident, although it is another matter that NATO’s expansion will ensure that the European continent remains tied to Washington for a very long period of time. Such an arrangement serves both Washington and those European political elites tied to the US.

The UK’s Jeremy Corbyn recently said that NATO must “ultimately disband” as it does not contribute to dialogue and peace. NATO’s expansionism, others think, is keeping the Cold War alive, which is possible only when the threat of Russian invasion from the East is constantly – and purposefully – over projected.

Let’s see what the ‘father’ of America’s notorious containment policy, George Kenan, during the cold war has to say about NATO’s post-Cold War continuation. In 1998, in an interview with The New York Times, Kennan said that NATO was essentially an instrument of Cold War geopolitics. The interview was given around the time NATO’s first expansion happened in the late 1990s, and Kennan explained that NATO’s enlargement was the “beginning of a new Cold War”, adding that “I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else.”

That expansion in 1998-99 was justified on the basis of a ‘Russian threat.’ It is ironic that the same threat – and a very similar language – is being used today as well. To quote Kennan further, “’I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime” and not Russia as Kennan explained at length in that very timely – and very futuristic – interview.

NATO, very much like the Warsaw Pact, was a Cold War arrangement. Warsaw Pact was disbanded – a clear indication of Moscow’s intention to discontinue the Cold War politics of alliances and counter-alliances. But NATO was not disbanded; it was enlarged. Today, its enlargement is being pursued much more aggressively than was the case in the 1990s or the early 21st century.

With Cold War over, NATO turned further into an instrument of American foreign policy. Its role in various conflicts from Afghanistan to Libya has served the US objectives. If NATO were to be disbanded, as some European leaders implied recently, it would strip the US of an instrument of foreign policy that not only helps it materialise its core foreign policy objectives (e.g. removal of the Taliban from power in 2001, removal of Gaddafi) but also keeps European ambitions of strategic autonomy in check. That is one core reason why NATO was not disbanded and is highly unlikely to be disbanded in near future, even though people like Corbyn have different thoughts about it and Russia has been warning, ever since 2007, about the adverse effect this expansion will have.

When Russia’s Vladimir Putin addressed the Munich Security Conference in 2007, he said: “NATO has put its frontline forces on our borders … NATO expansion represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact?”

But the US has different thoughts. It sees in NATO’s enlargement the very survival of its hegemony. Therefore, when recently asked about NATO’s expansion to include Finland and Sweden and Russia’s warnings, the US State Department said that “NATO’s door is an open door.”

Apparently disagreeing with George Kennan, the State Department further said that this expansion will promote “stability on the European continent.” It is twisting facts and changing history. For instance, Sweden is a country that has not fought a war in over 200 years. It has enjoyed stability without NATO’s help. With the US now seeking to make this country part of a military alliance against Russia, it will be forced to make changes to its geopolitics and foreign policy that would make war, or fighting a war, inevitable, as it has been for the rest of NATO countries under the US leadership ever since the alliance’s establishment in 1949.

Sweden will inevitably need to bolster its defence. It has already increased its defence budget, as the country seeks to purchase state-of-the-art weapon systems from the US. NATO’s expansion, thus, has a double advantage for the US. Its ties more and more European countries to the US foreign policy and it adds to the US military-industrial complex as well. All in all, it not keeps the US hegemony intact but reproduces it with an active partnership with the European elites.


Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs.

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