GIBSON: Would you favor putting Georgia and Ukraine in NATO?
PALIN: Ukraine, definitely, yes. Yes, and Georgia.
GIBSON: Because Putin has said he would not tolerate NATO incursion into the Caucasus.
PALIN: Well, you know, the Rose Revolution, the Orange Revolution, those actions have showed us that those democratic nations, I believe, deserve to be in NATO.
Putin thinks otherwise. Obviously, he thinks otherwise, but…
GIBSON: And under the NATO treaty, wouldn’t we then have to go to war if Russia went into Georgia?
PALIN: Perhaps so. I mean, that is the agreement when you are a NATO ally, is if another country is attacked, you’re going to be expected to be called upon and help.
National Review’s Mark Hemingway explains her position thusly:
Once they’re in NATO and if they’re attacked, we might — stress might — have to defend them. But obviously a major part of the reasoning in letting them join NATO is that it might make Russia less likely to attack, no?
I hate to piss in Hemingway’s cheerios, but if a NATO member is attacked, we’re obligated to provide military assistance. From the text of the North Atlantic Treaty:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force . . .
Incidentally, this very clause was invoked after September 11th to justify NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan. If Article 5 authorizes a NATO military response to a stateless terrorist group operating outside of the North Atlantic region, I find it difficult to imagine the United States wiggling out of providing direct military assistance to a NATO member under Russian attack.
Hemingway’s second point is slightly more plausible. After all, NATO’s collective military strength is impressive (although if we’re not obligated to provide military assistance, NATO membership isn’t as valuable a deterrent as Hemingway assumes). But I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that adding several far-flung members undermines the credibility of NATO’s Article 5 security guarantees. If Russia perceives the United States as unwilling or unable to effectively defend Georgia and the Ukraine, NATO’s deterrent is functionally irrelevant. Would the public really support a war against a former superpower armed with nuclear weapons over Georgia? I doubt it, and I don’t fancy fighting the Russians in South Ossetia to preserve the credibility of the United States’ security guarantees. Bismark’s famous maxim about the Balkans not being worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier comes to mind.
Extending NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine puts the United States in a strategic vice: if we respond forcefully, we risk a wider war with Russia. If we fail to respond at all, other NATO members will quickly take note and cease to rely on the U.S. alliance. Ironically enough, this outcome would probably encourage further Russian aggression in Eastern and Central Europe, as the United States’ security guarantees would cease to pose a credible deterrent.
UPDATE: It’s also worth noting that Hemingway is wrong about Obama and Biden’s positions on expanding NATO membership. The statement he reproduces only states that Biden favors “. . . MAPs [Membership Action Plans] to Georgia and Ukraine at the next NATO meeting in December.” A Membership Action Plan, of course, is not the same as full NATO membership. It’s a precursor to joining the alliance that provides a set of political, legal, and military criteria that must be met by the aspirant country before the alliance considers extending full membership. I hate to accuse Joe Biden of nuance, but allowing Georgia and Ukraine to pursue Membership Action Plans gives the United States a lot more flexibility that unconditionally offering NATO membership. Similarly, Obama’s statement on NATO expansion offers no firm commitment:
I welcome the desire and actions of these countries to seek closer ties with NATO and hope that NATO responds favorably to their request, consistent with its criteria for membership. Whether Ukraine and Georgia ultimately join NATO will be a decision for the members of the alliance and the citizens of those countries, after a period of open and democratic debate.