Charles A. Kupchan, ‘Nato’s Final Frontier: Why Russia Should Join the Atlantic Alliance,’ Foreign Affairs, May-June 2010: What only your good friends will tell you

Appearing as a solitary voice dealing with  ‘Russia in NATO’ in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Professor Kupchan’s article suffers from all the usual disadvantages of shadow boxing. Institutional reform of NATO deserves more round table discussions and public hearings if the decisions awaited this coming November are to be informed by rigorous expert argumentation and to avoid flaccid and self-congratulatory thinking within the box such as we have seen till now. To find out more, read on…



Charles A. Kupchan, ‘Nato’s Final Frontier: Why Russia Should Join the Atlantic Alliance,’ Foreign Affairs, May-June 2010, pp 100 – 112: What only your good friends will tell you


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.




Regular visitors to my blog essays will be well aware that I support NATO membership for Russia even in the face of official Russian denials of interest and of the icy stares the idea always raises when introduced for discussion in Western circles. This is why there may be some raised eyebrows by what follows as I take to task the reasoning of Charles Kupchan, Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University, whose timely article in favor of Russia in NATO has just been published by the influential journal Foreign Affairs.


When I read through Charles Kupchan’s essay I could not help thinking about the old story of the Grand Vizier and the Ottoman Sultan. The question at that time was why the Pearl of Rulers had not been greeted by the customary gun salute when his ship entered the harbor. The Vizier explained at length the many problems preventing the correct execution of protocol including finally….the shortage of gunpowder.


So it is with Kupchan’s essay: he tries too earnestly to anticipate and rebut all imaginable arguments of his opponents and in the process he only dilutes the strength of his case by getting bogged down in peripheral issues where he is not always correct, while barely mentioning in passing the single greatest reason for Russia in NATO, perhaps because it is a negative rather than a gleaming positive: that this may be the best way to finalize the post-Cold War settlement in Europe and to put an end to Russia’s disruptive behavior, the counter-measures which undermine Western initiatives of most every kind both in Europe and the world.


Before taking a close look at the reasoning in Kupchan’s new article, I would like to point out that the good professor has been remarkably consistent over the years in his position on both Russia in NATO and on the reform of NATO which this would herald.

Going back to at least to 1997, he participated in conferences organized by the Washington-based “Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO.” As recently as last week his name still figured among the 7 American academics on CEERN letterhead which is hosted by the website of the Federation of American Scientists, an organization founded in 1945 by physicists who had worked on the Manhattan project. FAS, in turn, ‘strives to reduce the spread and risk of nuclear weapons,’ while dealing as well with other issues of international security (see


Lest one jump to the mistaken conclusion that Professor Kupchan has been and remains somewhere in ‘left field,’ I remind readers that he is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, which is, generally speaking, as mainstream and prestigious as academic affiliations can be in the United States.


Moreover, we can see how Kupchan has reconciled his heterodox position on NATO membership for Russia with mainstream U.S. political science methodology if we pause for a moment and consider his 2002 monograph The End of the American Era. Here Kupchan presented us with what is explicitly a Realpolitik analysis of the international scene in the traditions of Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger, not Marx and Engels. And in that book he placed NATO membership for Russia on his short list of things to do within the framework of America’s gracefully preparing to pass from being sole superpower to primary mover in a multipolar world. His advocacy of a reduced level of American engagement in the world – to bring it into line with what the American public would support – corresponded fully to views expressed by the doyen of the American political science Establishment, Harvard’s Professor Sam Huntington, in essays published in Foreign Affairs in 1997 (‘The Erosion of American National Interests’) and 1999 (‘The Lonely Superpower’). It should be noted that in these essays Huntington put to one side his eccentric Clash of Civilizations paradigm and spoke openly in the name of the realist school of international affairs. Both Huntington and Kupchan were saying that a multipolar world in which the United States would be doing less ‘heavy lifting’ would have benefits all around, not least of all at home in America where it would suit the wishes of the majority of the population as demonstrated by public opinion poll results.


In The End of the American Era, Kupchan mentioned bringing Russia in from the cold and binding it to European security as his second order of business in Europe after tending to the continuing problem of instability in the Balkans. He said there that Russia had a great deal to contribute to the collective security of the NATO countries. And while he spoke in favor of continued NATO expansion (the very sensitive issue of the Baltics was still ahead), he believed it could nonetheless be made clear to Russia that it was welcome. He suggested 2010 as the target date for Russian accession.


In the same book, Kupchan acknowledged that a NATO including Russia would bear little resemblance to the alliance that existed during the Cold War: “Rather than being focused on the territorial defense of its members, it would serve as a vehicle for coordinating peacekeeping, countering terrorism and carrying out other military activities across Europe. It would be looser and more flexible, abandoning defense guarantees in favor of the informal habits of cooperation and consensus that were the lifeblood of the Concert of Europe.”


That was back in 2002. In his May-June 2010 article in Foreign Affairs, Kupchan sees much greater complexity of views among Member States over the future of NATO generally, with divergence of interests between America and Europe, on the one hand, and within Europe itself on the other hand. In resolving these contradictions, Kupchan holds out Russian membership as a key to describing the problem and finding the solution to NATO’s future.


Kupchan argues that including Russia in NATO would contribute to Europe’s ‘collective security’ (a notion he distinguishes pointedly from the competing mission of ‘collective defense’), giving Europe a major new integration task around which to mobilize.


This is plausible but not a compelling argument for making nice with the Russians. However, there are still four further reasons which Kupchan advances. The next one is that Russia and its one million active-duty forces could give military oomph to Europe’s military potential well beyond what the still squabbling Europeans can do for themselves. In this way it would ultimately make Europe the stronger geopolitical partner that the US seeks and requires.


Kupchan has raised a valid point about the attractiveness of Russian military forces to strengthen NATO manpower, though he has needlessly set it in the tricky context of American-European push and pull relations, thereby opening up more questions about its feasibility than he has answered by highlighting its possibility utility.


Kupchan’s third reason why Russia should be in NATO is that this would make it possible to bring Georgia and Ukraine aboard. Yes, indeed, but he is willfully ignoring that the only logic for the Bush Administration’s promoting Georgia and Ukraine in NATO with might and main was precisely to contain and counteract Russia.


Reason four has an element of the negative reasoning I set out at the beginning of this essay. Kupchan is telling us in effect that proposing NATO membership to Russia is a way of countering President Dmitry Medvedev’s call for a new security architecture in Europe. In effect, Russian demands that supreme coordination of European security be turned over to some new body in which Russia has full membership and veto rights would marginalize NATO. This fact has not changed in the latest version of the presidential initiative proposed more recently by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov whereby the OSCE would be the new cornerstone of the European home. However, this particular issue is part of the broader question of Russia’s continued prickliness and confrontational posture so long as its legitimate status as a world power is not confirmed institutionally by the US-led international community.


The fifth and final reason adduced by Kupchan is that including Russia, which has global interests and presence, would help to pull Europe out of its parochialism and into the worldwide projection of power that the United States expects from its NATO toolkit. All of this is true, though like the preceding four reasons it is rather convoluted and feeble. As the Russians would say, it is like scratching your left ear with your right hand. Meanwhile, if you are suspicious of or flatly opposed to the Russians, as is true of nearly all the new members of NATO from the Baltic States and Central Europe, then this argument will not carry much weight and you will be pressing your transatlantic partners hard to reject it.


Kupchan does not stop here. Having stated his case in favor, he proceeds to set out three anticipated objections and to deal with each in turn.


The first of these is that Russia in NATO is equivalent to letting the fox into the chicken coop. But instead of explaining why the critics have got it all wrong and why the Russians are actually not quick brown foxes but conservative German shepherds well disposed to guarding the status quo, unlike the eagerly transformational Americans guided by their Wilsonian universalism, he tells us, in essence, that NATO could tame the fox and turn it into an upstanding vegetarian! Still more embarrassing because of the sheer impracticality of the suggestion, he holds out the notion of reversing direction and returning to collective defense against the Russians if they proved to be intractable.


Objection number two is that Russia in NATO would dilute the alliance’s efficacy and solidarity. Kupchan argues that NATO is already well on its way to dilution thanks to the expansion it underwent after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the further growth otherwise being planned for the future. The policy disputes within NATO over recognizing Kosovo and over action in Afghanistan have highlighted the problems of internal unwieldiness. The question of Russian membership could thus be used to force the alliance to face squarely the institutional changes it must adopt to ensure future performance. Specifically it would bring to the fore the outdated decision-making by consensus. Here Kupchan is merely restating NATO’s structural problem which many other leading American thinkers across the Right/Left divide have long identified. He offers no particular solutions in this essay.


Finally, Kupchan presents for our examination the objection to Russian membership sure to be raised by Neoconservatives and liberal hawks alike: that “it would compromise the alliance’s core values by admitting a member that is not a democracy.”


After some huffing and puffing over whether or not Russia can become truly democratic before accession, Kupchan gets around to stating the obvious, namely that decades ago NATO did just fine, thank you, having in its midst the military dictatorships of Portugal, Greece and Turkey. Democratic criteria were overlooked at the time on strategic grounds and the same logic applies to possible Russian membership today.


But Kupchan does not stop there and leave well enough alone. Instead he sets out a variety of illustrations of how ‘democracies and nondemocracies have often teamed up to good effect.’ He slips in a remark which will divert the debate over Russia into American political scientists’ preferred philosophical pastime: arguing over whether regime type is a good predictor of foreign policy behavior. He dealt with this issue at great length in his 2002 book on The End of the American Era. However, it remains a mine field which results-oriented discussion would do better to avoid.


Kupchan closes his article with an examination of the politics of bringing Russia into NATO. This is entirely in keeping with his long-time academic interest in dissecting where support for one or another foreign policy comes from within countries. In his 2002 monograph, his exclusive focus was on the United States, and he very skillfully highlighted ethnic, regional, partisan and economic factors in the mosaic of foreign policy formulation. Given the space constraints of this essay, he merely calls out the issue but with regard to policy formulation in Western European countries, Eastern Europe and Russia as well as the USA.


His remarks here on Russia demonstrate once again Kupchan’s lack of Fingerspitzgefühl which was apparent in his 2002 opus. Back then his reliance on the shallow and tendentious reporting of the American periodical press for his views on Russia was apparent in his explanation of the fall of the Soviet Union in terms of uncontrollable, new age information flow undermining the regime. Now we see Kupchan has no fresh insights into his subject matter when he tells us Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev will have a job selling NATO membership domestically or when he hints that Putin will be a foot-dragger on the issue out of personal convictions.


To those with eyes to see, it is plain as day that the driving strategist of Russian foreign policy is a world master practitioner of Realpolitik. Mr. Putin will surely jump at the chance to bring his country into the safe harbor of NATO whatever Russia’s publicly stated reservations will be for the sake of getting the best possible bargain over voting rights and other key issues. The public has not much say in these matters and will fall into line swiftly.


It is surprising and disappointing to find that Kupchan has lost his touch when trying to describe policy formulation on the ‘Russia in NATO issue’ in his native America. Kupchan presents us with a picture of an obtuse and unreasonable Congress, likely to oppose the new approach to NATO he is proposing, and an enlightened executive power, which may embrace it.


I have to ask if Kupchan seriously believes that the Obama Administration is ‘working hard to ‘reset’ relations with Moscow’ as he states in this article. Or is this being said out of Political Correctness to ensure his intended audience in the Oval Office and Foggy Bottom does not stop listening?


As I have pointed out even before Obama took office, when his choices of immediate advisers and implementers became clear, in foreign policy this Administration has little more than softer rhetoric to offer, not changed policy. The problem begins with the most seasoned foreign policy veteran on board, Vice President Joe Biden, who launched the ‘reset’ initiative before doing his best to bury it just months later by his intemperate and insulting words about Russia during his visits to Ukraine and Georgia in the summer and early autumn 2009. The problem spreads down through the State Department echelons to veteran Cold Warriors like Richard Holbrooke, Special Envoy for Afpak, and Richard Morningstar, Plenipotentiary Ambassador for Eurasian Energy Affairs, who hit the pavement running with an agenda of open economic warfare directed against Russia’s vital energy sector.


The ongoing active involvement of ‘iron lady’ Madeleine Albright in helping to formulate the American position on reform of NATO institutions does not bode well for accommodation with the Russians. Albright was the driving force behind NATO expansion in Bill Clinton’s second term in office, and her intent was unmistakably clear: to contain Russia by drawing a new line of hostility down the map of Europe, pushing it right up to the borders of the Russian Federation.


Behind all of these separate officials in the Executive Branch whose commitment to a ‘reset’ of relations is dubious, to say the least, there is the éminence grise, Zbigniew Brzezinski, lifelong Russophobe, who even before the formation of the Administration claimed a position among the incoming President’s key foreign policy advisers. Many of the Cold Warriors now in the State Department are his intellectual offspring.


To those who may object to my remarks about a re-set manqué and point to Obama’s recent signing of a replacement treaty to START as vindication of their point, I respond that arms limitation talks were always the preferred formula of Cold Warrior, anti-détente circles within the American foreign policy Establishment. My source for this assertion is none other than Henry Kissinger, who had vast experience with the issue when in office and set down some of his most insightful observations in his 1994 book Diplomacy.


Moreover, it would be no exaggeration to say that the Russian executive tandem humored the Americans over START, which they did not particularly want so long as there is no comprehensive agreement over missile defense systems. The Russians signed on the dotted line in the knowledge that the ratification of this treaty in the U.S. Senate is uncertain if not doubtful; and they reinsured themselves by announcing their freedom to renounce the treaty if US defensive technologies began to threaten Russia’s strategic defense.


It would have been much better for the cause of ‘Russia in NATO’ if Professor Kupchan had focused his argument on one or two decisive benefits to be derived thereby, beginning with the taming of Russian obstructionism, which is directly in response to America’s unwillingness to share power and move towards a multipolar world.


Let’s not look for false positives. Russia is not and for the foreseeable future will not be a ‘strategic partner’ of the United States in the way that geographic proximity and shared economic interests make it a strategic partner of the EU in general and of Germany in particular today. The notion of an American-Russian condominium once mooted by Leonid Brezhnev during the heyday of détente is history. Today it is the Americans who are putting out the notion of a ‘G2’ with the People’s Republic of China.


The fundamental issue before us as we consider ‘Russia in NATO’ is our reading of Russia itself. Here is where the shallowness of Kupchan’s knowledge of the country and its people becomes most harmful to his cause.


I maintain that Russia is potentially a force for stability and conservatism in today’s volatile world, whereas America, insofar as it insists on being transformational, whether by spreading democracy or otherwise imposing its values on others by force, is the destabilizing force working against its own best interests. Neither universal ambition espoused so warmly by George W. Bush has been effectively taken off the table by this Democratic President, heir through his party to the Wilsonian dream.


Russia today is a ‘revisionist’ country only insofar as it is seeking to recover some, though very plainly not all, of the respect and place at the table in resolving major international issues that it enjoyed before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The notion that such a country with such national traditions, sitting on 12% of the world’s surface can be kept in a small box, treated like a mid-sized European nation-state as happened during a brief interlude of cataclysmic shrinkage of the Russian economy and state authority in the 1990s is a nonsense which Western analysts indulge in today at their and our general peril. This is an objective fact which has nothing whatever to do with the personality of Mr. Putin or any other member of the Russian ruling elite.


Russia is not expansionist, not dreaming of empire as its detractors would have us believe. There was a joke circulating in the 1980s and 90s that rule in the Balkans held up Turkish progress for 500 years. Very much the same reality pertained to Russia as ruler of the Soviet Union, and this is something today’s leaders in Moscow appreciate full well. Restoration of the vast subsidies to the inefficient economies of the former Soviet republics, not to mention the once captive nations of Eastern Europe, is not an ambition of anyone in the Kremlin. The recent pact with the Ukraine to hold onto its naval base in Sevastopol will all by itself cost the Russian Treasury several billion dollars per year. That is as much of an imperial vision as the Russian Federation can reasonably assume.


Foreign Affairs magazine is to be congratulated for sending us Kupchan’s essay now, well ahead of the NATO review of proposals for new strategic directions scheduled for November. However, appearing as he does here by himself, not as part of a round table exchange of views, Kupchan has been left to shadow box. This effectively denies him and the cause he stands for a chance to develop intellectual rigor which the seriousness of the question posed deserves.


It would clear minds and prepare the way to properly address all the aspects of institutional reform of the Atlantic Alliance if there were to be in the coming months open discussion at suitably arranged conferences, beginning perhaps at the Council of Foreign Relations offices in New York or Washington, but also hosted by NATO headquarters in Brussels, where those most directly concerned in Europe could participate.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2010


G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.