In a new essay at The National Interest, Richard Betts makes a point I’ve been making since before this blog started: 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is one of the most successful alliances of all time, but after the cold war and the successful completion of its mission, NATO suffered an identity crisis. It now has three main functions and self-images that compete with each other.

The first persona is the enforcer, the pacifier of conflicts beyond the region’s borders; the second is the gentlemen’s club for liberal and liberalizing countries of the West; and the third is the residual function of an anti-Russia alliance.

The third and original of these faces became a moot point with the collapse of the Soviet Union but seems to be growing again with a resurgent Russia.  For the most part, however, only NATO’s newest members — the former Soviet satellites that are now free — see that as a significant mission for the Alliance.  The old members, for reasons which vary, want very much to work with Russia.

But Betts is right:  These missions are contradictory. 

A NATO focused on conducting military operations outside Europe to enforce the rules of the international system would not take on new members who can contribute next to nothing to said operations owing to small economies and outdated militaries.

Conversely, a NATO which is primarily a membership club that rewards European countries who get their act together will gladly take on anyone who meets the standards for joining.  The more the merrier, after all, if it means that countries on the fence between East and West decide to pick the latter.

But, of course, an expanding NATO will likely be one that, quite understandably, alienates Russia.  Which, if the goal is to deter conflict with Russia, isn’t such a grand idea.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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