Without the transatlantic alliance, Europe would have been an ugly place of coups and wars.
Although the last major round of NATO enlargement took place almost 18 years ago, a debate about the advisability of past and future enlargement of the alliance has been reignited.
Critics of an ever-expanding NATO argue that the addition of former Warsaw Pact members to the Western alliance has created a security dilemma for Russia. In this version of events, NATO expansion is therefore responsible for Russia’s aggression against its neighbors and ultimately making Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) less secure.
What this argument does not address is what the CEECs would look like in the absence of NATO expansion. The region’s interwar history suggests that the alternative would be wars, dictatorships and coups. Each would destabilize Europe and make another European war more likely.
Between 1918 and 1939, the future Central and Eastern European members of NATO experienced nine successful coups and several failures. Of the 10 countries that joined NATO in 1999 and 2004, only the Czech Republic and Slovakia (then unified as Czechoslovakia) did not see the military overthrow their government in the interwar period. In the decades since NATO membership became an option and then a certainty for these countries, none has been the victim of a successful coup. Although history is not a perfect predictor of the future, it would be very difficult to explain this remarkable shift without noting the priority NATO places on civilian control over the military.
Between 1918 and 1939, future ECO members of NATO engaged in seven military conflicts against each other and several more against other neighbors. These concerned six of the 10 future members of NATO. Since NATO membership became a realistic option, there has not been a single military conflict between these countries. This is despite the fact that past military disputes are one of the best predictors of future military conflicts. Common membership in NATO is the most convincing explanation for this long period of peace.
Even though Hungary and Poland have seen recent setbacks from liberal democratic standards, the CEEC region as a whole remains one of the most democratic in the world. It was a development few predicted when Soviet rule over Central and Eastern Europe came to an end. Most countries in the region had little or no democratic experience before World War II and the subsequent Soviet occupation. The region’s post-Cold War leaders, many of whom had little governance experience, faced enormous social, economic and political challenges. A slide towards dictatorship would have been the easy way out, especially for the CEECs which resorted to this solution in the 1920s and 1930s.
How would Russia, Germany and the United States react to a militaristic and unstable CEE? Military conflicts in Bosnia, Serbia/Yugoslavia, Moldova and Georgia have all led to military intervention by NATO or Russia. There is no reason to believe that the same would not be the case in the event of a war involving Poland or Hungary. Each of these interventions would lead to greater hostility between NATO and Russia and increase the possibility of this hostility escalating from a new Cold War to a Hot War.
Coups and wars in the CEECs would potentially spread to other parts of Europe through contagion and diffusion effects, as they did in the Balkans. Not only would there be refugee flows on a level comparable to those seen during the Syrian civil war, but we would also see defeated armed groups seeking refuge in neighboring territories. This could potentially radicalize people in those countries or push groups with their own grievances to emulate the violence they see in the CEECs.
The same goes for coups. There’s a reason we’ve recently seen four separate coups in West Africa: they’re contagious. Every successful coup in the EEC would embolden anti-democratic groups elsewhere. Russia/USSR, which experienced a failed coup in 1991 and a borderline repeat in 1993, would be particularly at risk of copycat, especially during the turbulent times of the 1990s.
Interestingly, one of the main proponents of the idea that NATO expansion is responsible for Russian aggression, John J. Mearsheimer, wrote a famous article in 1990 claiming that the end of the Cold War was likely to lead to war and instability in Europe. It was a reasonable prediction to make, given CEE’s history. What Mearsheimer and his followers fail to recognize is that his prediction did not come to fruition precisely because his other prediction, that of NATO’s disintegration, was also wrong.
Wars, dictatorships and coups were the future of ECO until the prospect of NATO and EU membership strengthened the hand of pro-democracy forces in every country . The nationalist and populist impulses that drove the region to ruin have not entirely disappeared, but the enormous advantage of remaining in NATO and the EU means that the cost of acting on them is greater than what most CEEC leaders are willing to pay.
Gennady Rudkevich is assistant professor of political science at Georgia College.