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Why is a regional security collective with Russia so hard to imagine?

Getting out of the Cold War rut takes time but it's imperative, else all parties are doomed to repeat history.

Analysis | Europe

What distinguishes opportunities from threats can be summed up in three ways. First, the realization that a given set of circumstances, rather than necessarily consigning one to the subservient role of victim, can be turned to advantage. Second, the ability to see beyond what is to what could be. Third, the will to act on that vision to turn it into reality.

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine contretemps is such a yet-unrecognized opportunity. In its present form, it is an admittedly uninvited crisis, precipitated by what appears to be a narcissistic bully, feeding the subliminal longing on the part of all the parties concerned — Putinesque Russia to be sure, but also the United States and its European allies — for a revivification of the Manichaean simplicity of a Cold War past that has passed. In the absence of new ideas, clinging to the familiar past always provides the most comforting way to make one’s way into the future. That’s why we’re so enamored of “Great Power Competition” branding, and also why crises like this will persist in the future, and with them our attendant bumbling response and irresolution. Unless of course, we fundamentally rethink how we do business. 

Like all crises, the current situation controls the decision makers whose immediate attention, time, and energy it demands. Devoid of new ideas and wedded to the past, they uniformly play down to the level of the competition, as they did throughout the Cold War. In the immediate near term, the situation before us has developed to the point where it must play out on its own terms with extant institutional arrangements, operational capabilities, and doctrinal precepts. In the longer term, however, this is a potential tipping-point for reengineering the future — if only the imagination-challenged parties to the situation could be savvy enough to seize the moment and turn status-quo parochialism on its head.

The crisis at hand is, ironically, the opportunity at hand: the opportunity being to transform a NATO grown long in the tooth from an exclusionary, adversarial collective-defense alliance to an inclusive regional collective security arrangement that accepts Russia as a participating member, provides an example for the establishment of similar collective security institutions in the other regions of the world, and facilitates the progressive demilitarization of the region’s and the world’s militaries.

Let us agree that (a) NATO and Russia are forever linked; (b) Putin will inevitably continue to test the bounds of acceptable international behavior in his self-defined sphere of influence; and (c) he and his minions, every bit as intellectually crippled as we are, will continue living out their obsession with recapturing Russia’s lost “greatness,” influence, and territories by heavy-handedly flexing their muscles at every turn with the only instrument of power at their disposal that’s remotely worthy of the name: the Russian military.

Alliances, in contrast to temporary, ad hoc coalitions of the moment, are permanent; they endure. Such resiliency has been the singular defining feature of NATO’s “success” to date. But alliances are also exclusionary; you’re either on the inside or the outside, ally or adversary. You have to qualify to get in, and if you’re “The Other,” the have-not whose red-line domicile is on the other side of the tracks, you’re a pariah. Is there any wonder that those relegated to outsider status would feel alienated, ostracized, subsumed by paranoia and insecurity?

NATO is and has been since its inception a distinguishable type of alliance: a collective-defense alliance. That’s the essence of the language in Articles 5 and 6 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Collective security arrangements, in contrast, are qualitatively different than alliances: inclusive rather than exclusionary (all for one, one for all), internally focused on preserving and enforcing the security, broadly conceived, of the whole: e.g., human security, demographic security, environmental security, health security, cybersecurity. National interests, national sovereignty, and national territorial integrity are expected to give way to supranational imperatives – from securing shared geographic and environmental commons to protecting the safety and well-being of sovereign individuals whose fundamental needs aren’t being met by the governments charged with serving them.

A transformed NATO, reconfigured as a regional collective security institution (with all the states of the region automatically being unconditional members unless they formally opt out), would be a fully operationalized and integrated reflection of Chapter VIII (Regional Arrangements) of the United Nations Charter, thereby providing a model for the establishment of collective security regimes in the other major regions of the world. What was Lord Ismay’s famously glib characterization of NATO’s purpose — “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down” — would be reformulated to fit the moment: “to usher Russia in, steer the United States out, and lift Europe up.”  

The member states of a reconstituted NATO collective security enterprise, based on a decision making calculus to which they themselves must agree, would be expected to contribute military contingents to a permanent regional peace force, whose mission would be to police and enforce regional security against a variety of challenges, military and non-military. Transforming their missions to encompass such essential tasks as peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response could well lead to significant demilitarization over time.

(And, needless to say, the relationship between NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – with the associated imperative to deconflict, streamline, rationalize, and ultimately merge these competitively complementary institutions – would be central to the deliberations that necessarily must precede the establishment of the collective security regime advocated here.)

Naïve, you say? Only if a preference for the aspirational over the feasible is equated with know-nothing innocence. Unrealistic? Only if, in Hard-Realist terms, one believes that all that can ever be is all that has ever been. Impractical? Only if practicality is equated with the speed and ease of producing agreement and cooperation on inherently difficult, complex matters that invite disagreement and resistance. A transformative undertaking of this magnitude, if it is to become a reality, will take time — time that extends well beyond the situation now at hand — and require extensive examination and deliberation to achieve cooperative agreement. 

The U.S. national security establishment itself will resist the notion that such dramatic measures reflect ideational and inspirational power specifically attuned to the postmodern era we inhabit. Our European allies will resist initially, no doubt on grounds that such new arrangements would reward a Russia unworthy of inclusion. Russia itself has been pushing for a pan-European security arrangement since before the second World War so it may not be such a hard sell.

The time to embark on this endeavor, nonetheless, is now. In anticipation of the rocky road ahead for such heterodoxy, we might take succor from Thomas Jefferson’s famous observation memorialized on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

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