Critical thinking stands for the ability to evaluate a situation objectively, from all sides, and weighing in the available evidence before making a decision while being aware of all of the emotions, prejudices, and biases surrounding the issue at hand. The ability to think critically is necessary for making important decisions and is a requirement for nearly all areas surrounding governance and politics. National security is one of the areas that require critical thinking, as the decisions made in the name of the peace and stability of the nation always have far-reaching consequences on the lives of many people around the world.
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At the same time, as international relations practice shows, these decisions are often made with a surprising lack of reflection and introspection, often taking in only a single side of the argument and not caring about the potential consequences. One of such examples is the current rise of the security dilemma in Europe, which had been perpetrated by the unhealthy expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Magee & Nation, 2016). The lack of understanding of the shift in the regional power structure and the focus on US exceptionalism led to the escalation of the situation, which resulted in the Georgian war of 2008 and the Crimean crisis of 2014 (Marten 2018). The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how a lack of critical thinking skills on a governmental scale could cause long-term issues and threats to homeland security.
Paul and Elder’s Critical Thinking Model
Paul and Elder’s critical thinking model is a framework built upon Bloom’s taxonomy of higher thinking and is excellent in analyzing homeland security issues from different perceptions. They highlight various essential dimensions of thinking, which are required to be taken into account when evaluating a problem or a situation, from one’s own or from another person’s perspective. The steps identified by Paul and Elder (2010) are the following:
- All reasoning has a purpose. This step makes the critical thinker acknowledge that any action has a purpose behind it;
- The reasoning behind all actions is to understand something, solve a question, or find a solution to a problem;
- All reasoning is based on explicit or implicit assumptions that may or may not be true;
- The reasoning is subjective to a certain point of view, objective truth is nigh impossible;
- All reasoning is based on data, evidence, and information, which may be complete or incomplete;
- The reasoning is shaped by concepts and ideas;
- All thinking and analysis is based on interpreting data and making conclusions based off of those interpretations;
- All meaningful decisions that affect one or more people have consequences.
In regards to international relations and homeland security, the framework provided above could be shortened to important factors that need to be taken into account when analyzing a situation, namely purpose, assumptions, points of view, evidence, ideas, interpretations, conclusions, and consequences (Paul & Elder, 2010). This framework will be used to analyze the issue of NATO expansion to the East from the perspectives of all parties whose interests are involved in the process.
Background: NATO Expansion to the East, 1991-2019
NATO was formed as an organization to protect the countries of Western Europe from the encroaching Soviet expansion in the wake of the Second World War. The organization was initially comprised out of 12 members, including the US, Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK, Iceland, and Luxembourg (Magee & Nation, 2016). The organization was a defensive alliance meant to resist an attack on any of its members. NATO was formed in 1948 and had since been expanding in order to encompass new members in defense against the USSR. The chief overarching purpose of this alliance was to contain the Soviet bloc from launching an invasion by stating that an attack against any individual member is an attack against all of them. NATO structure imposed certain demands upon its members, such as the dedication of at least 2% of GDP to military spending, participation in joint exercises, the establishment of a unified command structure, and the allowance of allied bases and troops on their territories (Magee & Nation, 2016).
After the fall of the Union in 1991, the Berlin Wall was broken down, and a united Germany joined the ranks of the transatlantic alliance (Magee & Nation, 2016). The original reason for NATO’s existence, which was the containment of the Soviet threat, was gone. A new purpose, as announced by the alliance, became counterinsurgency, peacekeeping, and counterterrorism operations. Over the course of the existence of NATO, it grew from 12 member states to 29, losing only a single core member (France), who withdrew from the treaty and established its own nuclear deterrent shield as protection of its peace and sovereignty (Magee & Nation, 2016). However, since 1991, NATO was expanding eastward, reaching out to USSR’s former allies and satellite states, such as Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states, which joined the alliance between 1999 and 2004 (Magee & Nation, 2016). It has also been making ventures into Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, establishing strategic partnerships with these countries, having a long-term goal of integrating them into the alliance as peripheral states.
Issues with NATO and Its Expansion
The political debate over the necessity of NATO’s existence is currently ongoing in the US and Europe’s political circles. The main points of contention are the organization’s apparent lack of a true purpose, its inefficiency, and inability to adequately react to external threats, and its economic burden on its country members. NATO’s weakness was demonstrated several times, first by the inability to react to Russia’s aggression in Georgia in 2008, followed by a failure to answer the occupation of Ukrainian soil in Crimea in 2014. Both Ukraine and Georgia were partners of NATO and had the right to a modicum of international protection from both NATO and the UN, which did not arrive.
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Another argument against NATO is that its expansion is perceived by Russia as a threat, which in turn is used to justify its acts of asymmetric warfare against the US, its allies, and third countries that Russia considers areas of national interests. Lastly, sustaining NATO has become an economic burden for the US. To summarize, from one of its most powerful assets, the alliance has become a burden for the US homeland security on an economic, military, and geopolitical scale. The following sections will demonstrate how a lack of critical thinking led to these failures.
In order to understand the flaws in the US decision-making in regards to NATO, the problem itself must be analyzed through the prism of Paul and Elder’s critical thinking model. The framework will include NATO’s purpose, assumptions, points of view, evidence, ideas, interpretations, conclusions, and consequences of their chosen approach to international politics. Since Russia is the main catalyst to the turmoil going on in Eastern Europe, its viewpoint is to be included as well.
The first point of critical examination is the purpose of NATO. According to Paul and Elder (2010), every motion, such as the creation and maintenance of an alliance, is driven by a purpose. Back in 1948, the purpose was to contain the USSR and prevent it from plunging further into Europe (German, 2017). NATO was created with that purpose, showing the logical chain: the presence of a problem or the existence of a purpose-made the US to found a defensive alliance organization. In 1991, the situation was different, as the main purpose for which NATO was created was gone. The USSR collapsed, the Soviet bloc was no more, and the threat of military invasion of Europe was gone as well.
The tool had served its purpose in providing homeland security to the US. Instead of discarding it, the US sought reasons and purposes to maintain the organization. The critical error in thinking is obvious at this point: a purpose always goes before the action and not after. If a purpose needs to be invented, then it is not a purpose at all but a lie to keep things going. Therefore, not just the expansion but the existence of NATO in a post-Cold War Europe was an error in critical judgment and not a benefit to the US national security.
NATO’s detrimental nature to the US security was demonstrated during the war against Yugoslavia in 1993, where the country, which otherwise had no business invading another sovereign nation over an internal territorial matter, was forced to spearhead an intervention in the name of European regional security (Carpenter & Conry, 1998). The US was lucky to have avoided serious casualties in that war, which would have provoked a significant domestic backlash. However, nothing of note was achieved through this NATO action – Kosovo remained a destabilized territory, Yugoslavia was fractured into several components, and tensions around central Europe remain high. Thus, in terms of national security, NATO is more of a hindrance than an asset since it puts the US at the risk of being involved in regional conflicts.
The second part revolves around assumptions behind NATO’s expansion and continued existence. According to Carpenter and Conry (1998), the existence of NATO is justified by the US interests in European stability and prosperity. It is said that Europe is tied to the US through economic bonds, and the crisis in Europe would inevitably provoke a loss of profit and capital in the US. The justification for the expansion is being made with the same reason – NATO is being seen as a deterrent against regional instability. However, that assumption is largely one-sided and based on perceptions of Europe rather than economic and historical research. Although trade between Europe and the US is significant, it does not reach critical levels, as Europe and the US are largely independent in their resources, technological bases, and production (German, 2017). In many areas, they remain in fierce competition for supremacy. Historically, the US always benefitted from wars in Europe since it gave the country economic and technological supremacy as well as the ability to present itself as an offshore balancer.
Another assumption connected to the previous one is that the NATO presence solves the security dilemma between different European countries, and including new ones in the alliance would further expand that goal. However, this assumption is based on a supposition that outside of NATO, the European countries have no capabilities for self-organization and achievement of peace and prosperity. The European Union (EU) is a purely European initiative that effectively united western and some of the eastern-European countries in a single economic and political entity (German, 2017). This organization could serve as a basis for a pan-European defensive alliance, with no need for the US to spend money, men, and resources to uphold.
On the other hand, the expansion of NATO to the East has the potential of involving unstable countries and their national and territorial issues into the security net, which, again, would require the alliance to act in order to solve them. The latest example involves the prospective membership of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which has significant issues with Serbia and Kosovo alike, as the aftermath of the war of 1998 (Marten, 2018). Should NATO accept this member into the fold, it would be required to take action in case of any regional or local conflicts involving itself, and the US, by proxy.
The final mistaken assumption behind the retention and expansion of NATO by the US was the focus on post-soviet Russia as a prospective aggressor against American interests in Europe. As it was already established, Europe’s economic ties with the US do not solicit the existence of an expansive and expensive military bloc, and the countries on the continent had the potential to maintain a standing alliance on their own without outside involvement. The reason why the US sees Russia as a threat to its national interests is because of the heavily engrained stereotypes left after the Cold War (Marten, 2018). During the 1990s and the early 2000s, Russia was seeking to become a part of the Western-led alliance. It did not have the same economic and military capabilities as before and did not hold a destructive ideology that opposed Western capitalism. In other words, Russia did not represent a threat that NATO had to be expanding against. But it did, and in so doing, imposed a security dilemma upon the country.
Although NATO officials have announced many times that the alliance’s expansion is not aimed towards Russia, the proponents of the expansion failed to analyze the situation critically and take into account the regional history and political perceptions of the country. Russian history is filled with invasions from the west, which took advantage of the poorly defensible flat terrain between Moscow and the Russian border, prompting the country to surround itself with a belt of satellite states as a deterrent (Marten, 2018). By encroaching on what Russia considered its natural sphere of influence, NATO and the US invoked a security dilemma, which resulted in a war in Georgia, conflicts in Ukraine, and Russia’s asymmetrical opposition towards US interests in other parts of the world. In other words, NATO expansion to the East, motivated by a failure in critical evaluation of the situation, created a powerful regional enemy for the US, thus negatively affecting homeland security.
What Should Have Been Done with NATO?
The critical analysis provided in this paper leads to several conclusions:
- NATO was no longer necessary for ensuring US homeland security in Europe;
- NATO expansion to the East was unnecessary.
Based on these statements, it could be said that the best decision would have been to gradually dissolve NATO and let the EU take its place as a pan-European security group, with the US acting as an off-shore balancer, ensuring one’s economic and political superiority while avoiding the commitments and expenditures required to sustain a continental military alliance that no longer serves US interests.
Carpenter, T. G., & Conry, B. (1998). NATO enlargement: Illusions and realities. Washington, DC: CATO Institute.
German, T. (2017). NATO and the enlargement debate: Enhancing Euro-Atlantic security or inciting confrontation? International Affairs, 93(2), 291-308.
Magee, R. E. L., & Nation, C. (2016). NATO expansion and the price of deterrence in the 21st century. Carlisle, PA: US Army War College.
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Marten, K. (2018). Reconsidering NATO expansion: A counterfactual analysis of Russia and the West in the 1990s. European Journal of International Security, 3(2), 135-161.
Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2010). The miniature guide to critical thinking concepts. Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.