America’s Central Europe Allie Do Not Make the US Stronger and More Secure

A mantra endlessly repeated by US officials and military leaders, especially in their testimony before Congress, is that America's vast network of minor state allies in NATO and around the world provide it with resources and power that Russia and China cannot match. However, this is simply not true. It is a fantasy, unsupported by the factual historical record.

As the great British historian Lord Correlli Barnett recorded in his classic 1972 work “The Collapse of British Power” allies can be divided into those nations that are not exporters of military strength and security and those far weaker states that are importers of security, that have to rely for their security on the military power provided by other countries.

Most of the 31 nations in the NATO alliance are very weak militarily and are dependent on the United States to protect them. They generate no significant military power of their own. Britain, France and Turkey are indeed the only nations with credible combat capable large military forces of their own. By contrast, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) boasts four major thermonuclear and conventional military powers as members in Russia, China, India and Pakistan. And now Iran is associated with it while Turkey is steadily moving closer to the bloc.

Through the 1990s, during the terms of US President Bill Clinton, NATO relentlessly and inexorably expanded through Central Europe. Today, the expansion of that alliance eastward – encircling Russia with fiercely Russo-phobic regimes in one tiny country after another and in Ukraine, which is not tiny at all – continues.

This NATO expansion – which the legendary George Kennan presciently warned against in vain – continues to drive the world closer towards the threat of thermonuclear war. However, far from bringing the United States and the Western NATO allies increased security, it strips them of the certainty of the peace and security they would enjoy if they instead sought a sincere, constructive and above all stable relationship with Russia.

It is argued that the addition of the old Warsaw Pact member states of Central Europe to NATO has dramatically strengthened NATO and gravely weakened Russia. This has been a universally accepted assumption in the United States and throughout the West for the past quarter century. Yet it simply is not true. 

In reality, the United States and its Western European allies are now discovering the hard way the same lesson that drained and exhausted the Soviet Union from the creation of the Warsaw Pact in 1955 to its dissolution 36 years later. 

The tier of Central European nations has always lacked the coherence, the industrial base and the combined economic infrastructure to generate significant industrial, financial or most of all strategic and military power.

In fact the current frustrating experience of NATO, and the long, exhausting tribulations that faced Soviet diplomats and generals for so many decades was entirely consistent with the previous historical record going back at least until 1718.

From 1718 until 1867 – a period of a century and a half – most of Central Europe, including even regions of Poland at the end of the 18th century, were consolidated within the Austro–Hungarian Empire. Yet even then, the Habsburg multinational empire was always militarily weak and punched beneath its weight.

After Emperor Franz Josef recklessly proclaimed his famous Compromise of 1867, the effectiveness of the imperial army was reduced to almost zero. The autonomous and feckless conduct of the Hungarian aristocracy ensured a level of confusion, division, incompetence and ineptitude that was revealed in the army’s total collapse against both Russia and Serbia in the great battles of 1914 at the start of World War I.

Germany moved in to occupy and consolidate the region in both world wars. But far from making Germany a global giant and enabling it to maintain its domination of Europe, the Central European regions – whether as part of Austro-Hungary during World War I or as independent nation-states allied to the Nazis in World War II – proved miniscule and worthless against the alliances of Russia, the United States, Britain and France that the Germans fought against in both global conflicts.

After the Soviet Union destroyed the genocidal military power of Nazi Germany in World War II, Russia’s Great Patriotic War, the political consolidation of East Germany and Poland were strategically necessary for Russia’s security. But occupying and organizing the rest of the region was not. Far from strengthening the Soviet Union, those nations weakened and distracted it.

Today, NATO is repeating the Soviet Mistake and that fatal move is inexorably draining the alliance of all its strength and credibility.

NATO is also repeating the disastrous mistake that France made in 1920-21 when it created a “Little Entente” of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania to supposedly counterbalance the revival of Germany. The plan failed completely. 

Today those very same nations – enthusiastically joined by Hungary, Poland and the three little Baltic states – are relentlessly distorting both NATO and the EU. They generate weakness and chaos in the alliances they are in – not unity and strength. 

Correlli Barnett drew the important distinction between militarily powerful nations that are generators and exporters of security and those, either tiny or disorganized, pacifist and weak nations that have to import their security from more powerful states. One might call such small countries “feeder” or “parasite” states. They siphon off energy and strength from their protector partners. They weaken their alliance partners rather than strengthening them.

The consistent lessons of more than 300 years of Central European history are therefore clear: Leading and organizing the tier of Central European nations in the Warsaw Pact did not strengthen the Soviet Union: Instead, those activities relentlessly weakened it.

Incorporating most of the small nations in Central Europe into any empire or alliance has never been a cause or generator of military or national strength, regardless of the ideology or religious faith involved. At best, it is a barometer of national strength.

When nations such as France, Germany, the Soviet Union or the United States are seen as rising powers in the world, the small countries of Central Europe always hasten to ally themselves accordingly. They therefore adopt and discard Ottoman Islamic imperialism. Austrian Christian imperialism, Anglo-French democracy, Nazism, Communism and again democracy (US style) as easily as putting on or off different costumes at a fancy dress ball in Vienna or Budapest

As Russia rises once again in global standing and national power, supported by its genuinely powerful allies China, India and Pakistan in the SCO, the nations of Central Europe can be anticipated to reorient their own loyalties accordingly once again.

Martin Sieff is a Senior Fellow of the American University in Moscow and former Managing Editor, International Affairs for United Press International. He has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for International Reporting.