As the war in Ukraine enters its second month, President Joe Biden is in Brussels for a NATO summit to discuss the allies’ coordinated response to the Russian invasion. An alliance founded 73 years ago at the dawn of the Cold War, and until recently dismissed by many as outdated and adrift, now appears more central to global affairs than it has in decades.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies blame NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe for provoking the conflict, but if the invasion of Ukraine was meant to push the alliance back, it’s accomplished just the opposite. NATO’s response to the war has been united, and more military might is now flowing to the countries on the alliance’s eastern edge to protect them from possible future Russian aggression.
At the same time, NATO leaders are struggling to balance an imperative to back Ukraine and punish Russia, against fears of sparking a direct Russia-NATO conflict, which could have apocalyptic consequences.
At the one-month mark of the war, Grid spoke with Ivo Daalder, who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO during Barack Obama’s administration, to discuss the state of the alliance and its collective response to Putin’s war. Daalder is now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: One month in, how do you think the NATO alliance has been transformed by the war in Ukraine?
Ivo Daalder: I think you see an alliance that sort of woke up out of a slumber and decided that the mission for which it was created is back. It wasn’t completely asleep. Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 stopped the decline in defense spending, and for the first time [NATO] sent serious military capabilities forward into Eastern Europe. But this is qualitatively different. There’s now a real sense that the collective defense of NATO territory and promoting security and stability throughout Europe is, again, the core of the NATO mission.
G: So it’s no longer “brain-dead,” as President Emmanuel Macron would say?
ID: It never really was brain-dead. And it certainly isn’t “obsolete,” as a certain U.S. president said. But it’s found a clear purpose. There’s always been some degree of discord about the extent to which NATO should think outside its area of responsibilities, in terms of, say, its mission in Afghanistan or counterpiracy in the Gulf of Aden. When I was U.S. ambassador, we had six operations on three different continents. You may still see some capabilities in different parts of the world going forward, but the focus is very clear now: It’s on defending NATO territory and promoting security and stability in Europe.
G: The question that a lot of governments in the alliance seem to be grappling with is how much support they can provide for Ukraine without risking escalation or even a Russia-NATO war. Where do you draw that line? How far can we go without provoking something much larger and more catastrophic?
ID: That line is not set in stone. It is moving. It has always moved, and it has already moved. At the outset of the war, we were not providing drones. Now we are providing drones. We weren’t providing high-altitude air defense systems. Now we’re providing high-altitude air defense systems. And we weren’t providing actionable intelligence. Now, apparently, we are providing actionable intelligence.
As the strategic context of this war changes, so will this line, specifically, if Putin escalates in a significant way. Of course, if he directly attacks NATO territory — cyber, missile or whatever — the context changes. But also if he doesn’t do that, but starts using chemical weapons or bombs chemical industrial facilities that lead to large-scale casualties, or God forbid, if he uses a nuclear weapon, that line will change. And I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that at that point, the conclusion becomes that the best way to defend Ukraine is to become directly involved and make sure that Russia doesn’t win.
G: The question of whether Ukraine would eventually become a member of NATO is obviously a big part of the context for this conflict. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that actual membership is no longer a goal, but he is looking for credible security guarantees from Western powers. What might that kind of guarantee look like, something that satisfies the Ukrainians but isn’t NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense clause?
ID: Yeah, people are running around saying we’re very close to an agreement, just because they have agreed on the issue of neutrality. When you read the bottom line exactly, what [the Ukrainians] said is that they’re fine on neutrality as long as they have real security guarantees, and not the same kind they had in 1994. Under the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, we gave them security assurances, but not guarantees, because we didn’t want to have to automatically defend Ukraine in case of need.
[Budapest purposefully] wasn’t a sort of “Article 5-light.” Now, I don’t see how Ukraine is going to be satisfied with anything less than that. And whether the United States and others are willing to provide that is an open question. My sense is that the issue of NATO has changed. Whenever this war is over, or whenever Ukraine has taken control over all or most of its territory, the willingness of NATO countries to bring Ukraine into NATO will have increased.
G: Do you think that the U.S. and Western countries should be more actively involved in these negotiations and seeking a negotiated settlement for this war?
ID: I think a negotiated settlement needs to be done between the Ukrainians and the Russians. It is up to Ukraine to decide what it is willing to accept. We will become involved if there’s going to be outside guarantees. And I’m sure that if there is an agreement on neutrality, Ukraine’s willingness to sign on the dotted line will depend on our willingness to provide those guarantees. So, we will be involved in that case, but I don’t see any real reason for direct involvement in negotiations by us when the Israelis are doing it, the Turks are doing, and the Chinese ought to be doing it.
G: How do you assess the performance of the Biden administration in its handling of this crisis thus far?
ID: The administration’s done a remarkable job. This Western coalition that has come together is remarkable. In part, it’s because of the shock that the invasion itself inflicted on Western opinion, but in a very real way, it’s also because of the way the Biden administration has handled the diplomacy up to and through the invasion. It gained a significant amount of credibility by presenting detailed evidence of what was to come, which was dismissed by many but was then proven to be right. It also worked very hard to prepare the kind of sanctions that we saw implemented immediately after the war.
Most importantly, [Biden] has been leading in a very different way than I think we have generally seen American presidents lead, which is, “Here’s what we’re going to do. And now you do the same.” In fact, he has worked with the Europeans and often pushed them to move early, to move before the United States. It happened with SWIFT, it happened on the imposing of sanctions on Putin himself.
In a variety of ways, what we saw was the U.S. deliberately helping the Europeans to move and move quickly, and for us to then come in behind. So, they could say, “We’re doing this because it’s important,” as opposed to “We’re doing it because the United States asked us to.”
G: You wrote recently in Foreign Affairs about the return of the strategy of “containment” that defined U.S. policy for much of the Cold War. Obviously, many people are drawing parallels to the Cold War right now, but what do you think are the biggest differences in today’s global environment that might inform the way efforts to contain Russia would be carried out?
ID: There are a number of differences. It is even more important in the current era that we create a united front with our allies, not only Europe, but also in Asia, that we have a very strong and, I would argue, institutionalized form of cooperation. If there’s ever been a time to get into [the Trans-Pacific Partnership], this is it. If there’s ever been a time for the European Union to join TPP, this is it. And if there’s ever been a time for the United States to negotiate a trade and investment pact with the European Union, this is it.
We need to be aware that economic globalization has now become weaponized. We have weaponized it against the Russians, but the Chinese weaponized it against Norway and South Korea and Australia, and Lithuania, and that’s likely to continue in the competition between us and the Chinese.
The second big change from the Cold War is that Russia and China are far more linked economically into the global economy than the Soviet Union ever was. And part our policy over the next five years will be to delink in some form or another, or to reduce the vulnerability that linkage creates.
G: If you go back to the first year of Biden’s foreign policy, the emphasis of the rhetoric was, as it is now, on competition with authoritarian powers. But generally it was China that was emphasized rather than Russia. Does this war change the approach to China that the U.S. and its allies should take?
ID: I think the big change is that for the last 30 years, we have believed that globalization was an unalloyed good, that economics drove politics and that interdependence will lead to greater peace and prosperity. This conflict shows that that’s actually not true. Geopolitics is going to drive geoeconomics.
The Europeans were generally skeptical about this. They started to move already last year, in part because of the pressure of the United States on issues like Huawei. But I think this shock has made the Europeans realize that their preferred strategy — economic entanglement leading to peace — no longer works. So, we have to adjust.
G: Last summer, after the fall of Kabul, you saw a lot of commentary about what this meant for U.S. leadership, whether the U.S. could still be a leader on important security issues. Do you think the war in Ukraine should change those appraisals, to the extent they were accurate to begin with?
ID: I don’t think they were really accurate. The U.S. had plenty of capability to lead. I think it’s domestic divisions that undermine its capacity to lead effectively. But it needs to lead differently than it did in the past. In the past, we stressed that we were indispensable. During the second Bush administration, we were perfectly happy to be on our own or just have a small “coalition of the willing,” because we thought allies were constraining. This administration understands the way you get allies to buy in is to actually make them part of the decision-making process. They’re less likely to walk away when they’re more tied into the policy.
G: Finally, I was going to ask if you had any reflections on the passing of Madeleine Albright and if there’s any lessons from her long career we might apply to this crisis.
ID: I think Madeleine Albright reminded all of us that at every point we need to remain true to our core values — a belief in democracy, a belief in human rights, a belief in freedom. Those who shared our values were the ones you kept close. And those who didn’t share your values were the ones you kept far away or at arm’s length. This conflict is, at its core, a values conflict. That’s what Madeleine Albright fought her entire life and career for.