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NATO’s Intellectual Expansion

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Since taking over global leadership, the United States of America (USA) has been pursuing a policy of containment against the Soviet Union/Russia. As it was the case with many crises in many parts of the world during the Cold War, this policy is at the root of many of today’s problems, particularly the Russia-Ukraine War. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) plays a critical role in this process. In the US containment policy, NATO has assumed different roles in three distinct periods. During the Cold War, NATO was established to contain the Soviet Union in Europe and was the basis of the containment policy in Europe.

In the post-Cold War era, NATO has continued this policy through the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program in Central Asia and the Middle East while expanding in Europe. More recently, NATO has been tasked with the continuation of this policy in the Asia-Pacific region. As the US has shifted its focus to China, it has prioritized NATO as it seeks to include Beijing in its containment policy. In its recent official documents, NATO has begun to define China as a significant threat, while improving and even formalizing its relations with US allies in the Asia-Pacific. Leaders of these states attend NATO summits, while NATO plans to open an office in Japan. The policy of containment continues apace.

The Cold War-era US policy towards the Soviet Union was carried out on the basis of Nicholas J. Spykman’s “Rim Belt Theory”[1] and the “Containment Policy”, which was mainly developed within the framework of George Kennan’s[2] views. In this framework, organizations and pacts such as the Balkan Pact, the Baghdad Pact (later CENTO), the Sadabat Pact, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), as well as NATO and the European Union (EU) were established in order to surround, if not destroy, the sphere of influence of socialism, and thus the Soviet Union, as Kennan put it. The Cold War-era struggle was shaped on the basis of these policies, and the policies of increasing the influence of the Soviet Union and preventing the United States continued in the form of proxy wars or struggles in which one of the parties was direct intervention in a wide range of areas from Korea to Vietnam, Afghanistan to Cambodia, Egypt to Iraq, Cuba to Nicaragua.

At the very beginning of the Cold War, the collaboration between Russia and the United States in many areas, especially in the fight against Weapons of Mass Destruction, gave the impression that this struggle of the Cold War had come to an end. Indeed, Russia’s involvement in the Partnership for Peace (PfP), the transformation of the 1997 Permanent Joint Council into the NATO-Russia Council of equal partners in 2002, and the signing of agreements between the US and Russia on the reduction of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons gave the impression that the Cold War rivalry was over. Some have argued that the bipolar world has turned into a unipolar world and that the US has declared its hegemony.

In the light of the dissolution of the main threat, the Soviet Union, and these positive developments, discussions started that NATO had completed its mission. On the other hand, NATO’s expansion proceeded as a continuation of the US policy of containment. In 1999, the former Warsaw States of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined NATO; in 2004, 7 states joined NATO, including the Baltic States, members of the former Soviet Union. After the accession of Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and, in fact, Macedonia after it overcame the Greek veto, Finland became a member in 2023, bringing NATO’s expansion (in the US framing policy on the European leg) to its current stage.  Other European states, notably Sweden and Bosnia and Herzegovina, are still in the process of becoming members. These states, which have entered the military sphere of influence within the framework of NATO, continue to be included in the economic and political sphere of influence in the EU membership process.

NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe, a Cold War-era buffer zone, has also led to an increased NATO-Russia border with Norway, which now stands at 196 km. In 2004, with the accession of Latvia (214 km.) and Estonia (294 km.), the NATO-Russia border increased substantially. In 2008, the Russian-Ukrainian War, one of the biggest crises of our times, was triggered and the green light was given to Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO. The membership of both states was intended to continue NATO’s expansion in the Caucasus and Europe (containment for the US) and to squeeze Russia, which dominated all coasts except Turkey during the Cold War, into a very narrow area in the Black Sea. However, acknowledging NATO’s expansion as one of the biggest threats to its national security, Russia tried to end this expansion by invading Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014/2021 (annexing Crimea and, thus, the most critical naval base in the Black Sea).

Time will tell how Georgia and Ukraine’s accession process will unfold. However, it would not be surprising to expect that after the accession of these two states, it will be Moldova’s turn in Europe, perhaps Belarus with a colorful revolution, and Azerbaijan and Armenia’s turn in the Caucasus. Although the geographical boundaries of Europe are debatable, the fact that Azerbaijan and Armenia are also considered European, given their membership in the Council of Europe and their participation in events such as the Eurovision Song Contest and the European Football Championship, reveals the ultimate boundaries of NATO.

Accepting the Central Asian states as a natural extension of the Soviet Union, the United States established its containment policy from further south. In this process, the Baghdad Pact was established in 1955 between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Iran, Pakistan and the United Kingdom to contain the Soviet Union from the south. After the Baathist regime pulled out of the pact after the coup in Iraq, the organization continued its existence as CENTO until 1979 and became a part of the containment policy. In the post-Cold War period, the US rapidly tried to increase its influence in the region. It attempted to contain Russia from further north by increasing its influence in the region, particularly through NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program and economic and energy cooperation with states such as Azerbaijan. These efforts, carried out simultaneously with the turmoil in the Caucasus region during this period, took a military turn after the September 11 attacks. Indeed, after the invasion of Afghanistan, the US established military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2001, and has now militarily supported its political and economic presence in Central Asia.

The containment policy pursued on all three legs. However, the declaration of a multipolar world by Russia and China in 2005 and the call for the US to leave the region resulted in bases being closed in Uzbekistan in 2005 and Kyrgyzstan in 2014. Events such as the 2005 Kyrgyzstan Color Revolution failed to reverse the process and the US policy of containing Russia through Central Asia was not as successful as in Europe. Russia has broadened its sphere of influence through organizations such as the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Cooperation Organization. It has also tried preventing regional powers such as Iran, India and Pakistan from shifting to the western axis through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which, although it is a rival in the region, it has to act in partnership when it comes to the US.

Another pillar of the containment policy was the efforts in the Asia-Pacific region. During the Cold War, the most important leverage of the US in this regard was the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), founded in 1967 by the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore. Given its close relations with Japan, Korea, India, Australia, Australia, New Zealand and other states in the region, the US has also pursued a policy of containing Russia from the east. States such as Korea and Vietnam have emerged as indirect battlegrounds of the US-Soviet Union struggle. In 1979, when the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan threatened the security of the containment policy, the US declared the Carter Doctrine and established CENTCOM to prevent Russian intervention in the Middle East.

In the US containment policy, China and Sino-Soviet cooperation posed the biggest obstacle to the termination of the belt starting from the east of Europe on the Pacific coast. However, when relations between Russia and China worsened in the 1960-70s, the US seized the opportunity and with President Nixon’s historic visit to China, the US aimed to contain the Soviet Union through China. Although US-China relations were not at a very good level, there were no major problems after this period. However, as China grew closer to Russia in the 2000s, it became irritated by the US influence and presence in the region and called for multipolarity. While tensions between the two states increased rapidly after this period, Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy revealed that China was perceived as a bigger threat to the US than Russia, and the policy of containment of China through the Pacific, especially the Taiwan issue, became the priority. Although the “Russian threat” has come to the forefront again with the Russia-Ukraine War, the US has been following a policy of containment of China through the region thanks to its allies in the Pacific Simultaneously with this policy, NATO started to get engaged in the Asia-Pacific region and the problems in this region. In this framework, China has started to be recognized as a threat to NATO. In the Strategic Concept, the alliance, which characterized Russia as a direct threat, stated that China had declared policies that pose a threat to the security and values of the alliance and that China’s malicious hybrid and cyber attack activities, rhetoric and disinformation campaigns target allies and harm the security of the alliance. (Art. 13) While emphasizing the importance of the Indo-Pacific region and cooperation with partners in this region for the alliance, it was stated that existing and new partner states will continue to cooperate to solve the problems in this region.

The leaders of Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea have been attending the NATO Leaders’ Summit for the last two years. NATO and these states have signed various cooperation agreements. Although Japan has stated that the decision has not yet been finalized, it is known that NATO is planning to open a contact office in Japan. It is likely that this decision, which was postponed to a later stage due to China’s reaction, will first be established in a state more distant from China (e.g. Australia) and then in Japan. In the medium term, a NATO mission/base could be established in the region under any excuse.

On a fundamental level, the threat posed by China to NATO has not been fully articulated and China has been targeted with forced statements. By ignoring the threat of terrorist organizations to Turkey’s national security, NATO goes beyond its core mandate and lays the foundations for the US policy of containment of China and Russia. Technically, if the US-China rivalry turns into a heated conflict, Article 5 of the alliance will be implemented. However, given the current military capabilities of NATO members, their strategic ability to participate in an operation in the Asia-Pacific region (how much would be needed given the nuclear dimension of any US-China war) would be restricted and limited to US troop reinforcements. From a political perspective, however, NATO is providing a political containment belt from Portugal to New Zealand, just like the Balkan and Baghdad Pacts. NATO is expanding physically in Europe and intellectually on a global scale.


[1] Spykman’ın görüşleri için Bkz. Nicholas J. Spykman, America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power, New York, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1942; Nicholas J. Spykman, The Geography of the Peace, Helen R. Nicholl (der.), New York, Harcourt, Brace & Co, 1944.

[2] Kennan’ın görüşleri için Bkz. X, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs, 25(4), 1947, s. 566-582; George Kennan, “The Soviet Way of Thought and Its Effect on Foreign Policy”, January 24, 1947, Box 16, Kennan Papers.

Doç. Dr. Şafak OĞUZ
Doç. Dr. Şafak OĞUZ
In 2019, Şafak OĞUZ received his Associate Professor title and retired in 2021 after 23 years of service in the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF). Having worked for the United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) during his service, OĞUZ works on Weapons of Mass Destruction, Terrorism, International Security, International Organizations and Peace and Conflict Studies. OĞUZ is currently a faculty member at Cappadocia University, Faculty of Economics, Administrative and Social Sciences, Department of International Relations. He is fluent in English and German.