Evaluating U.S. Foreign Policy Since the End of the Cold War

John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Kathleen Hicks of the Center for Strategic and International Studies together evaluated U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War during this morning session at the Advancing American Security conference.

They debated issues including nation-building and the best and worst foreign policy decisions of the past few decades, and one of their most interesting discussions centered on the history of NATO enlargement and its consequences today.

Mearshimer and Hicks both agreed that the third round of NATO enlargement, which took place in 2009, was a mistake. Each round of enlargement brought NATO closer and closer to the Russian border, and Hicks argued that this increasingly tested the risk tolerance of both NATO and Russia. While the first round was fine, the second was “iffier,” and the third round was simply not a good idea. Mearsheimer agreed, arguing that the real trouble with Russia started in response to the April 2008 NATO meeting in Bucharest, which resulted in announcements about the next wave of enlargement.

Hicks strongly argued that all members of the NATO alliance should be treated as equal members. In her opinion, those members who were added during later, riskier rounds are still full members and deserve the full protection of the alliance. Asked about Ukraine and Georgia and whether a fuller embrace by NATO might have protected them from Russia, Hicks argued that neither country was economically, socially, or militarily ready to join the alliance. While this does not justify the Russian’s behavior, she said, we now know that they are extremely sensitive to whether Ukraine and Georgia join NATO and need to take that into account when considering their potential membership.

In contrast to Hicks, Mearsheimer argued that the United States should withdraw from NATO, leaving the alliance in place for the Europeans to use. Mearsheimer also criticized the logic behind further NATO enlargement. “If you think about Georgia and you think about Ukraine, we have demonstrated clearly that we don’t consider those countries vital strategic interests,” he said. And yet, astoundingly, we considered giving these countries an Article 5 guarantee that we would treat an attack on any one of them as though it were an attack on us.

The two panelists found points of agreement and disagreement on a number of issues, resulting in a rousing debate. Having these two distinguished panelists wrestle with these topics provided insight into how foreign policy decisions are made and how we ought to evaluate them moving forward.

As the Charles Koch Institute’s vice president of research and policy William P. Ruger elucidated, “Foreign policy—especially its grand strategy component—is among the weightiest areas of government action. It has huge ramifications for our security, prosperity, civil liberties, fiscal health, and our relationships with other nations and peoples. It is therefore critical that we get our foreign policy right.”

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