Ukraine, NATO, and the Security Obsession

In the final declaration of support for Ukraine after the recent NATO summit, the G7 countries declared: “We affirm that the security of Ukraine is integral to the security of the Euro-Atlantic region.” At the summit, there were two alternatives to guarantee Ukraine’s security: 1) include it right away in NATO, bypassing the Membership Action Plan so that Article 5 would be invoked in case of a future foreign invasion. 2) promise that Ukraine will one day be in NATO with no definitive timeline. The second one prevailed, with affirmations such as this by President Biden; “One thing Zelenskyy understands now is that whether or not he’s in NATO now, it’s not relevant as long as he has commitments.”

What wasn’t discussed was what security meant as well as the growing militarization of security. The commitments Biden referred to focused on weapons, such as cluster bombs, and defense, not on larger socioeconomic factors. What does it mean to be secure? Are Swedes now more secure since their country is joining NATO? How does joining NATO affect individual and national security?

To be secure, either individually or as a state, has become a fad. The Swiss Foreign Ministry now has a Department of Human Security. The phenomenon of securitization complements traditional defense preoccupations by militarizing what were previously social interactions. The Copenhagen School of international relations, led by Professor Ole Waever, has characterized securitization as the move from basic human security needs, such as “economic welfare, environmental concerns, cultural identity and political rights” to police and/or military activities. To feel secure is now a priority, replacing whatever ambiguity the human condition or state survival might entail. Security experts tell us that our security is now constantly under threat with increased police or military intervention the obvious solution.

The end of the Cold War did not decrease securitization. NATO did not disband after the Warsaw Pact collapsed. Since 1994, it has been able to incorporate newly independent countries and neutrals into the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. PfP enables the newly independent countries as well as neutrals like Austria and Switzerland to cooperate with NATO in a flexible manner. Although some of the PfP partners have joined NATO, others, like Switzerland, participate in those NATO activities that do not threaten their neutrality. Ukraine joined PfP on February 8, 1994.

What does it mean to be a member of PfP? An eminent Swiss defense expert once described Switzerland’s participation in PfP as follows: “We don’t want to be members of the country club [NATO]. Nor do we want to play golf at the club. We just want to have access to the entrance and bar.”

How important is only access to the bar? What would it take for Ukraine to feel secure while at the same time not being a full member of NATO? Are Biden’s “commitments” enough to make Ukrainians feel secure?

In Ukraine’s situation, membership in NATO, with the guarantee of Article 5 that whenever one member country is attacked the others will come to its defense, has become a focal point of contention within the alliance. The new membership of Finland and eventual Swedish membership show how important NATO membership is perceived because of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Full membership in the club has surpassed bar privileges.

Ukraine was not the only security issue on the summit’s agenda. Feeling secure within the Euro-Atlantic alliance continues to expand geographically. NATO secretary-general Jan Stoltenberg said: “What happens in Europe matters to the Indo-Pacific, and what happens in the Indo-Pacific matters to North America and Europe. Beijing’s global assertiveness and Moscow’s war against Ukraine require even closer coordination between NATO, the [European Union] and our Indo-Pacific partners.”

Where NATO used to be a European Cold War defense institution, it has moved to “out of area” activities whereby the Russia-Ukraine conflict can be seen as preparation for projecting more influence globally, such as an eventual confrontation with China. Europe’s security is perceived, by Stoltenberg, to be tied to Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Membership in a military alliance that began soon after World War II has become the accepted paradigm for countries to feel secure. Whereas membership for the newly independent countries in the European Union and then NATO was once conceived as the golden road to modernity, membership in NATO now becomes the priority for national security, further highlighting the importance of securitization.

But EU and NATO membership have economic and political criteria. To be a full member of NATO, nations must demonstrate a commitment to democracy, individual liberty, and support for the rule of law. Is Ukraine able to fulfil those criteria? As Biden said in his visit to Ukraine in 2014: “To be very blunt about it, and this is a delicate thing to say to a group of leaders in their house of parliament, but you have to fight the cancer of corruption that is endemic in your system right now.” In a 2020 analysis, Transparency International ranked Ukraine 117 out of 180 countries on its corruption index, lower than any NATO nation.

So whereas Ukrainians may feel more secure because of increased military aid from NATO, the perception that security is limited to military strength is exactly the paradigm that Ole Waever and his colleagues criticized. Ukraine’s security may be aided by military assistance from the West; that is necessary. But its ultimate security will only come from radical domestic reform.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.