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Russia puts the strength of NATO alliance to the test

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

In his speech today in Warsaw, President Biden took a moment to reject Russian President Vladimir Putin's narrative that the NATO military alliance is a threat to Russia's national security. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The Kremlin wants to portray NATO enlargement as an imperial project aimed at destabilizing Russia. Nothing is further from the truth. NATO is a defensive alliance. It has never sought the demise of Russia.

KURTZLEBEN: NATO, of course, is a military alliance that spans Europe and North America. It was created in 1949 to counter the threat then posed by a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. And it was part of a multilateral system created after the Second World War to help preserve the global peace, even as a new Cold War got underway. The United Nations was another institution with that aim. Now, Vladimir Putin's Russia is challenging those institutions in new ways, and we want to discuss whether they're still up to the task. For that, we've invited Richard Haass back to the program. He's the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a veteran U.S. diplomat. Ambassador Haass, welcome.

RICHARD HAASS: Good to be back.

KURTZLEBEN: So first of all, what did you make of President Biden's speech in Poland today?

HAASS: It was clearly designed to be well-received in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe, anyone who is under the direct threat of Russia. It was a very strong justification of NATO in its current role. But I would think what's going to make the most news were literally the last few words of the speech, where he essentially raised U.S. aims or objectives for this crisis - not simply an end to the war, not simply reversing Russian aggression against Ukraine but calling, essentially, for a change in power in Russia.

KURTZLEBEN: Today and throughout his trip this week, President Biden has claimed that NATO has never been more united. I want to ask you about that. In your view, is he right?

HAASS: Yes. After the Cold War, there were lots of debates about what is the raison d'etre - what's the purpose of NATO, absent the Soviet threat, absent the Soviet Union? And for years, NATO went in search of a mission. Sometimes, it acted in other parts of the world, like the Middle East, what was called out of area. Some people saw it as a way of anchoring these new democracies, countries that came out of the Warsaw Pact or the former Soviet Union. But with the reemergence of a Russian threat that we've seen, including Ukraine seven, eight years ago, NATO now - no one has to ask what NATO's purpose is.

KURTZLEBEN: We've been talking all about NATO here. I want to turn to the United Nations. The U.S. and other nations often turn to the U.N. to hold countries that break the rules to account, and the U.N. General Assembly did condemn the Ukraine invasion earlier this month. But Russia, like the U.S., has veto power on the U.N. Security Council. I'm wondering, how big of a problem is that when Russia is the aggressor in Ukraine?

HAASS: What you say highlights what you can either describe as a structural reality or a structural flaw of the United Nations. When the organization was designed, it was never really meant to be used by one great power against another. And the five great powers of the moment after World War Two, the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China all given a veto, in some ways to make sure that could never happen. So what you have now is the gridlocking of the Security Council because Russia, which inherited the Soviet veto after the Soviet Union dissolved, makes it impossible. And the Security Council is the principal organ of the U.N., meant to promote peace and stability.

So what you have in these situations is, yes, you can take things to the General Assembly, but that's not really an operational forum, for the most part. So that's why you have, in this case, say NATO is acting. You find workarounds around the United Nations when the major powers don't agree. And we're simply at a point in history where the United States cannot insist or impose that its definition of international order is accepted by others, which is a long-winded way of saying that's why any measure of global order is going down. If this were a stock market, you would call it a correction. But we're living in an era where the major powers increasingly disagree, and there's an absence of any meaningful consensus on what to deal either with regional challenges like in Iran or North Korea or what to do with global challenges, say, like cyberspace or climate change.

KURTZLEBEN: We've been building to a big question here, and it's this - the United Nations and NATO have helped avoid a world war for decades. I'm wondering, are they still up to the task? And if not, what's the alternative?

HAASS: Well, the United Nations has never really been all that central to the avoidance of world war. We've avoided one for 75 years, but that was more because of nuclear deterrence. And then the United States and the Soviet Union were able to engage in direct diplomacy, particularly in 1962, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which, at least until now, was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war.

Question is, going forward, can these aging institutions still do the trick? Again, I'm not optimistic about the United Nations. The veto and the like is never going to make it a particularly serious institution when the great powers disagree. NATO is not here to promote a dialogue so much as a defensive alliance. It represents 30 countries associated with the West, with the United States. The question is whether they can deter and, if need be, turn back aggression, in this case by Russia. But what Ukraine is doing for all of us is highlighting that the consensus that is necessary, the restraint that is necessary to maintain world order may be fading.

And that's what's so frightening about this crisis, is that Russia has acted aggressively, has crossed an international border, rejecting the fundamental rule of international relations that borders are not to be changed by force. There's talk about possibly using weapons of mass destruction. And you have an individual leader like Vladimir Putin, who has, in many ways, hollowed out the institutions of Russian government. So he has an extraordinarily free hand. So I don't think it's any exaggeration to say that we've either arrived at a point or are getting perilously close to a point where the threat to world order, to world peace is greater than it has ever been. And, you know, I don't mean to be alarmist, but this, again, is fast emerging as the most dangerous moment in history since 1962, since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

KURTZLEBEN: That was Ambassador Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The World: A Brief Introduction." Ambassador Haass, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

HAASS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CECELIE'S "DAD'S SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.