1998-2016: U.S. Policy Toward NATO Expansion

Joe Biden has been an unwavering advocate of NATO expansion, saying the alliance is a necessary bulwark against war in Europe and a vehicle for U.S. values and interests.

BELGIUM - MARCH 10:  U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden speaks at a news conference at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on Tuesday, March, 10, 2009. Biden warned NATO that terror groups are using Afghanistan and Pakistan as staging areas to plot new attacks against allied interests around the world.  (Photo by Jock Fistick/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on March, 10, 2009. Photo: Jock Fistick/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Joe Biden has long been an advocate of expanding membership in NATO, leading efforts in the late 1990s to bring countries including Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into the alliance. At the time, he characterized the additions as “righting an historical injustice forced upon the Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians by Joseph Stalin.” In a 1997 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Biden forcefully laid out the case for the United States to uphold a strong NATO alliance over the long term. “The United States is a European power,” Biden said. “We have an interest not only in the lands west of the Oder River, but in the fate of the 200 million people who live in the  nations between the Baltic and Black Seas.”

In a 2002 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, reflecting on a world transformed by the September 11 attacks, Biden highlighted NATO’s continued growth as a key U.S. foreign policy interest. During the hearing, Biden also spoke favorably of Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ardent opponent of NATO expansion, describing him as a reformist with whom the U.S. could build ties. “I’m pleased that President Bush is carrying on an important work begun by the last administration of bringing new members into NATO and reaching out to Russia. 9/11 has created historic opportunities to continue to process a reconciliation with Russia,” Biden said, describing Putin as a pro-Western Russian leader of a type “not seen since Peter the Great.”

In 2008, Biden called for expanding NATO membership to countries in the Balkans including Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia. And, as the relationship between the United States and Russia has unraveled in large part over the issue of NATO expansion, Biden continued to push for expanding the alliance even to countries like Ukraine and Georgia, which Russia claims as part of its own historic sphere of influence. In 2009, Biden expressed support for Ukrainian membership in NATO, saying, “We do not recognize anyone else’s right to dictate to any other country what alliance it should seek to belong to, or what relationships, bilateral relationships, you have.” Biden expressed the same sentiments to Georgian leaders a year after a Russian attack on the country.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, NATO became an election issue when then-candidate Donald Trump expressed skepticism about NATO treaty commitments. Biden, using the weight of his vice presidential office, traveled to Latvia, a NATO-member country under serious threat of attack by Russia, to express the United States’ continued commitment to upholding the Article 5 clause of NATO that considers an attack on one member as an attack against all. “I want to make it clear, absolutely clear to all the people of the Baltic States, we have pledged our sacred honor, the United States of America, our sacred honor to the NATO Treaty and Article 5,” Biden said.

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