Since the end of the Cold War, one of the main goals of the foreign policy establishment in the United States has been the expansion of the NATO alliance.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the military alliance began to be seen as less of a mechanism for fighting against a communist invasion of Europe, and more as a vehicle for extending ostensibly Western democratic values into Central and Eastern Europe.

As a result, numerous small countries that have next to no military capacity or the ability to project power outside their own borders have been added to the alliance. Notably, this included the Baltic states and countries such as Montenegro, which has a military that is 17 times smaller than the New York City Police Department.

Aside from the numerous warnings that expanding the alliance would provoke Russia, adding allies willy-nilly has another danger for the U.S.: the risk of “chain-ganging” by weak allies for their own benefit.

In international relations, chain-ganging refers to situations where states end up embroiled in wars that are against their interest because they are “chained” together with other states via alliances or other forms of security guarantees. When one state gets involved in a conflict, it can drag its partners down with it.

This dynamic can work to the advantage of smaller and weaker states who know they cannot fight and win a conflict on their own, who can then attempt to chain-gang their larger, more powerful partners, such as the United States, into the war on their behalf.

The more states that the U.S. issues security guarantees to, the greater risk of it being chain-ganged.


Talks of security guarantees for Ukraine

Chain-ganging is increasingly becoming a concern for the U.S. especially during and after the 2023 NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. One of the largest items on the agenda was the possibility of NATO providing some form of security guarantee to Ukraine, even though the country is still in the midst of a grueling war of attrition with Russia.

However, the alliance has not reached any sort of agreement about what these guarantees will look like.

Ukraine is not part of NATO, but at the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit it was declared that Ukraine would eventually join the alliance at some undetermined point in the future. Critics of US policy, such as John Mearsheimer, have stated that this statement back in 2008 is what set in motion the chain of events that has led to the current war, but policy makers in both the United States and in Europe continue to push for some solid statement on when and how Ukraine will join NATO.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had gone so far as to declare that he might not even bother to show up to the recent summit unless Ukraine was offered membership or some direct signal that it had a clear roadmap ahead, generally understood as some sort of guarantee that when the war is over Ukraine will be granted membership.

However, in these conversations the purpose of American foreign policy, and alliances in general, seems to be taking a back seat to understandable sympathy for Ukraine. The goal of American foreign policy is to protect and advance vital American national interests, and any decision about expanding security commitments needs to be made with that essential fact in mind.


Alliances should not be an end in themselves, they should be entered into when they can be the means to advance American interests.

Remember that the core value of NATO membership for a country like Ukraine is that under Article 5 an attack on one member is considered an attack on all the other members. It is understandable why Ukraine would want such a guarantee, but such a commitment is what makes expanding NATO so risky for the US. These commitments are not risk-free.

If NATO leaders’ beliefs about their country’s national interests matched their rhetoric, the alliance would already be at war with Russia, something most members want to avoid. Ukrainian entry into NATO makes this direct conflict, with all of its heightened nuclear escalation risks, far more likely.


Attempts by Ukraine to chain-gang the U.S. into war with Russia

We have already seen attempted chain-ganging by Ukraine during the war so far. The most prominent example being when a Ukrainian air defense missile landed in Poland and killed two Polish citizens. Despite overwhelming evidence that the missile came from Ukraine, the Ukrainian government continued to insist that the missile was launched by Russia. Even though Polish and NATO leaders were clear that the event was an unfortunate but understandable accident, Ukraine continues to insist otherwise.

The obvious explanation for this behavior is that Ukraine desires NATO to openly enter the war on its side.

This is not the only example of reckless driving we have seen from the Ukrainian side. Ukraine aligned factions have carried out escalatory attacks in Russia itself, notably assassinating the daughter of a pro-war intellectual, carrying out drone attacks on the Kremlin, conducting cross border raids into Russia, and most notably, are suspected by U.S. intelligence of working to blow up the Nord Stream pipelines.

The Ukrainian government denies its involvement in all of these schemes, but if that is true the situation becomes even more disturbing because it means that the government does not have full control over factions supposedly within its military or intelligence community. Ukraine may make guarantees that it will not use US provided weapons to strike Russia itself, but there are no guarantees that rogue elements, such as the Polish Volunteer Corp, or far-right units such as the Azov Battalion, will heed what the ostensible Ukrainian leadership has to say. This makes the risk of the United States being chain-ganged even greater.


U.S. allies need to avoid chain-ganging into Russia and Ukraine’s war

Ukraine is not even an ally of the US, yet it has already demonstrated that it is perfectly willing to engage in reckless behavior that understandably benefits itself, but would be disastrous for the U.S.

This danger is not limited to Ukraine alone. Former NATO secretary general Anders Rasmussen, who is an advisor to Ukraine, has openly stated that Poland and other countries might form a “coalition of the willing” and place troops in Ukraine.

U.S. leaders need to be explicitly clear that countries such as Poland and Ukraine are free to engage in such risky escalation, but that we will not allow ourselves to be dragged into the fight due to their actions. If our leaders fail to do so, we risk being chain-ganged into a war with Russia that would be disastrous for America and for the world.

Learn more about how the U.S. should approach assisting Ukraine.