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Why NATO Should Grow

1.

This fall, groups of military officers and diplomats from the sixteen memberstates of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization plan to visit Warsaw, Bucharest, Vilnius, and Kiev, among other capitals throughout Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, venturing into what only six years ago was enemy territory. These Western emissaries will offer the defense and foreign ministries of the former communist countries the most detailed explanation so far of NATO’s decision, made in January 1994, to take in new members.

Some post-communist governments are eager to have the briefings and are impatient to join NATO as soon as possible. The Central European countries that believe they would be the first new entrants—Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia—want the Alliance to set an early date for opening its membership. Others are ambivalent, skeptical, or suspicious about the very idea of enlarging NATO. They worry that if they are not in the first group admitted, or the second, or the third, they will end up on the wrong side of a new Iron Curtain. In Russia, ultranationalists condemn the decision to expand as nothing less than the declaration of a new cold war; and many reformers fear that precisely this sinister view will strengthen anti-democratic elements in Russian politics.

In view of the complexity of the issue and the immensity of the stakes, the future of NATO will continue to be a subject of debate in the United States as well. In the Senate, which must eventually ratify by a two thirds majority the extension of American protection, including a nuclear guarantee, to any new NATO member, Sam Nunn of Georgia, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, has recently raised questions about the need for enlarging the Alliance. A number of Republicans in both Houses are urging that the process of admission move more quickly than it has so far. They have criticized the administration for excessive caution.1 The issue is bound to grow more contentious as the 1996 US elections draw closer.

It is against this background that the NATO teams will begin their briefings this fall. Their message will be the same everywhere. During the coming years, the Alliance will admit new members gradually, country by country. Candidates for membership will be judged according to the strength of their democratic institutions, and their willingness and ability to meet the considerable obligations that come with membership. The process will be “transparent”—that is, there will be no surprises, no backroom deals, no secret list of countries to be admitted early, no blacklist of countries to be excluded—and it will continue to unfold one step at a time.

The first step was taken by the heads of state and government of the Alliance at their January 1994 summit meeting in Brussels. At the urging of President Clinton, the leaders agreed that the Alliance should expand. But which countries will enter, and at what pace, will be decided only after NATO has completed the coming briefings, which are intended to explain how enlargement would work and, most important, to reiterate why it should take place.2 In this article I set out the administration’s approach to expansion.

NATO has decided it should accept new members for three main reasons.

  1. Collective defense remains an imperative need of European and transatlantic security, and central to American engagement in Europe. The end of Soviet communism, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and the breakup of the USSR have eliminated the threat that NATO was created to counter during the cold war. But new threats may arise that would require NATO to protect its members and to deter attack. During the cold war, membership in the Alliance was limited by the artificial division of Europe into two camps. With the cold war’s end, NATO should be open to the new democracies that have regained their independence, that share common values, and that can advance the military and political goals of the Alliance.

  2. The prospect of being admitted to NATO provides the nations of Central Europe and the former Soviet Union with additional incentives to strengthen their democratic and legal institutions, ensure civilian command of their armed forces, liberalize their economies, and respect human rights, including the rights of national minorities. In short, nations that are encouraged in their aspirations to join NATO are more likely to make a successful transition from their communist past.

  3. The prospect of membership can also foster among the nations of Central Europe and the former Soviet Union a greater willingness to resolve disputes peacefully and contribute to peace-keeping operations. Thus the process of expansion can help to promote regional stability and peace.

2.

The evolution of NATO should reflect the evolution of Europe itself. As Secretary of State Christopher put it: “Europe’s institutional arrangements should be determined by the objective demands of the present, not by the tragedies of Europe’s past.” Freezing NATO’s eastern boundaries approximately along the line fixed by Western and Soviet negotiators on August 13, 1945, would only make sense if Europe’s cold war division was natural and enduring. But in fact, that division is becoming unnatural and anachronistic.

The more heavily industrialized regions east of the old Iron Curtain, such as Bohemia in the Czech Republic and Silesia in Poland, increasingly resemble, politically and economically, their Western neighbors. The Baltic states are again vigorously engaged in trade with the Nordic countries and Western Europe. An independent and democratic Ukraine is, with each passing month, becoming more involved with international institutions. It is, for instance, working closely with the IMF, the World Bank, and the European Union to finance the closing of the Chernobyl nuclear plant—a project that will eliminate a lingering threat from the Soviet era to all of Europe. Soldiers from Central Europe and the former USSR have served in peace-keeping operations in Haiti, Bosnia, and Cambodia. Many nations in the region have accepted painful economic sacrifices to help enforce sanctions against Serbia.

With the end of the cold war, it has become possible to construct a Europe that is increasingly united by a shared commitment to open societies and open markets—a Europe in which each state will be secure in its internationally recognized borders, and will respect the independence and territorial integrity of its neighbors. As a force for progress in this direction, the European Union is indispensable, because stability and democracy in the new Europe are linked to future prosperity and free trade. Like the prospect of joining NATO, that of joining the EU can promote democratic behavior within the states interested in membership.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act this August, has also helped to maintain democratic standards and prevent conflicts.3 Acting for the most part behind the scenes, OSCE missions in Estonia and Latvia have helped to smooth relations between the governments of those states and their large ethnic Russian populations. These efforts eased the way for the full withdrawal of Russian troops a year ago.

Yet NATO remains at the heart of the European security system. Alone among international organizations, it has real military strength, and therefore it along can provide mutual defense in case of an external threat to any one of the Allies. Such a capacity is vital, not least for its potential deterrent effect, even in the absence of a recognized or active threat. Just as an individual power keeps a standing army in peacetime, so the transatlantic community needs NATO.

Three times in this century, Americans have come to Europe’s defense, and one of the lessons of those experiences is that the US must remain permanently engaged in helping to preserve the security of Europe. The NATO Alliance remains the principal mechanism for American involvement. But if NATO is to continue to be useful, it will have to adapt to the post-cold war era—and that, in turn, means that NATO must promote and consolidate democratic and freemarket values. The Alliance served that purpose during the cold war, and it can do so much more vigorously now that the cold war is over.

The enlargement of NATO is not a new issue. From its inception, NATO brought in new members for reasons, and with consequences, that strengthen the case for doing so again.

To be sure, for its first forty years, the principal reason both for its existence and for admitting new members was to keep the Red Army from invading Western Europe. But the Alliance did not achieve this goal solely by the deterrent force of its tanks, planes, ships, and missiles. NATO’s leaders used the Alliance to manage relations among the various Allied nations; to provide a secure environment for rebuilding ravaged economies; and, in some cases, to strengthen democratic institutions against anti-democratic forces.

Among NATO’s original members in 1949 was Italy, the only defeated Axis state to be granted such treatment. And unlike the core group that negotiated the North Atlantic treaty—Belgium, Canada, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States—Italy was neither a northern nor an Atlantic power. Great Britain, among other allies, opposed Italian membership at first, fearing a drain on Alliance resources. But Secretary of State Dean Acheson argued that rebuffing Italy “would increase the communist influence and discredit the present [Christian Democrat] government and its pro-western policies.”4 The Allies ultimately agreed that admitting Italy would strengthen pro-Western political forces in Italy and complement the effort to bring Italy into Western economic organizations.

Several years later there was some reluctance, especially in Paris, about accepting West Germany into NATO. The United States argued that membership for the Federal Republic would advance the cause of European integration and bind more firmly to the West a country that had turned away from its totalitarian past.5 The admission of the Bonn government in 1955 contributed to Franco-German reconciliation, without which the European Union would still be a dream.

NATO has also helped to improve relations between two other traditional rivals, Greece and Turkey. Crises over Cyprus brought those two countries close to armed conflict on several occasions, but their membership in NATO helped American and other mediators to keep them from going to war.

The admission of Spain in 1982 was another telling case. Before Franco’s death in 1975, there had been little incentive for bringing Spain into the Alliance since bilateral US arrangements with Madrid ensured that US forces assigned to NATO could use Spanish naval and air facilities. But after an attempted right-wing coup in 1981, the centrist government of Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo concluded that NATO membership would be the best way to ensure civilian control of the Spanish military and thus protect Spain’s transition to democracy. “Entry into NATO will kill at birth any attempted coup,” Calvo said. The Alliance leadership agreed.6

During the cold war, military and geopolitical considerations mainly determined NATO’s decisions. Promoting democracy within NATO states and good relations among them was only complementary—desirable but not the primary motive for bringing in new members. But today, with the end of the cold war, other, nonmilitary, goals can and should help shape the new NATO.

  1. 1

    Nunn expressed his concerns in a speech, “The Future of NATO in an Uncertain World,” at a US military-sponsored seminar on June 22, 1995, in Norfolk, Virginia. Others who have written or spoken against enlargement are Michael Mandelbaum, Stephen Sestanovich, Charles Kupchan, and Arnold Horelick. The Republicans’ Contract with America calls for Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia to join NATO within the next four years. Among those favoring enlargement are Senators Richard Lugar of Indiana and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Samuel Huntington, James Baker, and Henry Kissinger.

  2. 2

    Following up on the January 1994 Summit, the foreign ministers of the Alliance met in Brussels last December and directed the North Atlantic Council to begin an internal study of “how NATO will enlarge, the principles to guide this process, and the implementation of membership.” They also decided that NATO would present the results to potential member nations in advance of the December 1995 meeting of foreign ministers.

  3. 3

    During the last years of the cold war, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or CSCE, took a central part in reducing the barriers between the Soviet bloc and the West. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act, negotiated under CSCE auspices, established procedures for the regular review of member-states’ compliance with basic standards of human rights. After the 1990 CSCE Summit in Paris, the organization opened a Secretariat in Prague, a Conflict Prevention Center in Vienna, and an Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw. The CSCE was renamed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) after its leaders met in Budapest last December, and the member-states agreed to strengthen the capacities of the organization for decision-making, oversight, and carrying out operations, particularly for peace-keeping. Fifty-two nations currently participate in the OSCE, making it the only regional forum to which the United States, Russia, and nearly every European state belong.

  4. 4

    See E. Timothy Smith, The United States, Italy and NATO 1947–1952 (St. Martin’s, 1991), p. 85.

  5. 5

    As early as 1949, the US Senate identified as one of NATO’s chief purposes “the development of that degree of unity and security among the North Atlantic states which will make possible the reintegration of Germany into western Europe and the ultimate solution of the German problem.”

  6. 6

    See Kenneth Maxwell and Steven Spiegel, The New Spain: From Isolation to Influence (Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994), p. 36. For the quotation from Calvo, see Gregory F. Treverton, Spain: Domestic Politics and Security Policy (International Institute for Security Studies, 1986), p. 32.

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