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Why NATO Should Grow


While NATO has been and remains essentially a military alliance, the past five decades—and especially the past five years—have demonstrated that the benefits of NATO are not only military but political. At the December 1994 North Atlantic Council Ministerial, Secretary Christopher and his Canadian and European counterparts made respect for democracy and international norms of behavior explicit preconditions for membership, so that enlargement of NATO would be a force for the rule of law both within Europe’s new democracies and among them.

One of the requirements a country must meet to be admitted to NATO is full civilian control of the military. Potential members have been told that their armed forces must be professional, apolitical, and committed to the principle of military force for deterrent and defensive purposes alone. Furthermore, NATO partners are expected to establish in their governments parliamentary oversight of military affairs, and appoint civilians to senior defense positions. Countries joining the Alliance will be expected to remain fully and irreversibly committed to such structures and principles.

In several countries, the prospect of becoming eligible for membership in NATO has also been used as an argument for domestic political and economic reform. Peter Weiss, the reformist head of Slovakia’s former Communist Party, now known as the Party of the Democratic Left, has made this point bluntly. “It is our moment of truth,” he said in a recent interview, adding,

Although our country has been named among the first candidates [for NATO], a number of conditions must be satisfied before joining—the observance of the rules of democracy that are common in the pact countries, progress in the implementation of the market economy, the protection of human and civic rights, and the freedom of the press…. We should openly admit that it is to our disadvantage that our partners perceive democracy in Slovakia as unstable.

In Hungary and Poland, the prospect of NATO membership has helped to solidify the national consensus for democratic and market reforms. The need to meet the standards of NATO eligibility has been a major force in bringing together ex-Communists, liberals, and the moderate conservatives of both the government and the opposition and, as a result, has consolidated democratic gains in the region since 1989.

To make themselves eligible for NATO, potential members must also make convincing progress in resolving disputes with their neighbors peacefully and show they are committed to multi-ethnic democracy. Some potential members have already acted in this spirit. One of the more hopeful developments this year has been a rapprochement between Hungary and Slovakia. In an address to the Hungarian Parliament on February 22, Hungary’s Prime Minister Gyula Horn said:

What do the EU and NATO want from us? They say very firmly that we must settle our relations with our neighbors. Simply put, neither the European Union nor NATO is willing to admit states which have contentious border issues, unsettled minority problems, and the like.

A month later, Hungary and Slovakia signed a treaty guaranteeing respect for each other’s borders, building on an earlier understanding that established guarantees for minority rights. The US and its European allies are using Hungary’s and Romania’s hopes for entering NATO and the EU to nudge them toward a similar accommodation on a treaty that would confirm their existing border and guarantee the rights of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, a region that has changed hands between the two countries three times in this century. No one can claim that the prospect of joining NATO will immediately or permanently solve the minority problems in such countries as Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania; but it will have a salutary effect on them.

The worst conflict of the post-cold war era, the current fighting in the Balkans, is cited by those who question not only the enlargement of NATO but the Alliance’s continued existence. Many critics have asked, Why should NATO stay in business at all, to say nothing of expanding, if it can’t resolve the conflict in Bosnia? The structures that had served Europe well during the cold war, including the Alliance that deterred Soviet aggression without firing a shot, proved to be unprepared to deal with post-cold war challenges, particularly the disintegration of a post-communist state into ethnic violence and chaos.

However, the lesson of the tragedy in the former Yugoslavia is not to retire NATO in disgrace but to develop its ability to counter precisely those forces that have exploded in the Balkans. And many of the nations in the region see NATO as having that potential. Representatives of several Central European states have said publicly that for them, the Bosnian tragedy is an argument for joining NATO—and for adopting the standards of internal order and external behavior that will make them eligible. A former Polish defense minister, Janusz Onyszkiewicz, recently said,

The fact is that all of our countries have elements like those that destroyed the former Yugoslavia. We have to show our peoples that the Western way is best economically and in terms of security. NATO can help on both counts.

An expanded NATO is likely to extend the area in which conflicts like the one in the Balkans simply do not happen.

Indeed, the crisis in the former Yugoslavia has demonstrated the urgent need to develop new instruments for peace-keeping. NATO, through the Partnership for Peace (PFP), is on its way to creating one such mechanism. NATO established the Partnership in January 1994 to promote cooperation among the armed forces of both the NATO and non-NATO European states, including those of the former Warsaw Pact and the former republics of the Soviet Union. The Partnership has already sponsored joint military exercises involving nations that have been enemies in the past: Albanians and Greeks, Bulgarians and Turks, and Hungarians and Romanians. In August, soldiers from three Allied and fourteen Partnership countries are holding military exercises in Louisiana under auspices of the PFP. When new members eventually enter the Alliance, they will, through their participation in PFP, already have worked closely with the NATO military establishment and very likely accumulated experience in peace-keeping operations. PFP gives nearly every country in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union an opportunity to cooperate with NATO on military matters. Even today, five PFP members—Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Russia, and the Czech Republic—have troops on the ground in Croatia.


One of the most difficult challenges to enlarging NATO is its effect on Russia. Many Russians see NATO as a vestige of the cold war, inherently directed against their country. They point out that they have disbanded the Warsaw Pact, their military alliance, and ask why the West should not do the same. For them, NATO’s plan to take in new members looks like a Western vote of no-confidence in the staying power of Russian reform. It makes them feel as though Russia is still on probation—still subject to a thinly disguised policy of containment. Beware, they say, the mistake that the victors at Versailles made in punishing the Weimar Republic: when Germany recovered in the Thirties, it was bent on military conquest and revenge.

These suspicions and warnings reverberate across the Russian political spectrum.7 They are exploited by conservative, reactionary, and fascistic elements who use the prospect of enlarging NATO as proof that the West is bent on humiliating Russia, keeping it weak, plotting its demise. At a press conference on June 7, Vladimir Zhirinovsky proclaimed that NATO’s “only goal is to destroy and dismember Russia.” Largely because the issue lends itself to such xenophobic demagogy, the reformers who are committed to consolidation of Russian democracy and to Russia’s increasing integration into the West also tend to oppose NATO enlargement.

At the core of this debate are two important factors that should be neither ignored nor glossed over:

First, NATO is and will remain for the foreseeable future, including when it takes in new members, a military alliance and a collective defense pact;

Second, among the contingencies for which NATO must be prepared is that Russia will abandon democracy and return to the threatening patterns of international behavior that have sometimes characterized its history, particularly during the Soviet period.

Uncertainty about Russia’s future is inescapably among the factors to be taken into account in shaping decisions about European security. No one has acknowledged that uncertainty more bluntly than many Russians have.8

Therefore the rationale for NATO’s continued existence must include what Secretary of Defense William Perry has called “a hedge against pessimistic outcomes”:

If Russia hews to a course of internal reform, respect for its neighbors’ independence, and cooperation with the West, NATO will continue to evolve in the direction of maximum inclusiveness. If however, reform in Russia falters, NATO will be there to provide for the allies’ collective defense.9

But that is not the only reason for NATO to stay in business. Other possible military threats could come from other directions, and a post-cold war NATO should be able to respond to them. The experience of the Gulf War convinced the Alliance that it had to develop a capacity to operate “out of area,” i.e., outside the NATO region, and to be able, if necessary, to take action in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Moreover, hedging against the possibility of resurgent Russian aggression is not the only, or even the main, reason for NATO’s taking in new members. There are other reasons that are not in the least contrary to the strategic interest of a democratic Russia. Russia has good reason to support NATO’s extending the zone of political stability into Central Europe. After all, twice in this century Russia, in the two world wars, has suffered greatly because of that region’s instability.

Fear of a new wave of Russian imperialism unquestionably—and, in view of the region’s geography and history, naturally—is a main reason why Central Europeans are eager to join NATO. But it is not their only motive, and it should not be seen as the driving force behind NATO enlargement, either by Central European advocates of the process or by its Russian (to say nothing of American) opponents. Václav Havel, who lives in a city that is closer to London than to Moscow, put it this way in his recent commencement address at Harvard:

As long as the broadening of NATO membership to include countries who feel culturally and politically a part of the region the Alliance was created to defend is seen by Russia, for example, as an anti-Russian undertaking, it will be a sign that Russia has not yet understood the challenge of this era.10

Some critics of NATO’s decision to enlarge warn of a self-fulfilling prophecy: as NATO admits new members, they say, Russia will assume that the noose is tightening around its neck and will take defensive if not offensive countermeasures—abrogating treaties, building up its armed forces, stepping up pressure on the other former Soviet republics. Therefore it would be better to freeze NATO at its current membership for as long as Russia “behaves”; the Alliance should not expand unless and until the Russian government shows clear signs of aggressiveness.

This argument—known in shorthand as making the enlargement of NATO “threat-based”—has two flaws. First, it emphasizes the most punitive and “anti-Russian” reason for NATO’s enlargement; and it diminishes the other equally valid, less provocative reasons for enlargement, which Russia should accept, and even support: the promotion of democracy, free markets, and regional stability. Second, it holds the fulfillment of Central Europeans’ desire for NATO membership hostage to the uncertainties of future Russian behavior—and thus, perversely, gives them a stake in potential Russian misbehavior.

If countries located between Russia and Western Europe are to be allowed into the Alliance only if Russia “turns bad,” then some countries may exaggerate the bad news coming out of Moscow. That state of mind on the part of Central Europeans, which could affect attitudes in the West, would hardly be conducive to the patient diplomacy required for dealing with Russia during its long, painful, and erratic transition from communism. Nor will it diminish the current level of mistrust between Russia and its neighbors.

It would be far better to encourage the Central Europeans, the Russians, and the peoples of the other former Soviet states all to see NATO’s enlargement as a process that can help to promote better domestic and international behavior, even as it may serve as a hedge against the worst. It should be seen as a process that has benefits for everyone and is not directed against any particular state.

It is with this concept in mind that NATO officials have been engaged in intensive talks with the Russians over the future of European security during the past year. The main points that NATO has been making to Russian leaders are as follows:

—Enlargement is going to happen; fighting it with threats will only intensify the darkest suspicions about Russia’s intentions and future.

—Describing NATO enlargement to your own people in alarmist terms will strengthen the hand of hard-liners; don’t let Zhirinovsky and other extremists frame the debate.

—We and virtually all the European countries will welcome your active engagement in the numerous existing organizations and programs in which Russia is, or can be, a full participant, such as the Partnership for Peace and the OSCE.

—We want to reach with Russia political understandings and arrangements for continuing cooperation and coordination.

Notwithstanding their own continuing reservations about enlargement, President Yeltsin and his ministers have agreed to become full members of the Partnership for Peace. In statements made this spring, they have also modified their opposition to NATO enlargement, warning against “hasty,” “precipitous,” or “accelerated” enlargement—which, thus qualified, the Alliance neither advocates nor contemplates. And they have agreed to work out, by the end of this year, the outlines of a basic agreement for a mutually reassuring and advantageous relationship between NATO and Russia. It is important that these discussions go forward. If, as President Clinton has proposed to President Yeltsin, the NATO-Russia dialogue proceeds in parallel with the gradual enlargement of the Alliance, the two processes can advance a broader goal on which NATO and Russia agree—that of keeping Europe undivided and promoting pan European integration.

Whether a fully democratic Russia, at peace with its neighbors and with itself, might someday enter NATO remains an open question. Obviously, for that to happen, it would be a very different Russia from the current one. It would also be a very different Europe. But the extraordinary transformations that have taken place both in Russia and throughout Europe over the past decade should make us reluctant to exclude possibilities for the future—and ambitious in pursuing them.

In the meantime, the development of an increasingly cooperative relationship between NATO and Russia should also be welcome to nations, such as the Baltic countries and Ukraine, that are worried about being caught, without any assurances about their own security, between an expanding Alliance and Russia. They fear falling into what President Clinton has called a “strategic limbo” if they are not included in the first or second phase of NATO expansion. Clearly, the ability of these states to maintain their independence and to continue their own reforms will have an important bearing on the future of Europe itself. Their participation in the Partnership for Peace, like Russia’s, can help them build ties to NATO. Regardless of whether a given nation ultimately chooses to pursue membership in the Alliance, it can contribute, in the near future, to the PFP as a force for cooperation and reconciliation in Europe.

The Clinton administration recognizes that, along with the opportunities I have described, there are pitfalls and risks as NATO expands, and that, unless it is handled with skill and foresight, the process of expanding NATO could create new tensions and divisions. But freezing NATO in its cold war configuration would itself be a huge mistake, a major setback both for the democratic nations that hope to join the Alliance and for the American interest in supporting democratic institutions. By contrast, enlarging NATO in a way that encourages European integration and enhances European security—the policy the administration is determined to pursue—will benefit all the peoples of the continent, and the larger transatlantic community as well.

July 13, 1995


Should NATO Grow?— A Dissent September 21, 1995

  1. 7

    See, for instance, “Russia and NATO: Theses of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy,” prepared by Sergei A. Karaganov and other members of the Russian foreign policy elite, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 21, 1995, p. 2; translated in Foreign Broadcast Information Service Daily Report—Central Eurasia, June 23, 1995, pp. 10–17.

  2. 8

    Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev has said that while the collapse of communism has opened up “unprecedented vistas,” it has also “triggered the kind of decay and inertia that can bury everything: the Russian economy, its statehood, law and order, and eventually freedom itself.” “Partnership or Cold Peace?” Foreign Policy (Summer 1995), pp. 4–5.

    At the same time, one must not exaggerate the prominence of foreign-policy concerns in the Russian parliamentary elections to be held this December and in the presidential elections next June. Most Russians continue to be far more worried by internal problems than foreign threats, real and imagined. When asked in public-opinion polls about the greatest source of danger to the Russian national interest, approximately two thirds cite disorder within the Russian Federation, such as secessionism of the kind that has erupted in Chechnya. Only about a fifth of those responding believe that there is much threat from a former Soviet republic or from a foreign country.

  3. 9

    Perry made these comments at the Wehrkunde Conference in Germany on February 6, 1994.

  4. 10

    The text of his speech, given on June 8, is published in the July–August issue of Harvard Magazine.

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