To expand, or not to expand. That is the question for NATO. Or so it would seem from the argument now shaking policy circles over whether to admit new members to the hoary cold war alliance. But the membership question is—like a married couple’s squabbles over which route to take to the grocery store—only a clue to the depth of contention. Beneath it lie issues that go to the very heart of America’s relationship with Europe and to the place of post-Communist Russia in the world. What may look on the surface like little more than a bureaucratic detail is a matter of enormous potential impact.
The debate over NATO is hard and noisy, with passionate advocates of one position or the other lined up along the great divide. But it is remarkably narrow, focusing only on the question of taking in new members, as though this were simply a mechanical arrangement, like adding new seats to a sports stadium. Yet it is more akin to the question of whether or not a couple should have children. To move from being a couple to being a family means not only a change of size. The whole entity is transformed. And like the decision about having a family, the full consequences are only dimly glimpsed at the time, and mostly ignored.
Focusing on the expansion issue alone, as if it did not affect everything else about the purpose and the value of the alliance, is easy. It gives the debate an air of deceptive simplicity. We owe it to the East Europeans to bring them into the trans-Atlantic club, the expansionists argue. They were, after all, treated so badly at Yalta. NATO may have come into being as a result of the cold war. But now that the cold war is over, why keep the club confined to the original members? Why not let the sun shine on all the East European states once under Moscow’s domination? It’s just a matter of equity, advocates maintain. And anyway it would—or so they hope—give a boost to market-loving, democracy-embracing politicians in the formerly Communist states.
Phrased this way it sounds like a sure winner that will make everybody feel happier, safer, and more virtuous. This is the approach the Clinton administration is using as it prepares to push the Senate into ratifying an expanded membership list for the North Atlantic Treaty. In this round Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic are up for approval. But the other nations of Eastern Europe, including the Baltic states that not long ago were part of the Soviet Union, are eagerly pressing their claims. And once the decision is made to expand, it will be hard to draw the line anywhere west of the Russian border. Indeed, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said earlier this year, “No European democracy will be excluded because of where it sits on the map.” But she did not mean democratic Russia …
'Instead of NATO' March 26, 1998