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Instead of NATO

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.”1 But she did not mean democratic Russia itself.

This pleases many, particularly traditional Russophobes, who believe that the best offense is a good defense. But it also alarms others. Skeptics fear that pushing NATO east will discredit Russian reformers who are trying to build a democratic, market-oriented society, and will only strengthen the nationalists who are smarting badly under Russia’s calamitous fall from global status. These critics also warn that the whole complex of arms control accords, including the dismantlement of nuclear missiles, could be jeopardized if a more nationalist regime comes to power in Moscow. Boris Yeltsin has been induced by his “friend Bill” to swallow the expansion pill. But what happens after the demise of this unhealthy and unpopular man? Why risk a cold war settlement that has given the West everything that it has asked for, and more, they want to know? And particularly at a time when Russia poses no threat whatever to its Western neighbors?

If these opposing positions seem to give the whole debate a surrealistic character, so be it. In many ways it is surrealistic. Both sides have valid arguments. But they are circling around the central issue. It is true, as expansionists insist, that NATO’s current boundary line seems arbitrary and capricious. If there are no longer two hostile economic and political systems in Europe, why should there still be a cold war dividing line in the military realm? Since the very concept of “Europe” is moving east, shouldn’t NATO?

While on the surface this seems merely a matter of tidying up old membership lists, the problem is deeper. The Eastern states may talk about the joys of inclusion, and wanting to be invited into the same club room with their Western neighbors, but they are pushing for membership for a far more practical reason. They want the United States to protect them should they get into a fight with their neighbors, or—and this concerns them most—should the Russians once again become menacing. NATO came into being as an anti-Russian military alliance, and that is the way that the prospective new members still see it.

There is also the German factor. NATO came into being, in the often-cited phrase, to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” Although Germany has been a loyal member of the alliance, memories of past aggressions are deep. Thus an alliance that encapsulates a unified Germany on both sides—the east as well as the west—has an appeal to many. Naturally there is a reluctance to say this openly, especially since Germany is Eastern Europe’s largest investor and export market.2

But the desire to contain not only Moscow but also, to a lesser degree, Berlin is the simple truth that lies behind all the window dressing about “inclusion,” and “fairness,” and “overcoming Yalta.” The old states of the defunct Warsaw Pact do not need NATO membership to be in Europe. They are there and always have been. What they want is the automatic guarantee of American protection that the membership card provides.

Understandably neither they nor the Clinton administration focuses on this aspect of the expansion argument. Nor do they mention that there are other clubs, like the European Union, that the former Communist states could be asked to join if they simply seek “inclusion.” Instead, advocates press for expansion as though this hardly concerns Moscow at all, and will have no effect on Russian policy in other critical matters, such as nuclear missile reduction, technology and weapons transfers, international peacekeeping operations, and the containment of rogue states.

American officials are moving through this expansion process with their fingers crossed. They hope that they can keep the Russians mollified with space shuttle stunts and vague proposals for consultation like the NATO-Russian Founding Act, hold off the Balkan and Baltic states from pressing their demands for entry, soothe the resentments of West Europeans who have their own ideas about the extent and speed of expansion, and conceal the real cost of what is an open-ended operation.

On the issue of costs, estimates range from $1.3 billion all the way to $125 billion (according to the Congressional Budget Office), depending on who does the guessing. Early this year the administration, seeking to appease tax-cutting congressmen, said that the price tag could be kept to some $35 billion, of which the Europeans would pay more than 90 percent. That sent up a howl across the Atlantic, where governments are slashing budgets to qualify for the new European currency, and President Jacques Chirac declared that France would not cough up one centime. NATO officials went back to their calculators and whipped up new figures. Voilà! It now turns out that expansion will cost only $1.3 billion. This comes from assuming that the new NATO will not be so threatened after all and can use its old equipment. As one senior official explained why smaller forces will do: “Poland is flat and presents no geographic barriers to extending our collective defense eastward from Germany.” He did not elaborate on why Poland’s flatness did not help it repulse invaders in 1939.3

But the current problem confronting Washington, as officials ultimately admit when seriously pressed, is not that Eastern Europe is in a state of danger, but that NATO itself is. It has become an alliance without a clear sense of mission, or even, in the absence of any discernible threat, a compelling reason for being. It is living mostly on inertia. Yet for quite different reasons both Americans and Europeans are reluctant to let it expire.

West European governments like it because it means an American subsidy of their defense. As it is, they can chop away at their military budgets, as they have been, knowing that in a pinch the Americans will get them out of trouble. Why turn down a free lunch? Particularly since this does not entail any inconvenience to their commercial activities. Their membership in NATO has not in any noticeable way interfered with their pursuit of lucrative contracts with regimes—such as Cuba, Iran, and Iraq—that Washington considers pariahs. The beauty of NATO membership is that it provides the reality of military protection, should the need arise, without imposing any serious economic or political inconveniences. No wonder that everyone wants to join.

American policymakers, for their part, also like it—but more for political than military reasons. And military contractors, who provide the hardware for perpetual new generations of US-designed equipment for allies, like it best of all. Indeed, the defense industry, which hopes to equip the East European armies with all the latest high-tech gear, is among the biggest domestic lobbies (along with ethnic voter groups) for an expanded NATO.

But it is hard to justify a bigger NATO as a subsidy for the arms industry. And the anemic present state of the Russian military—which has cut its forces and its budget to a small fraction of its cold war size—makes the defense argument sound a bit abstract.4 That is why American policymakers are concerned, with good reason, that NATO, having run out of tasks to perform, may be losing not only its reason for being but, more seriously, its constituency.

Officials believe that unless it finds new tasks to perform it may enter a phase of terminal decline. Its problem, to use the favored bureaucratic phrase, is that it must either “go out of area or go out of business.” The Bosnian war took it out of its usual geographic area. But that war, horrible though it was, and could be again, is hardly the kind of conflict that NATO—with its four-million-man army (and five million reservists), its thousands of tanks, and arsenals of nuclear weapons—was designed to fight. Indeed, the problem there was not that the states of Western Europe were too weak to separate the contending ethnic forces, but that—because of a decades-long habit of military and political dependency—they had lost the will. Bosnia, by providing a new “area” and a new mission, is hardly a solution for the problem of NATO’s relevance. In fact, the administration’s difficulties in persuading Congress and the public to maintain the current low-level American military contingent there—even though there have been no casualties—indicate how fragile is the level of support for taking NATO “out of area” into regional and ethnic conflicts. Thus when officials argue that incorporating much of the old Warsaw Pact would give NATO a new lease on life, one wonders how long that lease would be.

  1. 1

    Madeleine Albright, quoted in Michael Dobbs, “US Indicates Preference for Just 3 New NATO States,” The Washington Post, May 30, 1997, p. A30.

  2. 2

    At a December NATO meeting in Warsaw former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski uttered the impolitic by declaring that “involving Germany in a wider framework allows us to cope with Europe’s central security problem of the twentieth century: how to cope with the reality of Germany’s power.” Jane Perlez, “Blunt Reason for Enlarging NATO: Curbs on Germany,” The New York Times, December 7, 1997.

  3. 3

    For the dispute over estimates, see Steven Erlanger, “Rancorous Debate Emerges Over Cost of Enlarging NATO,” The New York Times, October 13, 1997; William Drozdiak, “NATO: US Erred on Cost of Expansion,” The Washington Post, November 14, 1997; and “NATO Puts Growth Cost at $1.3 Billion,” The New York Times, November 28, 1997.

  4. 4

    Russian defense expenditures for 1996 were $69.5 billion, compared to $183.2 billion for NATO Europe, +$457.4 billion for total NATO. See The Military Balance 1997/98 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1997), pp. 293-294.

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