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.

One must even ask whether NATO deserves a new lease. Yes, the argument goes, because NATO is good for the United States. It is good because it gives the US not only a continued military presence in Europe, but also (so policymakers believe) political leverage over Europe. In the past the reality of a powerful Soviet Union kept the prideful West Europeans in America’s military and political orbit. To be sure the allies sometimes went their own way on economic issues, as evidenced in the 1980s dispute over their contracts for Soviet natural gas. But on the items that really counted, such as support during military showdowns like the one over Kuwait and summit bargaining, they could be counted on to fall into line.

Lately, however, they have been more willful, particularly in commercial matters, where they challenge US trade policy and make new deals with Cuba, Iran, and Iraq. Peace may be good for business, but it is leaving NATO rather on the sidelines. Yet without NATO, which institutionalizes Europe’s military dependency, how can the US hope to put pressure on its allies’ economic and political decisions?

Thus NATO is now being assessed in Washington less for its utility in holding back the Russians than for reining in the allies. Some US officials have been disarmingly specific about this. Senator Richard Lugar, one of the best-informed legislators on foreign policy issues, warned that unless Washington provides a solution for the problems of the European states, “they will ultimately seek to deal with these problems either in new alliances or on their own.”5

Whether an expanded NATO will be able to prevent this, and indeed whether such an objective is really in America’s interests is, of course, another matter. Nevertheless, it is clear that what would on the surface seem to be merely a parochial issue of whether the NATO club should grow a little larger is really a much broader one. It goes to the heart of what kind of post-cold war diplomacy the United States ought to pursue. This is why it has gained the ardent, even noisy, attention of the foreign policy community—though not, to be sure, of the wider public, which understandably treats it as largely irrelevant to the fortunes of American society.

Interestingly the great NATO debate has not taken place among the usual suspects: nostalgic cold warriors on one side, and peaceniks on the other. The lines cut across both extremes and through the middle, forming a post-ideological crazy quilt. For the expanders, anti-Russians like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Realpolitikers like Henry Kissinger line up with Wilsonian liberals like Anthony Lake. On the other side former Reagan hard-liners like Fred Ikle and Edward Luttwak find common cause with centrists like Michael Mandelbaum to keep the alliance as it is.

The opponents of expansion are not, for the most part, against NATO. Rather they are foreign policy professionals who fear that a bigger alliance might create major headaches for the United States. They point out that most of the current NATO members do not want it, nor do senior officers at the Pentagon, and are going along only because the White House has made it a test of loyalty. What concerns them most of all is the effect it may have on a Russia still grappling with the results of its economic and political collapse, and trying to engage with the West while not being humiliated by its fall from status. Viewed in this light today’s NATO may be a cold war anachronism, but it is not a dangerous one. Pushing it east into the old Warsaw Pact territories, with no built-in limitations short of the Russian border, might unleash a set of extremely unpleasant consequences.

What makes the situation so frustrating is that the debate is taking place on several different planes of unreality. The East Europeans say they deserve membership to demonstrate that they are just as European as anyone else. But what they really care about is an American insurance policy against the Russians, and even against their own neighbors. The West Europeans think the whole thing is unnecessary, but are going along so as not to annoy the Americans. Administration proponents claim that an expanded NATO is just a latter-day version of the Marshall Plan: a way to make the old continent “united and free.” But what actually animates them is the fear that without new members and new missions, NATO—as a means of exerting political pressure on the Europeans—will become about as relevant as a treaty governing migratory birds. The US decision to intervene militarily in the Bosnian war was stimulated in large part by the fear that sitting on the sidelines was undermining American leadership within Europe as expressed through NATO.

Clearly NATO does have problems. And now, almost a decade after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, is hardly too soon to address them. Maintaining the current structure while adding new members is one kind of reform, but certainly not the only one that can be imagined. Among the others that have been discussed are:

*Expand all the way and bring Russia into the alliance. This would, in De Gaulle’s famous phrase, unite Europe “from the Atlantic to the Urals,” and a good deal beyond. What would be left of the original NATO, and the special European-American connection, in an alliance extending to the frontiers of China is another matter.

*Delete the treaty’s key provision, Article V, which obliges every member more or less automatically to come to the aid of any other in case of attack. This would reduce the danger presented by an alliance that includes regimes, and ethnic groups, that hate each other and want to expand their borders. But this would transform NATO into a traditional defense pact. It would be a friendship, not a marriage.

*Make NATO more continental by turning over command posts to Europeans. As it is the Americans almost totally run the show. This would take the pressure off the US and presumably encourage the Europeans to take more responsibility for their own defense. The likely result would be to reduce American influence over Europe which, from Washington’s perspective, is not what NATO is supposed to be about.

*Tell the East Europeans to forget about NATO and instead put pressure on the European Union to let them into that rich man’s club. This should take care of their concerns about “inclusion” and being treated as “real Europeans,” although it won’t do much to persuade them to love the Russians. (The costs to the current EU members, however, seem likely to discourage them from accepting the East Europeans for a good many years.)

*Build a true European army based on the national forces of the present and future European members of NATO, and expand the existing defense entity, the West European Union, from a shell into an effective military organization.

None of these alternatives can resolve all the problems affecting NATO. But neither will expansion of the alliance, as it is now structured, to the east. Expansion will not, as many proponents assume, make Europeans more subject to control from Washington. Even during the cold war military dependency could not be translated into compliance on economic and political issues, and could even less so today. The recent fracas over Iraq, with most NATO members opposed to a unilateral American use of force in the Gulf, dramatizes this fact.

Expansion will not bring tranquility to countries that have unstable, unrepresentative, or demagogic governments. More likely it will involve all of NATO’s members, including the United States, in quarrels that were hidden, but not resolved, by the cold war. And to move the alliance east without incorporating Russia into a wider security network—one in which it exerts influence proportionate to its interests—is likely to make Europe less, not more, stable.

It is indeed, as the current argument assumes, time to do something about NATO. But expansion into Eastern Europe is not in itself a solution, and quite likely could exacerbate the problem. Instead, what is required is to rethink the meaning of the Atlantic alliance and to work out a more appropriate relationship between the US and Europe than the one that evolved during the cold war. That one served its purpose. It has now become an impediment both to Europe’s future and to America’s own interests.

The energy being expended in Washington on making NATO bigger could be better applied to devising alternatives to an alliance in radical need of redefinition. The Europeans, after decades of willing dependency on the United States, are capable of developing their own defense organization and should be encouraged to do so. NATO, for its part, should be changed from an integrated, multinational army effectively under American direction into a mutual defense pact between the United States and a European army drawn from existing NATO forces, as well as the Eastern European nations that will soon join. Ultimately this European entity should include all the nations of Eastern Europe, not only the three under current consideration. This would avoid the problem, inherent in the current plan, of drawing a new East-West dividing line in Europe. The Americans, and ideally the Russians as well through treaty arrangements, would become guarantors, ready to come to Europe’s aid in the event of an unprovoked aggression threatening the balance of power. This might include aggression not only within Europe but also in places such as the Gulf where European and US interests are at stake. But the United States would not be the financier of Europe’s defense or the gendarme automatically pulled into every quarrel among Europeans. Clearly this is a process that would take a number of years to accomplish fully in the short term. The US must, of course, maintain its commitments within NATO, including the Bosnia operation. But it should now begin the transition to a different relationship rather than expand the old, and outdated one.

This means refocusing and redefining American policy. The United States is not a European power any more than it is an Asian power. That is a mischievous Atlanticist exaggeration. It is a global power. But it has very serious concerns in Europe, as it does in Asia, in maintaining favorable relations with the major powers of the region. It also should seek to prevent any single one from upsetting the balance of power in a way detrimental to American interests. That was one of the original functions of NATO. But that was another time and a different set of circumstances.

Adjusting our diplomacy to the present circumstances, we could finally, a decade after the end of the cold war, begin to define our role not as Europe’s overseer but as a global balancer. This requires not only military strength, but a realistic, and parsimonious, interpretation of our interests. The argument over NATO expansion takes us in the wrong direction, and if pursued could result in serious disturbances to what is a largely favorable political and economic evolution on the continent. But if it induces us to undertake an overdue reassessment of our relations with Europe and to encourage the evolution of a self-reliant continent that was the original purpose of NATO, then it will have served a useful purpose.

—December 18, 1997

This Issue

January 15, 1998