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Expanding NATO--But Diminishing Security for All

March 09, 1997|Raymond L. Garthoff | Raymond L. Garthoff, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, served as the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria. A longer version of this article will appear in Brookings Review, Spring 1997

WASHINGTON — Expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization--or, as its advocates now prefer, NATO enlargement--is the most important international issue on the agenda today. Yet, it has received far too little real consideration. Support in Washington and most other NATO capitals seems widespread, but not deep. The issue did not figure in the recent U.S. presidential election, mainly because it was endorsed by both candidates. Yet, in July, NATO will presumably announce its readiness to open negotiations with three Central European countries eager to join NATO and considered most appropriate: Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. A promise will be made that others will follow.

NATO was a great success story of the Cold War, so why not build on that success? For a few years, from 1990 until 1994, it was generally agreed that NATO must transform itself in the post-Cold War world, but that transforming a military alliance inherited from an era of confrontation of opposing blocs was best done by changing its role, rather than by taking in new members.

When the Paris Charter of Europe in 1990 marked the end of the Cold War, NATO had a border running through Central Europe. To create new lines of division by enlarging NATO to the east is not explicable as an inheritance. New security arrangements could best be handled, it was thought, through individual agreements with non-NATO countries--through a Partnership for Peace (PFP) with each country. The PFP was launched in 1994. But before it could prove itself (as indeed it has), the United States, which had sponsored it, suddenly endorsed expansion of NATO membership. Why?

The sudden shift toward enlargement of NATO had three key sources. First, the political leaders of several former communist Central and Eastern European states--above all, in Prague, Warsaw and Budapest--were impatient to join Western Europe, and the road to membership in the European Union looked steep and long. NATO membership seemed the best path. Moreover, they harbored fears of future Russian pressures and wanted NATO's security assurances.

Second, some German leaders decided that German economic expansion into East-Central Europe would be most palatable in the framework of a multilateral redefinition of relationships. Again, NATO was more feasible than the European Union, and the PFP was irrelevant. Finally, and most decisive, President Bill Clinton was persuaded by those in his administration who favored enlargement of NATO as the best vehicle to revivify and transform the alliance, and thereby preserve and enhance the one institution that gave the American voice in Europe its greatest resonance. That it appealed to a vocal domestic political constituency was an added advantage. Even more important, it offered a potential success story in the alliance and at home.

It was, of course, recognized that the Russians, who were just overcoming doubts and joining the Partnership for Peace, would not like it. But advocates of NATO expansion believed Russians could not really do anything about it and would simply have to reconcile to it. Moreover, we could facilitate that reluctant acceptance by verbal reassurances and various steps to assuage hurt Russian feelings by elaborating cooperative relations between NATO and Russia.

Opposition to NATO expansion is, regrettably, the one thing virtually all Russian politicians can agree on. As they voiced objections, it became necessary to mount counterarguments. One was that enlargement of NATO would enhance stability in East-Central Europe and strengthen political democratization and economic marketization--all in the interests not only of the countries involved, but of the West and Russia, too. Of course, if the main aim was to enhance stability, the first priority should have been to bring Russia and Ukraine into NATO.

The second argument was that, while Russia today is no threat, the Russia of tomorrow is uncertain and enlargement of NATO would reassure its new members against possible future dangers.

The argument that NATO enlargement would be a hedge against aggressive inclinations of a resurgent Russia would appeal to countries brought into NATO, but what of the many East and Central European states not brought in? They were being promised less security by this new dividing line--because rather than a general NATO interest in security for all the countries of the region, a few were to be offered membership and enhanced security, while others were being left out.

Some in the West, especially a few prominent geopoliticians of the Cold War school, such as Henry A. Kissinger, were advocating, on "realist," geopolitical grounds, rapid and substantial expansion of NATO. They insisted this was vital, not to cultivate democracy in Eastern Europe or to hedge against a possible failure of democracy in Russia, but to take advantage of temporary Russian weakness and establish a counter-Russian military alliance now when we are more easily able.

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