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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON NATO

Will Expansion Undercut the Military?

By premature action on new members, the Senate could condemn a vital alliance to creeping impotence.

March 26, 1998|HOWARD BAKER Jr. and ALTON FRYE and SAM NUNN and BRENT SCOWCROFT | Howard Baker Jr. and Sam Nunn are former U.S. senators. Alton Frye is senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations. Brent Scowcroft was national security advisor to Presidents Ford and Bush

The debate on NATO expansion is generating many more questions than answers. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has identified a number of such questions bearing on the proposed admission of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, the committee calls for approving those admissions before the answers are available.

Among conditions the committee has prescribed for admitting these new members is a requirement for elaborate reports to be filed after they take their seats in NATO. Looking toward the formulation of NATO's new strategic concept, the committee mandates a study of the concept's implications for U.S. military forces not only in Europe, but worldwide. The committee demands analysis of threats to be faced by the United States and its allies to the year 2010. It cites the growing menace of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons as well as the prospect of cruise and ballistic missiles in unfriendly hands. Furthermore, the resolution requires preparation of "alternative system architectures" for ballistic missile defense in Europe.

It makes sense for the Senate to offer guidance on NATO's future strategic concept. But no one, in or out of the Senate, can responsibly judge how expanding NATO relates to a concept that has not yet been defined or submitted for evaluation.

What is possible--and urgent--is to anticipate the strategic consequences that would flow from expansion. The administration advertises that process as open-ended and continuing. It has encouraged the expectations of many countries--the Baltic states, Bulgaria and others--that they, too, will become members of NATO. Yet it has not begun to confront the military requirements that would impose.

Military professionals accept that defending the Baltics, for example, would almost certainly entail the use of nuclear weapons in the event of attack by a resurgent Russia. Including Poland would already bring NATO to the edge of Russian territory at Kaliningrad. There and elsewhere, the combination of its deteriorating conventional forces and fear of unbounded NATO expansion is moving Moscow toward increased reliance on nuclear weapons--a doctrine that might at best be called "inflexible response," at worst a "hair trigger." If deterrence fails and armed conflict erupts, avoiding escalation could be difficult.

Most worrisome is the contradiction between open-ended NATO expansion and our gravest security priority, mastering the threat of weapons of mass destruction. That task begins with controlling the vast strategic arsenal still present in Russia. That mission and the collateral effort to stem proliferation of scientists, technology and hardware depend on active cooperation with the Russians.

In Sen. John Warner's phrase, Russians perceive NATO expansion as replacing the iron curtain with an "iron ring" around their country. To tell a country scarred by repeated invasions from the West that NATO expansion is good for it only spurs nationalist sentiment. It weakens the reformers with whom we must forge cooperation.

Other issues cry out for scrutiny. A Russia that feels cornered in the West will look East and South for strategic partners. Early signs of a marriage of convenience between China and Russia point toward mounting resistance to U.S. policy in other regions. Russia also holds cards in the global energy game. We cannot assume that, if tensions mount, it will swallow its pride and refrain from pressure on its neighbors' energy supplies or from complicating access to oil and gas resources in Asia. Russia will gauge its strategic options in light of how we exercise ours.

Far from suggesting a Russian veto over NATO decisions, these considerations underscore the absolute necessity of clearly calculating our own interests and priorities. It will be no service to American or European security if the course we set undermines democratic trends and political stability in Russia. Still less will it serve our interests if the process induces more dangerous military postures and interrupts arms restraints in Russia.

The pending Senate resolution has other problematic features. In an extravagant reading of Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty--which provides merely that allies will consult when any of them is threatened--the resolution authorizes NATO to "engage in other missions," without defining those missions or setting criteria for them. A strong NATO is surely necessary for flexible coalitions of the willing to meet crises like Saddam Hussein's aggression in the Persian Gulf. Even those convinced of that proposition, however, question how far the Senate should go in preauthorizing such efforts.

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