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NATO's Uncertain Role

July 22, 2001

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin wants NATO either to disband or to invite his country to become a member. Since neither is likely to happen, Moscow's suspicions about NATO can be expected to remain strong and are certain to deepen as NATO pursues its plans to continue expanding eastward.

In 1999, its 50th anniversary year, NATO welcomed to membership the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, all former--if unenthusiastic--members of the defunct Soviet-created Warsaw Pact alliance. Now NATO is eyeing one or more of the Baltic states--Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania--as candidates for future membership. Admitting any of them would bring NATO flush up against the borders of the former Soviet Union.

NATO's unacknowledged reason for enlargement is clear. It wants to extend security to the European states once occupied or controlled by Moscow because those countries fear what could happen to them if Russia ever again became expansionist. NATO sees enlargement as a benign and defensive step.

The view from Moscow is quite different. Given Russia's experiences with repeated invasions from the West, it sees a potentially threatening purpose to NATO's growth. Alarmists in Russia as well as advocates of NATO's enlargement can reasonably cite history to justify their concerns.

Putin says he doesn't regard NATO as a "hostile organization." At the same time, Putin asks why NATO is still needed.

There are a couple of honest answers, though NATO members seldom voice them on the record.

One is that the Europeans, for all their remarkable progress toward economic and political integration, still haven't reached a point where they wholly trust each other. The alliance is an effective way to keep their jealousies and suspicions under control. The alliance is also what keeps the U.S. engaged in Europe, something Washington wants and that the Europeans--most of whom talk candidly about the indispensability of American leadership--have come to count on.

In the end, though, NATO is foremost a military alliance, and here its post-Cold War aims are uncertain. After long delay and considerable internal bickering, it did intervene to end aggression in the Balkans. Beyond that the future is murky. No consensus about NATO's possible role outside Europe has been reached, and European defense budgets that should be growing but are instead shrinking limit NATO's options. NATO's political purposes are a lot more apparent than its security aims, an ironic position for a military alliance to find itself in.

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