The Slate Gist

NATO Expansion

By Karenna Gore

NATO is on the verge of offering membership to three former members of the Soviet bloc: Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic (half of what used to be Czechoslovakia). The offer will probably come at a summit in Madrid in July. But it is controversial. So is the whole purpose of NATO, now that the Cold War is over.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in 1949. Its purpose, in the words of its first secretary-general, Lord Ismay, was “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” In other words, Western European nations, devastated by World War II, wanted the United States to help defend them against Soviet aggression, and wanted German militarism to be merged into joint security arrangements.

The key to NATO is Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America will be considered an attack against them all.” In exchange for the security blanket of U.S. nuclear and conventional forces, member nations have recognized U.S. leadership in both policy and operations. (The treaty specifies that the commander in chief of NATO forces must be an American.)

The Clinton administration favors expanding NATO, but has been criticized for insufficient enthusiasm. During the last presidential campaign, ex-Sen. Bob Dole said Clinton was dragging his feet. Henry Kissinger has said that “ambivalence has produced an inconsistency between the administration’s statements of its objectives and the leisurely way it pursues them.” Others in the United States pushing for NATO expansion include a vocal Eastern and Central European diaspora (symbolized now by Czech-born Secretary of State Madeleine Albright); columnist William Safire; and Sens. Richard Lugar, Barbara Mikulski, and Joe Lieberman.

The main arguments for expansion, from the U.S. point of view, are: 1) This is an opportunity to consolidate the Cold War victory by locking in the allegiance of newly democratic nations and ensuring their stability; 2) This is an insurance policy against a potentially resurgent Russia; and 3) This guarantees a continuing leadership role for the United States in Europe, even as Europe creates and strengthens its own institutions of unity. Since 1991, NATO has remade itself as a peacekeeping and crisis-management organization–in Bosnia, for example–and supporters of expansion believe this is a valuable role that expanded membership would enhance.

But others say the Clinton administration is “barreling” toward expansion, in reckless disregard of the attendant risks and drawbacks. The opposition is diverse and mounting. It includes an extreme right-wing Republican like Patrick Buchanan, a moderate Democrat like former Sen. Sam Nunn, and the editorial page of the New York Times. “Planning the future of Europe with blueprints from the cold war is a mistake,” says the Times.

Anti-expansion arguments break down into two main categories. One emphasizes that NATO is not a feel-good organization–it is a military commitment. Is the United States really prepared to go to war to defend the Czech Republic? With Russia in shambles and communism no longer a threat, what threat to U.S. interests justifies such a commitment? At present levels of military spending, can the United States credibly make such a promise? And what would it cost to make the promise credible? Rash treaty commitments to the feud-prone nations of central Europe led to World War I–could it happen again? (“Putting a tripwire for war on Poland’s border,” is how Buchanan put it in a Feb. 5 column.) Why can’t Europe, now prosperous, defend itself?

The other category of arguments against NATO expansion concerns the impact on Russia, the object of bitter opposition. George F. Kennan, father of the Cold War policy of “containment” of which NATO was an expression, declared in the Times Feb. 5 that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.” It would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion”; harm “the development of Russian democracy”; “restore the atmosphere of the cold war”; and “impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

Alesser, third category of arguments against NATO expansion concerns its effect on Eastern European countries that are not admitted to the club. Critics say expansion could be another Yalta (the 1945 meeting at which Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin agreed on spheres of influence in postwar Europe)–imposing a line between East and West, and leaving nonmembers subject to Russian bullying.

Eastern and Central European nations, which historically have been invasion highways, see NATO membership as the answer to their greatest fears: internal instability and Russian resurgence. They also see it as easing their way toward economic integration with Western Europe. What they have been offered so far is a sort of junior membership, called Partnership for Peace. PFP provides for military cooperation, but no defense guarantee. It has been mocked as a meaningless gesture to stave off eager applicants and assuage the Russians. But others praise it as a minor-league farm team for potential NATO members, and celebrate its civilizing influence (some PFP members have settled long-standing border disputes).

To allay Russian concerns, NATO has offered not to deploy nuclear forces in Eastern Europe. Its central offer is a “charter” with Russia that assures the Russians a voice in alliance policy, without any of the rights of membership. But Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin warned Feb. 3 that unless NATO backs off, ultranationalists will threaten the government and “tanks will be rolling out” in Moscow.