NATO enlargement–an issue you and I have discussed on several occasions–is approaching a moment of truth. Last week President Clinton transmitted to the Senate the documents that would bring the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland into the alliance. The Senate is expected to vote in early March.
For the last four years, since the president decided that NATO should reach out across the old divide of the Cold War to take in new members, you have had serious questions about the wisdom of this course. I’m glad to have the chance to continue our exchanges on this subject here in Slate.
The case for enlarging NATO comes down to this: Opening the door to new democracies that aspire to, and qualify for, membership will strengthen stability, undergird peace, and enhance integration in Europe. That goal is profoundly in the interest of the United States. Twice in this century Europe has exploded into world wars that cost the lives of over half a million Americans. The Cold War cost us the equivalent of over $13 trillion.
While those conflicts are behind us, there are still threats to the security of Europe. They include internal dangers, such as outbreaks of ethnic conflict and violent nationalism, and external ones, especially those posed by the spread of missile technology and weapons of mass destruction. Enlarging NATO will increase Europe’s ability to deter and, if necessary, defeat those threats.
The leaders of NATO invited the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland to join the first round of enlargement because those countries have passed the toughest tests of political and economic reform and because they are ready now to contribute to the strength of the alliance.
NATO is, at its core, a military organization–a collective defense pact. But it is more than that: It is also a political organization. In fact, it always has been. In the ‘50s, NATO provided the security umbrella under which France and Germany reconciled. That laid the ground for the European Union. In the early ‘80s, NATO promoted the consolidation of civilian-led democracy in Spain. On numerous occasions, NATO has helped keep the peace between Greece and Turkey.
Throughout its existence, NATO’s unified command has removed the incentive for military competition among Western European powers. I stress that point because it’s easy to forget in today’s world, when the unity of Western Europe seems natural and commonplace, that it was not always thus. For centuries it was precisely the Western European powers–anything but unified–that were almost constantly at war with each other. NATO helped end that pattern.
A post-Cold War NATO can foster integration and cooperation between what we used to think of as East and West. Moreover, NATO’s open door to the east can foster integration and cooperation among the central Europeans themselves.
In fact, there’s already progress in that direction. In pursuit of their goal to join the alliance, a number of central European states have accelerated their internal reforms, and they have resolved virtually every old ethnic and border dispute in the region.
The United States is actively encouraging other European and transatlantic organizations to open their doors wide–and keep them open. We believe that a nation’s eligibility for full participation in these structures must be determined not by history or geography, not by its affiliations and attitudes in the past, but by its values and conduct in the present and by its orientation toward the future.
That raises what I know is a particular concern of yours: the effect of NATO enlargement on the states of the former USSR–the empire you so skillfully autopsied in your last book. Russia is a particular concern because of the intensity and persistence of its opposition to enlargement.
Stereotypes die hard, on both sides of what used to be the Iron Curtain. Just as many of our own experts and commentators cling to Cold War prejudices about Russians and what makes them tick, so many Russians nurture a Cold War image of NATO. These include Russian hard-liners who long for what they remember as the glory days of the Soviet Union and who exploit what they depict as the specter of NATO to whip up nationalistic passions. There are also plenty of Russian reformers and democrats who worry–and warn–that NATO enlargement threatens to strengthen those reactionary forces.
That risk is both exaggerated and manageable. Just as President Clinton and the other leaders of NATO have recognized the emergence of a new Russia, so many Russians are, I believe, beginning to acknowledge that there is a new NATO. Far from being directed against Russia, it is committed to working with Russia. Last year the alliance and Russia signed a “founding act”–a charter setting forth principles of cooperation. Today allied and Russian troops are serving side by side to keep the peace in Bosnia. A new consultative body, the NATO-Russia Joint Permanent Council, will hold its third meeting at the level of foreign ministers in April.
Russian reform and U.S.-Russian relations face many challenges in the years ahead, but the expansion of a defensive alliance with which Russia itself has an increasingly close and beneficial relationship need not be one of them.
I look forward to your response.