NATO Expansion

Dear Strobe,

       We have so often agreed on important foreign-policy questions that it pains me to take issue with your views on the consequences of enlarging NATO’s membership. Nevertheless, I consider the administration’s policy seriously misguided. My principal concern is not, as your letter implies, Russia, but the safety of America and its allies, and the effectiveness of American foreign policy.
       You have written an eloquent defense of current policy, but I cannot agree with many of your statements. Will the policy of enlarging NATO “strengthen stability, undergird peace, and enhance integration in Europe”? I believe not. The countries now being considered for membership are in fact stable, face no internal threat of ethnic conflict, and have no serious frictions with their neighbors. Future threats to their stability are much more likely to come from the internal stresses related to the transition to democratic institutions and a market economy, rather than from the aggression of another country.
       Significant proportions of the population in two of the three candidate countries are dubious about the benefits of NATO membership, and not a single one has a public willing to increase defense spending to fulfill obligations imposed by NATO membership. Polls sponsored by the United States Information Agency in 1996 indicated that Polish citizens were against additional defense expenditures by 74 percent to 16 percent, Czechs by 84 percent to 11 percent, and Hungarians by 87 percent to 9 percent. Nevertheless, the administration is assuring us that the cost to the United States will be minimal and that others will pick up the tab. Some serious contradictions lurk behind that argument. Without modernization, unified communications, improved infrastructure, and a lot of expensive weaponry, the armies of the new members will not be an asset to NATO but a burden. All these things are expensive and our Western European friends have said they won’t pay a penny; the administration tells the Senate we won’t have to pay much, but if we don’t the whole burden falls on the new members; and if they cut social spending to upgrade their military, this can lead to political and economic instability.
       And how about European integration? The integration the countries of central and Eastern Europe need most is membership in the European Union. If we really want to encourage integration, why don’t we tell our European allies that so long as there is no threat to the countries in question, we will consider NATO membership only after admission to the EU? Otherwise we give the Western Europeans a convenient excuse to delay the politically painful step of opening their markets to countries that desperately need them. NATO expansion at this time is more likely to delay, rather than hasten, European integration.
       Of course, NATO is more than a military organization, and that fact should have figured more prominently in the administration’s thinking when it embarked on its current course. New countries could have been brought into the political structure without raising the concerns stimulated by military integration. Furthermore, under the Partnership for Peace, NATO and its partners could have arranged as much practical coordination and modernization of military forces as they wished.
       I could challenge many of the other general statements in your message, but let us turn to the most fundamental questions: Where are the most serious security threats to the United States and its allies today? Where is the most serious instability in Europe? The answer to the first, I believe, is that the potential leakage of weapons of mass destruction to rogue regimes or terrorists is the most immediate security threat to all of us. (Isn’t this what the confrontation with Saddam Hussein is all about?) As for instability, the Balkans obviously take the prize in Europe. Expanding NATO to the countries now proposed does nothing practical to meet the first threat, and it is hard to discern any direct relevance to the second as well. You speak of the persistence of outmoded stereotypes (and I agree that they are dangerous), but I believe our current policy on NATO enlargement is fueled precisely by outmoded stereotypes. Unless there is a real military threat from Russia (a proposition practically nobody advances), enlargement makes no sense at all, since all the other worthy objectives the administration cites can be reached by other means. Military alliances deal primarily with military threats; other instruments are more useful for nation-building when external threats are absent.
       I do not share your optimism that we can manage our relations with Russia in the context of a relentlessly expanding NATO. The problem is not that Russians think NATO is a threat. Most understand it isn’t, despite what their loudmouth chauvinists say. But they do understand that so long as they are not part of it, they are not part of “Europe.” Symbolically, this is extremely important, since democracy in Russia depends critically on a feeling that Russians are European and European institutions can work in Russia. The feeling of rejection and inferiority breeds irresponsible Slavophilism, and the suspicion that the United States is extending its influence at Russia’s expense undermines our ability to secure cooperation even when it is in Russia’s interest.
       Our current policy has already inflicted perceptible damage to our relations–as we are seeing in the Duma’s continued failure to ratify START II and in the Russian shenanigans regarding Iraq–but the situation will get much worse if NATO expands to the Baltic states, as the administration reportedly has promised. By slowing the process of weapons destruction and inhibiting continued Russian cooperation to ensure the safety of nuclear weapons and fissile materials, enlarging NATO’s membership increases these threats to our security. Further expansion could bring the arms-reduction process to a complete halt and trigger a Russian decision to increase reliance on nuclear weapons. I don’t see how anybody can view this as strengthening security or undergirding peace!
       It seems obvious to me that we cannot ultimately have peace and security in Europe without Russia. Russia will be either a security partner or a problem. We cannot ensure that Russia is a reliable partner, but we should do all we can to encourage democratization and responsible behavior, and not create an enemy by treating Russia as one until it proves that it is. I know this is not easy. I have dealt with Russians my entire adult life and have never been an apologist for their faults and weaknesses. During the Cold War, I had fewer reservations about our hard-line policy than you did. But with the Cold War over (and we should not forget that the current Russian leadership helped us end it), our strategic objective should be to bring Russia into the world community and a European security structure. The NATO-Russian founding act is a diplomatic achievement, but will be of limited value if NATO continues to expand. The idea that you can build cooperation with Russia and encourage its democratic forces in the context of an expanding NATO is–to put it as mildly as I can–wishful thinking.
       So far as reaching “across the old divide of the Cold War” is concerned, it takes real chutzpah for the administration to claim (as it has in testimony to the Senate) that moving the NATO border eastward erases the lines of the past. It re-creates them, though of course in a different form. The political division of Europe ended with the fall of the Iron Curtain, the reunification of Germany, and the removal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe. It ended bloodlessly because we convinced the Soviet leaders it would be in their interest to go quietly and we would not take advantage of their departure. If you have any doubts on that point, I would suggest you ask your staff to show you the memorandum reporting Secretary Baker’s conversation with Gorbachev in early February 1990. I am not suggesting that there was anything legally binding in that conversation, but Gorbachev says in his memoirs that Baker’s argument, which included the statement that the jurisdiction of NATO would not move eastward, convinced him to agree that a united Germany could stay in NATO. Gorbachev is no longer in power and Russia is not the Soviet Union, but since the Soviet collapse there is even less justification than there was in 1990 and 1991 to move NATO to the east.
       Strobe, the administration had it right in 1993, when it declared a partnership for reform in Russia and announced the Partnership for Peace. At that time, Secretary of State Warren Christopher warned against moving too rapidly to bring new members into NATO. I thought I detected your deft hand in our policy, which was right on target with our strategic objectives. But the Partnership for Peace was not even tested before we devalued it by making it seem second-best to full membership. By changing our policy to favor a process of expansion, we are repeating in a political form the strategic mistake the French made after World War I. They assumed the next war would be like the last, and they built a Maginot line. Feeling safe as they huddled behind it, they failed to confront Hitler when he rearmed the Rhineland, annexed Austria, and destroyed Czechoslovakia. But when the Germans finally invaded France, they came from a different direction and the Maginot line turned out to be irrelevant.
       The thinking that underlies our current policy is an exact parallel. Mesmerized by the wars and confrontations of the past, we ignore today’s real threats and, by arming against those of the past, diminish our ability to deal with those of the future. If NATO continues its preoccupation with the debate over which new members to accept and with the process of absorbing them into the alliance, it will be less and less capable of contributing to the security and well-being of the continent. Preoccupied with its expanding waistline, it will gradually become a mere spectator to the real game in the international arena.
       I sure do hate to see this happen.

With warm personal regards,