NATO’s Eastern Question

Jan. 1, 1996

An ambitious, US-led campaign to bring new European nations into NATO has stirred controversy throughout the Western Alliance as well as in the lands of the old Soviet Union and its empire.

The Western plan proposes to con­sider full NATO membership for former members of the now-defunct Warsaw Pact, under certain condi­tions. Central and east Europeans overwhelmingly favor this prospect, especially the US-backed security guarantees that come with NATO membership.

However, anti-Western Russian nationalists—and even many pro-Western reformers—view the Al­liance’s planned eastward move with mounting alarm. Americans and west­ern Europeans, for their part, appear deeply divided on the subject.

The problem dates to January 1994, when NATO offered a vague auxil­iary status to central and eastern European nations and former Soviet republics.

In fifteen months, twenty-six na­tions—former Warsaw Pact mem­bers, Soviet republics, and European neutrals, such as Sweden, Finland, and Austria—had joined the Partnership for Peace. By November 1995, twelve nations had become full-fledged “partners.” Sixteen were participating in a “coordination cell” at Supreme Headquarters Allied Pow­ers Europe in Belgium.

Now, the sixteen current members of the Alliance are coming face to face with the question of admitting new members to the NATO structure and assessing the military, political, and economic consequences of these acts. What follows is an accounting of the major points made by propo­nents and opponents.

The Case for Expansion

NATO Stability

NATO, the most successful mili­tary and political alliance the world had ever seen, engendered a high degree of western European coop­eration, integration, and stability for more than four decades.

In Europe’s post–Cold War tumult, however, the formerly anti-Soviet Alliance increasingly came to seem anachronistic. The great issues and problems confronting Europeans were no longer to be found along the Iron Curtain but in newly democratic and independent nations of eastern Eu­rope and the old USSR, with the po­litical and economic futures of these countries at stake.

Secretary of State Warren M. Chris­topher contended that the Alliance faced a “historic choice.” It could “embrace innovation” and find a new purpose, or it could go on as it had for almost fifty years and “risk irrel­evance” and perhaps break up.

It is this prospect—the specter of Europe without NATO—that deeply troubles US leaders. Former Secre­tary of State Henry A. Kissinger said expansion will bolster the US pres­ence and western European “equilib­rium” and help thwart “reemergence of historical European rivalries” be­tween such big continental powers as France and Germany.

Extended Democracy

Alliance officials contend that the promise of membership gives the Western democracies greater lever­age over the political transforma­tions now under way in nations to the east.

NATO requires that prospective members be free-enterprise democ­racies with civilian control over the armed forces. This, proponents of expansion claim, strengthens the hand of political moderates in their inevitable showdowns with hard­liners, right and left, in the formerly Communist nations.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott contended, “Nations that are encouraged in their aspirations to join NATO are more likely to make a successful transition from their Communist pasts.”

In a September 1995 report on the matter, NATO stated, “The benefits of common defense and . . . integra­tion are important to protecting the further democratic development of new members.”

Damper on New Conflicts

In the view of proponents, NATO expansion will prevent or minimize simmering rivalries in the East, such as the one that has torn apart large swaths of what used to be Yugosla­via.

They say that the promise of NATO membership has helped fledgling democracies in newly independent nations cope with and overcome some of their chronic internal and external ethnic and territorial rivalries that have swept these nations into con­flicts for centuries.

Participation in the Partnership for Peace and the promise of NATO mem­bership, for example, is said to have induced Hungary to back away from open conflict with Slovakia and with Romania over borders and toward resolution of disputes, much as Turkey and Greece had muted their hostilities to gain admission to NATO.

Expanded Military Contacts

An expanded NATO and the Part­nership for Peace, say proponents, would strengthen military-to-military ties between Western and Eastern na­tions and reduce the possibility of misunderstandings or miscalculations.

Already, the Partnership for Peace has provided some of the military­-to-military relationships that enabled the United States and Russia to strike a landmark agreement in October that would enable them to field a joint 4,000-member force in Bosnia-Hercegovina to carry out engineer­ing, construction, and transportation duties in support of the planned 60,000-member NATO-led peace implementation force.

Extended US Influence

For Washington, an important, if unstated, goal is to ensure continued US influence in the affairs of Europe and to have a major say in eastern European security developments. “The bedrock of United States secu­rity policy” remains the commitment to Europe, said Walter B. Slocombe, undersecretary of defense for Policy. “We will remain fully involved in European security issues.”

For half a century, NATO has served as the mechanism for exerting that influence, providing Washington’s all-important bridge to the Continent. Eastward expansion would ensure that the US would be able to play a similar role in the nations emerging from the old Soviet empire.

“Worst Case” Hedging

Some believe that the West must move quickly to erect a defensive structure to guard against a possible collapse of reform in Russia and a revival of Russian imperialism.

The establishmentarian Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York recently called for NATO to move more quickly to accept the participants in the Partnership for Peace as full-fledged members, as well as for the “partners” to prepare themselves more rapidly for full in­tegration.

Charles Kupchan, a former Euro­pean affairs expert on the National Security Council who wrote the CFR report, said, “If Russia again comes to pose a military threat to central Europe, NATO should be prepared to carry out its traditional mission of territorial defense.”

The belief is that this capability alone would have a major influence on Russian political behavior.

The Case Against Expansion

Kremlin Politics

Critics note that even the reform-minded Russian leadership has re­peatedly warned against expansion of the Alliance.

The Alliance’s emphasis on ex­pansion threatens to undercut the all-important relationship with Russia, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) warned at a seminar in Norfolk, Va., last June, and leads to the kinds of aggressive behavior NATO seeks to deter.

The influential senior Democrat, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, added, “This is the stuff that self-fulfilling prophe­cies and historic tragedies are made of.”

Such critics as Senator Nunn say that this type of move is likely to fan ultranationalist Russian senti­ments and strengthen the very anti-Western fanatics that NATO wants to thwart by expanding into the east.

The Clinton Administration, in fact, braced for resurgent ultrana­tionalists to make broad gains in Russia’s parliamentary elections, setting the stage for a more danger­ous backlash in the Russian presi­dential election in June.

Robert Legvold, a Russian scholar at Columbia University, warns that the political climate could change dramatically and bring greater dan­ger. “What we have now are Rus­sians shouting, complaining, and criticizing Western policies,” he said, “but with the rise of the ultranation­alists, we could see Russia actually doing something about it.”

New Lines of Division

Many Russians, reeling from their nation’s embarrassing strategic, political, and economic setbacks, worry that NATO is attempting to exploit Russia’s weaknesses “to gain the most favorable strategic position for further confrontation,” said Alex­ander Konovalov, director of Mos­cow’s Center for Military Policy and Systems Analysis.

“Moscow faces a take-it-or-leave­-it offer—either agree to a formal enlargement of NATO, or the en­largement will happen without Mos­cow’s approval,” explained Alexei K. Pushkov, a foreign policy advisor and speech writer who worked for former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. “This is confrontational.”

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin shook up a Europe-wide summit in Budapest in 1994 by claiming that NATO expansion raised the “danger of plunging [the world] into a cold peace.”

A year later, at the UN General Assembly last October, he again warned, “The strengthening of one bloc today means a new confronta­tion, beginning tomorrow.”

Alex Pravda, director of the Rus­sian and East European Center at St. Anthony’s College at Oxford, said, “The overwhelming perception in Russia is that [it] has no specific enemies, but neither does it have any reliable friends.”

Better Options

Critics of NATO expansion main­tain that NATO’s goals may be laudable but that there are better, less perilous ways to attain them.

Some contend that multinational European organizations would be better suited to the task of securing European stability than a nuclear-armed military alliance that had de­ployed forces against Russia for more than forty years.

One group of analysts believes the Western European Union should take responsibility for replacing NATO as the primary guarantor of Euro­pean security.

Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev said that the Organiza­tion for Security and Cooperation in Europe ought to take on “overriding responsibility” for the “maintenance of peace and the strengthening of democracy and stability for the Euro-­Atlantic area.” President Yeltsin him­self suggested wider responsibilities for the United Nations—where Rus­sia enjoys a veto over the actions of the fifteen-member Security Coun­cil.

New Military Dangers

The fast-moving pace of NATO expansion left little time for a hard-nosed assessment of the military impact of the Alliance protecting a vastly larger area.

John E. Peters, a European secu­rity specialist at RAND Corp., fore­sees military and political headaches in this development. While NATO remained “a sound Alliance for the defense of the sixteen, it is unlikely to succeed at extending security east­ward,” Mr. Peters cautioned. While he conceded that current Alliance members would enjoy “marginal gains in crisis response and theater missile defenses” by moving its boundaries to the east, the benefits “seem small” when compared to the potential for trouble caused by alien­ating Russia.

Finally, some critics assert that while the US has no vital interest in eastern Europe, it will be committed to defending these vulnerable coun­tries.

First Things First

According to Senator Nunn and others, NATO membership does not deal effectively with the vexing ques­tion of east European economic in­tegration and thus sets the stage for conflicts and disagreements in this area.

Senator Nunn suggested that the former Warsaw Pact nations first ought to secure full economic inte­gration in the exclusive fifteen-mem­ber European Union and demonstrate that they are irreversibly committed to democracy and free enterprise be­fore gaining membership in NATO.

The Immediate Future

A Delicate Balance

Faced with these competing pres­sures, Western leaders have sought to reassure Russia, but they have not throttled back on the timetable for the formal expansion.

To help assuage Moscow’s deep­ening anxieties, the Alliance has forged a direct relationship with Russia, dubbed “NATO Plus One.” The NATO Enlargement Study com­pleted last September stated that co­operation between NATO and Rus­sia could “help to overcome any lingering distrust from the Cold War period and help ensure that Europe is never again divided into opposing camps.”

Secretary of Defense William J. Perry urged the Russians to broaden their ties with the Western Alli­ance, links that could potentially include a “standing consultative commission” to coordinate defense cooperation.

A NATO-Russia treaty, or some­thing approximating it, “would go some way toward reassuring Mos­cow,” said Mr. Pravda.

However, the Clinton Adminis­tration seemed prepared to go only so far to comfort Russia, fearing that Moscow might interpret more overt moves as evidence that it held a de facto veto over NATO expansion. Washington would offer Moscow “deeper and deeper dialogue,” Na­tional Security Advisor W. Anthony Lake said, but he added that NATO would expand despite Russian ob­jections.

“That is our policy, has been our policy, will be our policy,” Mr. Lake declared. “It is not going to shift, because it’s the right policy to create a more peaceful Europe.”

One Russian expert on the Na­tional Security Council observed that the Clinton Administration was strik­ing a delicate balance.

“Anybody can expand NATO,” he said. “The trick is to expand it in a way that engages the Russians and doesn’t draw new lines. We will nei­ther hit the accelerator nor slam on the brakes.”

Partnership For Peace

Nation Date of Signing

Former Warsaw Pact

Bulgaria February 14, 1994

Czech Republic March 10, 1994

Hungary February 8, 1994

Poland February 2, 1994

Romania January 26, 1994

Slovakia February 9, 1994

Neutrals, Nonaligned

Albania February 23, 1994

Austria February 10, 1995

Finland May 9, 1994

Malta April 26, 1995

Slovenia March 30, 1994

Sweden May 9, 1994

Baltic States

Estonia February 3, 1994

Latvia February 14, 1994

Lithuania January 27, 1994

Other Former Soviet States

Armenia October 5, 1994

Azerbaijan May 4, 1994

Belarus January 11, 1995

Georgia March 23, 1994

Kazakhstan May 27, 1994

Kyrgyzstan June 1, 1994

Moldova March 16, 1994

Russia June 22, 1994

Turkmenistan May 10, 1994

Ukraine February 8, 1994

Uzbekistan July 13, 1994

Source: NATO

Stewart M. Powell, White House correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, has covered national and international affairs for years in Washington and London. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The China Problem Ahead,” appeared in the October 1995 issue.