This week in Brussels, NATO foreign ministers will sit down to discuss the alliance's future. One topic will be British Prime Minister Tony Blair's proposal to create a new NATO-Russia Council that would include Moscow as a full member in key decisions and actions.
Mr. Blair is a great ally of the United States. His leadership in the war against terrorism has been indispensable, and his statements of solidarity have moved the American public. He and President George W. Bush are right to seize the opening created by the bold decision of Russian President Vladimir Putin to cooperate with the West in the war against terrorism. But giving Russia a full decision-making role in even some NATO decisions is premature, at the very least, and could undermine the effectiveness of NATO and the security of its members, including the United States. Key figures here, such as former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezniski, and abroad, such as Czech President Vaclav Havel, are right to question this proposal.
NATO works as a military alliance because its members share common values and interests. That is the basis for NATO's ability to take sound political and military actions in difficult circumstances. For that reason, both the United States and NATO have repeatedly declared in recent years that new members must have a proven track record as democracies and as de facto allies prior to joining the alliance.
Russia does not yet meet those standards. While Mr. Putin's efforts to cooperate with the West are laudable, we do not know the depth or durability of that commitment. He has not yet brought his security institutions or public along with him in his westward turn, and his own track record as a democrat is mixed. Russia's brutal treatment of Chechnya and its recent assault on the free media do not reflect the kind of values that deserve a permanent seat in NATO decision-making. Moreover, even if Mr. Putin were to be a responsible voice within NATO, he will not rule forever, and we can hardly be assured about who might follow. No Central European country with this mixed record would be a credible candidate for NATO. We shouldn't lower the bar for Russia.
Such factors led NATO and the United States toward a more careful approach during 1997, when we sought to build closer ties between the alliance and NATO through the NATO-Russia Founding Act. One of Moscow's key demands at the time was for joint NATO-Russia decision-making. The United States and NATO rejected that demand because it would have given Moscow a veto over alliance decision-making. Instead, we established a structure that allowed the alliance and Moscow to expand their cooperation but also contained safeguards to protect the alliance's cohesion and to guard against possible Russian mischief.
Perhaps the most important safeguard was the agreement among allies that NATO had to first establish an alliance position before talking with Moscow. This prevented Russia from playing allies off each other or blocking NATO from arriving at its own policy. If the alliance and Russia agreed on a common position, the two sides would then act jointly. But we had to first agree as NATO and Russia before we decided to act as NATO with Russia.
The new British proposal suggests that we abandon this safeguard and instead invite Russia to sit around the NATO table from the outset of consultations like any other member only on some issues, to be sure, but probably on crucial ones, such as terrorism. Doing so will only make achieving consensus harder and could give Russia the kind of back-door veto over NATO decisions that American administrations of both political parties have long fought to preclude. Indeed, some Russian commentators are already claiming victory. As Pavel Felgenhauer wrote last week in the Moscow Times, "This would make Russia a NATO member in all but name and give it an effective veto on some issues." That is precisely why it is a bad proposal.
The Congress and the American public have a right to be heard before NATO takes such a step. When the Senate was considering the enlargement of NATO to include Central European states, Sen. Jesse Helms and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee devoted extensive public hearings to the NATO-Russia relationship, and the Senate codified some clear and specific lines when it ratified the treaty. The Senate's resolution of ratification, which is still the law of the land, required the president to certify that NATO would never let Russia participate in decisions on how NATO "conducts any mission," and that NATO would never discuss any item with Russia prior to agreeing to a NATO position beforehand.
There may come a time when Russia has truly become a democracy like existing NATO members, and when its behavior would justify revising these rules of the game. But that time is not now. If and when it arrives, the change of course will deserve new congressional hearings and Senate agreement to further modification of the NATO treaty.
The great irony here is that there is no need for these changes or this debate if we want to revive NATO-Russia cooperation. Mr. Putin has complained that the existing NATO-Russia relationship is moribund. He is right. But the reason why it is moribund is that Russia walked away from the table in protest over NATO's air campaign in Kosovo and has since pursued an obstructionist policy. That fact alone should give us pause. There is nothing wrong with the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council that a dose of good will and hard work could not fix.
There is bipartisan support for updating NATO to address new threats such as terrorism, and for creating a strong and workable relationship between NATO and Russia on this and other challenges. The tragedy of September 11 underscores the need for exactly that kind of partnership. Messrs. Blair, Bush and Putin each are to be commended for trying to inject new energy and purpose into such a partnership. But there is a right and a wrong way to do it.
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