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Precursor to NATO Enlargement

Author: Alton Frye, Presidential Senior Fellow Emeritus
March 4, 1998
The Washington Post


The Post's Feb. 11 editorial "Opening NATO's Door" arrays important considerations supporting NATO's expansion, but it ignores serious questions and constructive options that deserve attention in the coming Senate debate.

Given the "doubts" and "misgivings" mentioned by The Post, the task of shaping a durable consensus among Americans must begin with points on which advocates and skeptics of NATO expansion agree. The first such point is clear: Strengthening the economies and democracies of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic is an overarching priority.

There has been a crucial development in the months since the three countries applied for NATO membership: They have been invited to negotiate accession to the European Union. With such talks now imminent, the question arises of how best to relate the prospect to their proposed NATO membership. There are powerful arguments for synchronizing the two processes:

There is no near-term threat to the three candidates' security.

Modernizing their economies will do far more to shore up their democratic institutions than symbolic association with NATO.

Meeting the military requirements of NATO membership will divert resources from the urgent economic transformations needed for admission to the European Union.

Phasing them into NATO after they join the European Union will greatly strengthen their economic capacity to meet the substantial procurement, training and operational costs alliance membership imposes.

Their active participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace already affords them the full range of effective military cooperation for which they are prepared.

More than three years ago a confidential document of the European Union Council laid plans to integrate Central and Eastern European countries into the European security architecture. It concluded that those states should eventually become members of the European Union and its defense arm, the Western European Union, and of NATO.

Setting aside the presumption that future members of the European Union should be admitted automatically to NATO (thereby committing the United States to help defend their territory), the logic of that analysis is relevant to Senate action on NATO expansion. The European Union Council already contemplates linkage between European Union membership and NATO membership. It is entirely appropriate for the Senate to reach its own judgment about how that linkage should evolve.

Without rejecting the three pending candidates, the Senate can stipulate that final admission to NATO should await entry into the European Union. Indeed, by linking the two processes, the Senate would be applying useful leverage to encourage the European Union to expedite accession negotiations with the three countries. That would, in fact, serve Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic better than premature admission to NATO.

None of this addresses the fundamental differences over the administration's open-ended approach to NATO membership. (Nor does it assess the costs already incurred in slowing cooperation with Russia to control and reduce the massive nuclear arsenals that are still our nation's and the planet's gravest security threat.) NATO's integrated military command and decision-making structure are vital, whether functioning as an alliance in crises such as Bosnia or as the infrastructure for coalitions to meet common dangers in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere.

By insisting that NATO should remain open to many additional members beyond the three current candidates, the administration would burden the alliance with added responsibilities to risk blood and treasurer while weakening its military cohesiveness and capacity for decisive action. Moreover, grave problems lie ahead if the Partnership for Peace is seen not as a suitable alternative to NATO membership but primarily as a pathway to it. If NATO membership is the only way to avoid leaving former Soviet-bloc states "marooned in strategic ambiguity," in The Post's words, the alliance is bound to be debilitated.

With 27 active partners, from Albania to Uzbekistan, it will not be easy to open that pathway to some while excluding others. By encouraging the ambitions of the Baltic states, the Bulgarians and other aspirants for NATO membership, President Clinton is headed toward a juncture of divisive and discriminatory choices. The fault line is already visible between us and our European allies, who are wary of admitting the Baltics and adamantly opposed to eventual Russian membership. The Senate needs to grapple with these long-term implications.

The Post rightly says that there is "a moral heart to the case for enlargement." In great issues of policy, however, moral claims are embedded in political and strategic realities of immense complexity. Balancing those claims and realities will test the Senate's conscience(and measure its statecraft.

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