The looming Senate debate over NATO enlargement marks a historic encounter between good intentions and sound strategy. Despite momentum toward admitting three more members -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- the fundamental interests at stake demand probing examination of the specific candidacies, the approach that has brought the alliance to this fateful juncture and the troubling implications of that approach. Along with many who have worked to build a strong NATO, we harbor grave reservations about the pending expansion and the direction it points.
Far from being a cold war relic, NATO should be the cornerstone of an evolving security order in Europe. It provides the infrastructure and experience indispensable to coping with instabilities -- Bosnia today, and other troublespots tomorrow. NATO is vital to insuring arms control and maintaining the kind of industrial base that provides a solid defense. Perhaps most important, NATO provides the institutional home for coalitions to meet crises beyond Europe.
But a cornerstone is not a sponge. The function of a cornerstone is to protect its own integrity to support a wider security structure, not to dissipate its cohesion by absorbing members and responsibilities beyond prudent limits. A powerful NATO undergirds other institutions, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Western European Union. It makes possible the Partnership for Peace to promote cooperation among countries that are not NATO members.
The rush to expand the alliance has put the cart before the horse. Advocates and skeptics of NATO enlargement agree that the transformation of Europe's security structure should be related to the transformation of its economy. As James Baker, the former Secretary of State, has testified, European Union membership "is just as important as membership in NATO for the countries involved," and "we must make clear that NATO membership for the countries of Central Europe is not a substitute for closer economic ties to the E.U."
In our view, it would have been preferable not to invite more countries to join NATO. At the very least, it would be desirable for the European Union to proceed with its planned expansion before NATO completes the acceptance of the new members.
The European Union has now decided to begin negotiations with six aspirants, including the three candidates NATO is considering. Linking NATO expansion to the expansion of the European Union would accomplish several things:
It would underscore the connection between Europe's security and its economy -- and offer certification that entrants to NATO could afford to meet its defense obligations.
It would permit the Partnership for Peace to demonstrate that it should be the proper association for countries outside NATO. So long as the option to join NATO remains open, it utterly undercuts the partnership as the preferred mode of cooperation.
It would allow the United States and Russia to focus on the gravest security problem still before us, the formidable hangover of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The cooperative framework provided by the NATO-Russia Founding Act may be useful, but frictions over NATO distract Moscow and Washington from profound common dangers. Even if everything goes right in expanding NATO, we will have misplaced our priorities during a critical window of opportunity to gain Russian cooperation in controlling nuclear arsenals and preventing proliferation. Russian antagonism is sure to grow if the alliance extends ever closer to Russian territory.
The Senate would be wise to link NATO and European Union expansion. If that link is made, it is essential to stipulate that admission to the European Union is not sufficient qualification for entry into NATO. NATO should weigh any future applicant against the contributions and burdens its membership would entail. What is called for is a definite, if not permanent, pause in this process.
By leading the charge for NATO expansion, the Clinton Administration may well elicit hasty proposals and considerable pressure to admit other countries. Other Central and East European countries are hoping that they, too, will soon be welcomed into allied ranks.
But a military alliance is not a club, and the Administration's rhetoric and policy risk converting NATO into an organization in which obligations are diluted and action is enfeebled. Pursuing that path may simultaneously spur Russian animosity and weaken the alliance's capability to contain it, if required. William Perry, the former Defense Secretary, and Warren Christopher, the former Secretary of State, acknowledge the problematic situation in which the country finds itself. In their words, "there is no consensus on the wisdom of the path taken so far by the alliance and spearheaded by the Clinton Administration."
While Mr. Perry and Mr. Christopher state that NATO should remain open "in principle," they contend that no additional members should be designated until the three current candidates "are fully prepared to bear the responsibilities of membership and have been integrated into the alliance." That reads to us like advice to slow this train down. We are in accord with that view, and with their argument that NATO should make the experience of Partnership for Peace membership for non-NATO members "as similar as possible to the experience of NATO membership."
We are dubious, however, that consensus can be found on the Administration's premise that NATO should be receptive to many additional members. That is a prescription for destroying the alliance. It guarantees future discord with present allies, few of whom are prepared to follow the Clinton policy to its logical end, the inclusion of Russia.
The task is to build a security structure in which Russia assumes a place commensurate with its geostrategic importance and its progress toward democracy and a market economy. With due respect, those campaigning to expand NATO confuse the longer term challenge of shaping a comprehensive security system with our continuing responsibility to sustain a robust NATO as our principal security bulwark.
The question confronting the Senate is not only whether to enlarge NATO, but how, when and on what terms. The imperative now is for the Senate to bring to bear the independent assessment mandated by the Constitution. In that assessment it has several options, including linking alliance expansion with enlargement of the European Union and laying down a marker against an excessively elastic NATO.
The Senate has constructive leverage to shape a wiser outcome than simple acquiescence in the President's plan. The widespread grumble that "NATO expansion is a bad idea whose time has come" is no basis for policy. This is not a dose of medicine one can swallow and be done with. It is a fundamental extension of American security guarantees, an ill-defined invitation for new members unrelated either to military threats or military capabilities.
A final caution to the Administration: It is no service to candor or consensus to invoke the shadow of Versailles, implying that resistance to NATO enlargement would be comparable to Senate rejection of the League of Nations. One doubts that senators will respond well to overdrawn analogies. As John Maynard Keynes noted at the time, the central failure of Versailles lay in the fatal miscalculation of how to deal with a demoralized former adversary. That, above all, is the error we must not repeat.
Howard Baker Jr. is a former Re publican Senator from Tennessee. Sam Nunn is a former Democratic Senator from Georgia. Brent Scow croft was national security adviser to Presidents Ford and Bush. Alton Frye is senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The writer, Alton Frye, is at the Council on Foreign Relations.