Bringing Russia in

The expansion of Nato will serve no clear defensive purpose and is likely to strengthen reactionary forces in Russia. Rodric Braithwaite, former British ambassador in Moscow, argues that acknowledging Russia's desire to be part of a European settlement is not appeasement but good sense
June 19, 1997

At the beginning of July Nato's leaders will invite a handful of central European countries to negotiate for membership of the alliance. They hope thereby to disprove Thucydides's first law of international relations: "They that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get."

Over the centuries one great power after another has threatened the stability of Europe. The threat from France ended in 1815, that from Germany in 1945. Both times the victors were intelligent and self-interested enough to bring the defeated as equals into the comity of European nations. France and Germany are now (usually) co-operative members of western Europe's most solid institutions, Nato and the EU. Neither is likely to threaten the continent again.

The threat from the Soviet Union ended in 1991. But we have not yet worked out how to bring Russia into a new European settlement. Russia is too large to join Nato and the EU, and it is too powerful to be ignored. The Russians believe that they are entitled to a say in the affairs of the continent to which they belong. The east Europeans hope that membership of Nato and the EU will insure them against their neighbour to the east. Both sets of aspirations are understandable. But they are difficult to reconcile.

Most countries would prefer to be on the giving rather than the receiving end of Thucydides's law. In eastern Europe many have tried their luck when they thought history was going their way. Poland's repeated attempts to dominate Ukraine started in the 16th century and finally petered out in the early 1950s. Austria, Prussia and Russia divided up Poland three times in the 18th century. Thereafter Russian troops imposed "peace" upon Warsaw on at least five occasions. That is to say nothing of the innumerable wars in the Balkans, provoked by ethnic strife and the meddling of outside powers. And even the Russians have seen their national existence threatened by Poles, Swedes, Frenchmen and Germans over the last 500 years. These events are not mere matters of history. Every one of the peoples of eastern Europe remembers its sufferings as if they had happened yesterday. Each sees itself as the victim of its neighbours and forgets what it did itself.

The most recent history imposes the greatest burden. In Moscow and in Washington some old men-the Bourbons of the cold war-are still fighting the battles of the past. In one capital there is the bitterness of defeat, in the other the triumphalism of victory. In Washington the old men believe in preparing for the worst. They assume that Russia is irremediably expansionist, and that the line of potential confrontation should be shifted as far to the east as possible. They do not understand that this superficially "realistic" approach depends on a degree of sustained determination on the part of western governments and electorates which is unlikely to be forthcoming. In Moscow the old men dream even more unrealistic dreams. They believe that the Soviet Union could have been preserved but for the "treachery" of Gorbachev and Shevardnadze. They dream of a reconstituted Soviet Union, once again a dominant force in eastern Europe, able to compete with the US. They do not understand that the choice for Russia today is no longer between irrelevance and superpower, but between irrelevance and what Gorbachev used to call "incorporation into the civilised world." The old men do not define the agenda in either capital. But they do influence the tone and muddy the debate.

Nato's enlargement policy bears all the hallmarks of muddled thinking and compromise within and between governments. In 1990 the west wanted above all to persuade the Russians to accept Nato membership for a reunited Germany. Western statesmen did not plan to expand Nato further to the east, and they so assured the Soviet leaders more than once. The choice, they said, was different: between a united Germany safely within Nato; or a united Germany outside of Nato with no curb on its future ambitions. Gorbachev had little choice. Germany unconstrained was unacceptable; so was Nato enlargement. He acquiesced to the least of the possible evils: a united Germany in an unexpanded Nato.

Unfortunately, as the Russian foreign minister Yevgeni Primakov ruefully admits, the Soviet government failed to get any assurances in writing. Western politicians did not give their verbal assurances in bad faith. They did not imagine-at the time they did not need to imagine-that they might soon want to enlarge Nato to include the Soviet Union's former allies, and even some of it component parts. They, too, were disorientated by the torrent of events. Now they argue that all that was in another country: and besides, the maid is dead. The Russians feel badly used. We should forgive them. If they had done the same to us, we would denounce them bitterly.

five developments caused the change. A power vacuum opened up in eastern Europe as the Soviet armies withdrew. President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia called upon Nato to embrace the countries of central and eastern Europe. Westerners who felt guilty about the betrayals of Munich and Yalta saw the chance of paying off an overdue "debt of honour." Chancellor Helmut Kohl wanted to ensure that Germany never again had a free hand in the east. Above all, the matter got caught up in US electoral politics. There are 20m Americans of central European origin, concentrated in states whose vote can swing a presidential election. Both candidates in the 1996 election favoured Nato enlargement.

By 1992 western governments were already beginning to look at the pros and cons-at that time mostly the cons. In Washington and Bonn there were fierce divisions between the "Russia firsters" and the powerful groups who wanted enlargement. It was with a sigh of re-lief that Nato ministers greeted a US proposal in October 1993 for a "partnership for peace," a programme for military co-operation between Nato and the countries of the former Warsaw Pact for which Russia too was eligible. The partnership was billed as a possible first step towards full membership of the alliance. The Russians, too, heaved a sigh of relief. Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev called it a "responsible approach," by partners who had refused to countenance "a new split within Europe."

Kozyrev was rapidly disappointed. The east Europeans feared that the partnership for peace was merely a cover for another attempt by the great powers to deal at their expense. In July 1994 President Clinton reassured the Polish government that the partnership was only a beginning. Enlargement was "no longer a question of whether, but when and how," whether the Russians liked it or not. That commitment of presidential prestige meant that enlargement was now a foregone conclusion. In December 1994 a resentful Kozyrev refused to sign a draft Russian-Nato partnership agreement. Until he was replaced by Primakov in January 1996 there was little serious attempt to manage the disagreement between Russia and the alliance.

Madeleine Albright, the US secretary of state, set out the rationale in The Economist in February. "Now the new Nato can do for Europe's east what the old Nato did for Europe's west: vanquish old hatreds, promise integration, create a secure environment for prosperity, and deter violence in the region where two world wars and the cold war began." It is a grand vision. Tom Paine would have called it "metaphysics on stilts."

The enlarged alliance, so runs the argument, will be able to address the new security challenges-terrorism, proliferation, organised crime. It will more easily quell outbreaks of regional violence, such as the wars in Yugoslavia and the Gulf. It will improve relations among the countries of central and eastern Europe and promote prosperity in Europe as a whole. But Albright does not explain how the mere fact of enlargement will enable the alliance to do these things. The alliance has had no serious role in the prevention of terrorism or the enforcement of non-proliferation. These are matters for individual governments and for their intelligence and police agencies, which already collaborate both within and beyond the existing membership of Nato.

As for quelling outbreaks of regional violence, the examples of the Gulf war and Yugoslavia are misleading or unfortunate. The Gulf campaign was undertaken in fulfilment of a UN mandate by an alliance of European and Arab forces under US leadership, not by Nato. The transatlantic row about Bosnia nearly undermined the alliance until the Americans imposed a division of Bosnia on lines that they had previously denounced. This time Nato used its forces deliberately and coherently. But soon the Nato troops will leave Bosnia. No one can be sure what will happen then.

It is not even clear that Nato can deter its own members from fighting one another. Greece and Turkey, have more than once been on the verge of war. They were prevented from going over the edge not by their common membership of Nato, but by US pressure unilaterally applied.

The idea that Nato can promote democracy and market economics among its members seems particularly odd. For long periods three of its members-Portugal, Greece and Turkey-were neither prosperous nor democratic. It is difficult to see why an enlarged Nato should succeed in doing more for its new members. Membership of the EU does indeed have implications for the domestic political and economic arrangements of its member countries. But that is the reason why the enlargement of the EU is unlikely to happen quickly. Too many vested interests are involved on all sides.

One argument for the enlargement of Nato does make sense. Many Americans believe that Nato will wither if it is not enlarged. The US would thereby lose its reason for remaining involved in the affairs of Europe. It may not be a logically convincing argument, but if Americans believe it, Europeans had better take note. The last thing most Europeans want is for the US to withdraw and leave Europe to its fate. For the sad truth is that effective action to preserve peace in and around Europe only happens when the US is willing to apply the pressure.

These arguments have been passionately debated by the foreign and defence policymakers and commentators in the Nato countries. Ordinary people have barely thought about them. They have yet to be persuaded that enlargement is necessary, affordable and reasonably free of risk. The idea that the west, triumphant in the cold war, should now guarantee the security of the countries of central and eastern Europe looks simple enough. But even in the US opinion polls show great confusion. Some people think that Nato enlargement is a good idea, provided it is cheap and safe. Others think that the Russians are already in Nato. Still others want a brand new body that would include Russia from the start.

How expensive would enlargement be? No one knows. The Pentagon recently suggested that it might cost between $27 and $35 billion spread over the next 12 years, mostly on upgrading weapons (to the benefit of western arms manufacturers). About a third of this sum would be paid by the new members. The US would pay 15 per cent (or by another complicated calculation, only 6 per cent). The other members of Nato would pay the rest. This would represent an increase of less than 0.1 per cent in the US defence budget; and less than 1 per cent in the defence budgets of European Nato members. These are comparatively small figures, but the voters now expect defence budgets to decline, not increase. Ten years ago the US and most of its allies spent nearly twice as much of their GDP on defence as they do today. European voters are already unhappy enough as public spending is cut to prepare for the single currency. They may well resist the idea that their taxes should be diverted to defend their eastern neighbours now that the cold war is over and the threat from Russia seems to have gone away.

Above all the voters of Europe and the US have shown that they are very unwilling to send their sons and daughters to die in small countries which cannot manage their own affairs. It flies in the face of history to believe that those fortunate enough to live in North America or western Europe are now prepared to pay the "debt of honour" that they were unwilling to pay in earlier decades. Like a second marriage, that would be a triumph of hope over experience.

In the end, of course, the main question is whether the US senate will give the enlargement treaties a two thirds majority. The experts think that the president can get the votes, provided the enlargement is limited to three new countries and the western Europeans pay their full share of the costs. European parliaments are more pliable than congress. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's former national security adviser, suggested to the senate in March that those who waver should be warned that failure to ratify means rejecting not only the new members, but Nato itself: a formula not well calculated to improve the transatlantic relationship. But in the end the Europeans will probably fall in behind a clear US lead, and the treaties will pass (unless the Turks carry out their threat to impose a veto if they are not guaranteed membership of the EU).

the advocates of enlargement claim that it is not directed against Russia. This proposition mixes cant with muddled thinking. The east Europeans want to join Nato not in order to "address new security challenges," but because they fear Russia. The Russians know this. Some westerners affect to be amazed by Russian opposition. Time and again they convince themselves (most recently after Clinton's March meeting with Yeltsin in Helsinki) that the Russians have finally realised that there is no point in opposing a development which at bottom is in their interest too. That is wishful thinking. Brzezinski goes so far as to claim that "opposition to Nato enlargement resides solely in the Russian foreign policy establishment," and that the Russian leadership have engaged in deliberate deception by pretending otherwise. Ordinary Russians do not, of course, think about it very often. But when they do, they find it impossible to understand why Nato needs to expand now the cold war is over. They may not think that the approach to their borders of the world's most powerful military alliance constitutes an actual military threat. But they certainly regard it as a humiliating exploitation of their country's current weakness. Russian liberals exaggerate when they argue that Nato enlargement will spell an early end to political and economic reform. The roots of change in Russia probably go too deep for that. But to argue that nothing the west does today can affect the outcome of the struggle between liberalism and reaction in Russia makes sense only if you think that foreign policy never has any effect on foreigners. Many Russians half believe that western governments plotted the downfall of the Soviet Union, and that they now aim to keep Russia in a state of permanent weakness while exploiting its natural resources. A Dolchstosslegende is in the making, ready to be exploited by a new demagogue if reform falters. It would be a pity if western policy made things easier for him.

Even the most ambitious Russian F?hrer would find it hard to recreate the old Soviet threat in Europe, let alone on a world scale. By the time Russia emerges from its current economic, political and military disarray the US will be far ahead in the military technologies of the computer age. True, the Russians caught up with the US during the cold war. They developed their own hydrogen bomb, built the finest fighter plane of the Korean war, and put the first man into space. But the Soviet political, social and economic system was incapable of sustaining the grinding competition of the cold war for decade after decade against the world's most powerful economy. The Russians will not be able to narrow the US lead in the foreseeable future. Nor will they easily re-establish their historical domination of eastern and central Europe, which in past centuries was achieved either by agreement with Germany or by victory in a European war. Things would be different if the Americans went home, the Germans went on the rampage, and the EU collapsed: an improbable chain of events.

But the Russians do not accept that the Soviet Union-or even, despite its name, the old Russian empire-was an empire in the classical sense. They believe that it is they who have been the victims of the historical process, and that as Dostoevsky put it: "It is the Russian nation, above all others, that is most clearly marked out for the universal, all-embracing unification of mankind."

All empires come to an end, and the process of adjustment for the ex-imperial power is always painful. The British, the French, the Portuguese, the Dutch, made their adjustments over many decades. The Russians lost their empires in eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union between 1989 and the end of 1991. To lose two empires in three years must be some sort of record.

And with their empire the Russians lost a centuries-old state and the authoritarian political system which went with it. The collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the most dramatic examples of the consequences of imperial overstretch. Of all the other European empires of the 20th century, only the German Reich and the multi-ethnic Habsburg and Ottoman empires suffered a remotely comparable fate. But they were comprehensively defeated in war. The Russian empire collapsed under its own weight. Now the Russians are left with a huge ter-ritory, much of it unfriendly to human settlement, and with few natural boundaries. Twenty five million Russians-more than a fifth of the whole-live in newly minted countries which Russians used to think of as part of the motherland: Alg?rie Fran?aise and Sudeten Germany, but in spades. No wonder the Russians are currently feeling disorientated and humiliated. And the humiliated and disorientated do not always behave well.

hard men in the west tell us that to take account of Russian concerns is appeasement. To make concessions now, Brzezinski argues, "would lend credibility to Russian objections and reinforce their capacity to influence our publics and legislatures." The argument is based on a false historical analogy. Appeasement is what happened in the 1930s, when Britain and France failed to stand up to a Germany which was already in the grip of aggressive nationalism under a charismatic leader. The mistake we risk making today is the mistake France and Britain (and, by default, the US) made in the 1920s, when they failed to bring democratic Germany into the European fold. The task now is the same as it was after 1815, after 1918, and after 1945. How do we incorporate a maverick state into a new European status quo? How do we satisfy at the same time the legitimate desire of the countries of eastern and central Europe for a guarantee that their eastern neighbour will leave them alone in the future, and the equally legitimate desire of the Russians to avoid exclusion from the affairs of a continent with which they share their religion, their culture, and most of their history?

The west has no need to make any "concessions" to Russia. It is negotiating from strength. All the Russians can do is to threaten unconvincing things-to reconstruct the Soviet Union, to build a strategic alliance with China or Iran. But there is an obvious bargain to be struck: if the Russians do accept the new status quo they should be brought into a common institution as equals in the management of European affairs. This is not a new idea. People have been talking for some time about a charter between Nato and Russia which would console Russia for the pain of enlargement. But until recently the charter had no substance. The Russians saw it as a feeble attempt to buy them off.

With the Nato summit looming in July, both the Americans and the Russians have taken a closer look at the charter. The Russians continue to proclaim loudly that Nato enlargement is unacceptable. They can do no less, if only for domestic political reasons. But the wily Primakov, who can recognise a steamroller when he sees one, has been probing the US position to see whether there are ways of limiting the damage to Russian interests. The Americans have apparently patched up the disagreements between the "Russia firsters" and at least some of their critics in Washington. Since the autumn of 1996 they have tried to supplement their thin rhetoric about taking Russian concerns into account with more substantial action. At the Helsinki summit Clinton proposed a package to Yeltsin which begins to make sense.

The package looks like this. There will be a permanent Nato-Russia council which according to Clinton, will give Russia "a voice but no veto" in the affairs of the alliance; or as Yeltsin put it more optimistically, will make it possible to solve problems by consensus. The Russians fear that enlargement will put western bombers with nuclear weapons within range of Moscow. Clinton assured Yeltsin that Nato will not station foreign troops or nuclear weapons in its new member countries. The Russians are suspicious of such verbal assurances. So Clinton also repeated Nato's commitment to negotiate changes in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe which would give the Russians legal comfort. And the two presidents promised to reduce their nuclear weapons still further.

Clinton also took up a long-standing Russian proposal to beef up the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), as the only all-European security organisation to which Russia belongs. He confirmed that the Russians will once again be invited to the G7 summit, in Denver at the end of June. Clinton also stressed the other side of the bargain. Any European country, including the Baltic states, is free to apply for Nato membership and the security guarantee that goes with it.

The two men have taken these ideas back to their capitals, where they have not been received with universal enthusiasm. In Moscow the deputies think that the package remains suspiciously thin, a mere papering over of Russia's historic defeat. In Washington the hard men suspect that the defeated have been let off too lightly. In eastern Europe and especially in the Baltic states the fear remains that once again the great powers have been bargaining at their expense. But the probability is that the negotiations between Primakov and Javier Solana, Nato's secretary general, will succeed. Some kind of agreement between Russia and Nato will be signed in the next few weeks, perhaps in Paris at the end of May. So Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary will almost certainly join the alliance, as Clinton has proposed, in time for Nato's 50th anniversary in 1999.

but that will not be the end of the story. Things can still go wrong in many ways. Albright argues that there will be no distinction between old and new members of Nato, that the door will remain open to a further enlargement, and that there will be no new dividing line in Europe. Austria and Finland would probably squeeze in if they applied. But it is likely that Nato will flinch at the prospect of a further wave. The Baltic countries, Romania, Bulgaria, and the others would then find themselves still in the same old grey zone between Russia and the west. If that is so, Nato enlargement will not solve the problem: it will simply move it a bit further east. Our security guarantees will have gone only to the countries of central Europe which need them least.

Meanwhile the Russians will still be struggling with the end of empire. Only dreamers in Moscow believe that Russia can again be a superpower. But many consider a less unattainable goal: the reintegration of part of the old Soviet Union. They think that the Balts and the Ukrainians have no historical right to full independence because for most of their history they were under foreign rule. They forget that nation states come and go with surprising rapidity. The only European nation state which still exists unchanged from the time of Columbus is the Republic of Andorra. The rest are parvenus.

We cannot reasonably object to "reintegration" if it is entirely voluntary. But even voluntary reintegration would have to overcome huge political and economic obstacles. The so-called union between Russia and Belarus recently signed by Presidents Yeltsin and Alexander Lukashenko is unlikely to come about in practice because it would be too expensive and politically unattractive. But attitudes are important too. When Russians claim that the Estonians and the Latvians are operating a policy of genocide against the large Russian minorities in those countries, they not only exaggerate disgracefully, they damage their own case for an equal voice in European affairs. Reintegration which involved economic blackmail, political pressure and intrigue, or outright military intervention would be wholly unacceptable. After twice invading neutral Belgium in this century the Germans finally accepted that small European countries have the same rights as big ones. The Russians must do the same.

For its part the west needs to show that the package it has offered the Russians is more than fairy gold. What does it mean in practice to offer the Russians a voice but not a veto in Nato's affairs? Can the obvious weaknesses of the OSCE-which contains every last one of the countries of North America, Europe, the Caucasus and central Asia-be overcome so that it can function effectively as an instrument for the management of European security? Can the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe be successfully revised? These questions will have to be answered very soon. We shall have to go a lot further than we have gone so far if-to adapt Lyndon Johnson's metaphor-we are to succeed in bringing the bear into the tent rather than leaving it on the outside, isolated and discontented on the eastern marches of Europe.

The enlargement of Nato will change the political geography of Europe. It is full of obvious risks; and perhaps-if we are very clever-of opportunities. In their gloomier moments western defence officials whisper what cannot be said aloud. Does Nato really have a future at all? Is enlargement really no more than a substitute for policy, the thrashing about of an organisation which has lost its raison d'?tre? Why has Solana been visiting the countries of the Caucasus and central Asia, raising hopes which Nato has no prospect of satisfying, while convincing even more Russians that Nato's fine words are merely a cover for a deliberate policy of isolating Russia? What can we do about the countries which may never join the alliance? Does Nato run the risk of enlarging to the point where it ceases to be a serious organisation? Does anybody really know what they are doing? Henry Kissinger, perhaps the ultimate Bourbon, is nevertheless asking some of the right questions.

Advocates of enlargement argue that Europe and its institutions are evolving in such uncertain ways that we cannot know what kind of Europe we will be looking at in 30 years' time. The passage of time and the workings of historical change will dis-solve any difficulties which enlargement will bring. Nato itself may change, and become a universal security organisation which could embrace Russia. It is a post-modern dream of a new Europe in which the tough old nation state has been superseded by the emollient mechanisms of supranationality. Of course politicians and bureaucrats have to get by as best they can in the imperfect business of making policy from day to day. Of course no one can foretell the future. But to buttress a doubtful policy with the hope that it will turn out all right on the distant night is an odd way to manage the choices that Europe faces in the here and now. Micawber rules, OK?