The end of the cold war has left Nato with a diminished role. Will extending Nato to central Europe help revitalise the organisation and stabilise the new democracies? Or will it unnecessarily aggravate Russia and endanger those countries not in the first wave of enlargement?by Philip Gordon / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
In both central Europe and Russia, there is hardly any debate about the extension of Nato to Russia’s borders. Virtually all central Europeans want it, and virtually all Russians are opposed to it. But in the west there are three strongly contending positions. Supporters of enlargement assert that opening Nato to the new democracies will give the organisation a new mission and project stability; it will consolidate democracy in central Europe, help protect against rivalries among the new countries, and provide a useful hedge in case Russia turns expansionist. Opponents of enlargement think that it is not only unnecessary, but will help bring extreme nationalists to power in Moscow, draw a new dividing line across Europe, dilute alliance decision-making, and cost billions of dollars. A third group is sceptical about both of the above. Nato “agnostics” see enlargement as a diversion from the real issues of European security-securing control of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal, ending the Bosnian war, containing radical Islam in north Africa, and so on.
Proponents, opponents and agnostics can be found in all Nato member states, spread out on both the left and the right. Students of Russian politics, the old Sovietologists, generally oppose enlargement, while those who interact with central Europe have more sympathy for the enlargement cause.
With the Russians and central Europeans so unambiguously opposed to one another on this issue, it will be impossible to avoid paying at the very least a diplomatic price. Nato can either take in new members and enrage the Russians; not take in new members and offend those kept out; or continue to waver between the two, alienating all involved. The impossibility of resolving this dilemma cleanly is one reason why Nato has spent five years on the problem without deciding what to do; why vigorous debate and lobbying still goes on despite the official Nato position that enlargement will definitely take place; and why, even if Nato does take in one or two new members before the end of the century, doing so will only provoke more agonising about who else gets in, when, and under what terms. The Nato enlargement dilemma is likely to be around for a very long time.
How We Got Here
The question of what to do with the new democracies of Europe when the Warsaw Pact collapsed in March 1991 was a hard problem from the start, but not as hard as it has become since. There were a few voices calling for extending Nato membership eastward in 1991, but the mood at the time was inclusive and few in the west wanted to snub Russia by pushing Nato right up to its borders. Instead, led by the US and Germany, Nato in 1991 created the North Atlantic Co-operation Council (NACC), a 38-member body made up of all the states of Nato and the former Warsaw Pact. The problem with the NACC, though, was its very openness; it failed to distinguish between the Russians and the central Europeans.
The next step on the road to enlargement was Partnership for Peace (PfP), an ingenious scheme thought up in the Pentagon to satisfy the central Europeans without offending the Russians. Under PfP the central Europeans would not be invited to join Nato, but they would at least get to differentiate themselves from the Russians and others by designing programmes of co-operation with Nato, specially tailored to their own needs. “Partners” would undertake training exercises with full members, have a right of consultation with the alliance, and would even be able to take up offices at Nato headquarters. The compromise was vintage Clinton-why take sides when you can choose the middle ground? But it failed to satisfy anyone.
In December 1993, with Polish and Hungarian communities in the US roused, and after intense lobbying from proponents of enlargement (including Lech Walesa, who warned of the dangers of the Russian bear), Clinton decided the PfP compromise was inadequate after all. After Nato’s Brussels summit in January 1994 he announced that the question “was no longer whether Nato would take on new members, but when and how,” and in June 1994 he brought the then ambassador to Germany, Richard Holbrooke, a strong proponent of enlargement, back to the State Department to push the process along. After four years of uncertainty, the US position on enlargement was now set, and the somewhat reluctant Europeans were pressed to follow. In December 1994 the alliance formally adopted enlargement as a goal and commissioned a study to explain “how and why” Nato would grow. The “Study on Nato Enlargement” was published in September 1995, formally committing the alliance to take on new members, with the rights and guarantees of the current ones.
US presidential pronouncements and official Nato declarations are supposed to end debate, but the formal call for Nato enlargement stimulated it. The timidity of the pronouncement was to blame-Nato explained “how and why” it would take in new members, but refused even to discuss “who and when.” The current plan has the central Europeans pressing for the process to be hurried up before Russia “goes bad”; the southern and eastern Europeans (such as Bulgaria, Romania, the Baltic states, and Ukraine) worrying over whether they will be left in a vulnerable “grey zone”; and the Russians fulminating about dire consequences if the Nato plan goes ahead. Perhaps this is unavoidable. But the merits of enlargement can best be assessed by asking six questions.
can enlargement save nato?
One of the main, if least acknowledged, motivations of enlargement enthusiasts is the desire to save Nato itself. When the Soviet Union fell apart, Nato’s original mission was undermined, so Nato supporters had to find something new to do. The enthusiasm of the central and eastern Europeans to join Nato would make them net contributors to its political cohesion. As shown by their co-operation in the Bosnian peace operation, Prague, Warsaw and Budapest are among the most “Atlanticist” of the European capitals. But there is also potential for trouble here. Nato operates by consensus, and new members will have a veto over alliance policies just like any other members. The candidate governments may be pro-western, but the possibility of less co-operative ones coming to power cannot be ruled out. Enlargement will contribute in some ways to the alliance’s sense of purpose, but it is an open question whether an alliance stretching already from Canada to Turkey to Norway can tolerate further dilution.
Can Nato Stabilise Central Europe?
Proponents of enlargement say that the best way to make sure that the central Europeans remain pro-western and democratic is to take them into the alliance: keep the new democracies out and they will become just the sort of problem states you don’t want in. The aim of Nato enlargement, in other words, is to stabilise the east. The argument rests on a historical analogy: it was the creation of Nato in 1949 that enabled a nervous western Europe, and in particular the Federal Republic of Germany, to feel secure in the face of the Soviet threat and get on with establishing liberal democracy and the economic miracle.
There is no doubt that Nato membership would be a big step toward the new democracies’ feeling of belonging to the west, but parallels with the 1940s and 1950s are overblown. In the late 1940s, western Europe-with large communist parties in France and Italy and a brand new Federal Republic of Germany-was tottering between two alternative models of society, and it was not clear which would win. But is this really the case for central Europe today? True, left-of-centre parties are coming back to power, but even they are hardly advocating a non-western model of society, let alone a Russian one. It may not be politic to say it, but the new European democracies have nowhere to turn but to the west, Nato membership or not.
how will Russia Respond?
Would enlargement really provoke a nasty response from the Russians, as its opponents argue? Or would the Russians simply huff and puff, and then accept enlargement, as its proponents claim? This is the most critical question of all, and the hardest to answer.
Already humiliated by their dramatic fall from superpower status and loss of influence abroad, Russians see in Nato enlargement their historical enemy moving in-and Russia’s marginalisation in international affairs. If the west really wants to co-operate with Russia and sees it as a friend, then why should Nato have to expand? And if Nato expands, why cannot Russia itself join? Russian leaders from across the political spectrum have threatened a variety of counter-measures to enlargement, including the abrogation of nuclear and conventional arms reduction treaties, the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons or extra troops to the Polish border, and the destabilisation of Ukraine. Defence Minister Pavel Grachev warns of Russia seeking “new alliances in the east” (China? Iran?); Deputy Defence Minister Andrei Kokoshin says that enlargement would usher in a new era of “dangerous confrontation” with the west; and President Yeltsin himself has said Nato enlargement would “fan the flames of war.”
Supporters of enlargement, including western officials, keep their cool and suggest that this is mostly bluster. Of course Russians, in an electoral season, feel obliged to issue warnings to the west. But these are the same sorts of warnings we heard from Moscow in the late 1980s, saying that if the two Germanies were ever united, let alone united within Nato, then a Marshal would be sitting in the Kremlin and ordering new nuclear weapons to point at the west. But the Russians accepted German unification, and they will grudgingly accept enlargement.
Opponents of enlargement overstate their case when they imply that Nato enlargement is the key variable in determining Russia’s future political orientation. Is it the case that if Nato doesn’t expand, Russia remains en route to becoming a pro-western, democratic market economy, but if Poland does get a seat in Brussels then Zhirinovsky will come to power and reoccupy the Baltic states? (In 1993 Nato postponed enlargement partly because of a Russian election, and Zhirinovsky still got 23 per cent of the vote.) If, as is the case even among most nationalists and communists, Russians calculate that co-operation with the west is in their national interest, they will still seek co-operation.
There is one legitimate cause for concern. Even if it is not in Russia’s interest to make a hostile response to enlargement, its leaders might feel that having made so many threats, they are obliged to carry some of them out. Russia still has enormous potential to do damage to western interests-energy blackmail over Ukraine, nuclear technology to Iran, or vetoes at the UN Security Council-and although it might well be irrational, counterproductive, and against its own national interest to counter Nato enlargement in some hostile way, there can be no guarantee that Russia will not do it.
would the Guarantee be credible?
The US guarantee to western Europe during the cold war was a commitment to one of the main centres of world power at a time of Manichean struggle with a global enemy, the Soviet Union. Even under these conditions there were questions about whether Washington would “risk New York for Hamburg,” and many who thought that it would not. It is thus legitimate to ask whether Americans would risk New York for Warsaw, let alone Vilnius, Kiev, or Bucharest.
Some proponents of enlargement, including Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as the central Europeans themselves, have argued that given such uncertainty it makes sense to enlarge Nato now before Russia goes bad. But if the west lacks the mettle to enlarge Nato in the face of a brooding Russia, what would its military guarantee be worth in the face of an aggressive one? Would it not be better to wait until Russia became a genuine threat so that any guarantees extended would be unambiguously real?
can nato Prevent intra-member conflict?
Proponents of enlargement argue that taking in new members will not only make the new members feel more secure vis-? -vis Russia; it will also help prevent conflict among the new members themselves. It is true that there have been no wars between Nato members throughout the postwar period, but this may be more correlation than causation. The Nato countries did not fight each other because they were (mostly) liberal democracies in a common alliance against a specific external threat. These conditions may not apply to an enlarged Nato, and if they do not, alliance membership is unlikely to prevent intra-alliance war. When Greece and Turkey came to the brink of conflict over an Aegean island in February 1996, neither country was thinking much about Nato-and it was US intervention, not Nato’s, that helped stave off a fight. If Transylvania blows up into a problem between Romania and Hungary, would Nato membership prevent conflict?
The cost of Enlargement
Some opponents of Nato enlargement believe that taking in new members will cost more than it’s worth. Pointing to the dangers of hollow commitments discussed above, they argue that Nato must be militarily capable of defending any new member whose security it guarantees. There are no official studies of what enlargement would cost. Nato itself cannot undertake a cost study because doing so would mean making assumptions about who gets in and when, deciding on alternative defence concepts, and “war gaming” potential conflicts with Russia, all of which is far too sensitive for planners to put into their models. Moreover, the cost will vary greatly depending on which sort of defence concept is adopted: would Nato merely extend a guarantee and encourage the new members to defend themselves (the cheap option); would it prepare to help them by projecting power (a mid-range option); or would it deploy troops “forward,” as during the cold war (the expensive option)? The cheap option would be attractive, but would involve the risk of extending guarantees that might not be credible, and the expensive option would not only infuriate Moscow but could cost more than $100 billion as central European forces and bases are upgraded to host Nato troops. The most likely scenario is something in between-at a cost of around $40-50 billion over the next ten years.
Can Nato afford this? With combined defence spending of the current 16 allies at over $450 billion per year, it would seem eminently possible. But with tighter budgets, will western military forces want to spend marginal dollars on modernising Polish airfields for an unlikely contingency, or on adapting their own forces for new tasks-such as defending oil supplies in the Gulf?
Western leaders have been silent-indeed uncharacteristically discreet-about whom they are planning to take in and when. Not even a leaked planning document or the accidental mention of a name or a date has slipped out, though this has not prevented media speculation about Poland and the Czech Republic being the most likely first entrants. Hungary will also be an early candidate, plus Slovenia and Slovakia. After that, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania will have to wait for a very long time. It also seems certain that nothing will happen before the Russian election in June-and probably before the installation of a new US President in January 1997.
In any case, despite all the accusations about the Americans wanting to push for “early enlargement,” no one in the US, or anywhere else for that matter, has ever seriously put forward a plan for enlargement to take place in the next few years. Indeed, when Republicans in the House of Representatives initially included in their defence Bill a call for enlargement by 10th January 1999 they had to retract it on the grounds that it was too soon. But the process will move forward, and sometime in 1997 Nato may even bring itself to begin its study of “who and when,” a process likely to drag on for some time. New memberships in the alliance will have to be ratified by 16 parliaments, and no one will be anxious to take in a new member until the terrain, at home and abroad, has been carefully prepared.
On balance, is Nato enlargement worth the costs and risks? Probably. In the long run, it is hard to imagine telling democratic central European countries that they cannot determine their own foreign policies; and if they make a contribution to the alliance’s common goals they should be allowed in. The policy should be patiently explained to Russia, and it should be made clear that Nato membership for some does not mean a green light for Moscow to bully others; this should not be a difficult point to make. At the same time, there does not seem to be any need to rush. When proponents of rapid enlargement (such as Henry Kissinger) warn of a “strategic no man’s land” in central Europe, do they really mean that Germany or Russia will invade Poland if we don’t enlarge Nato soon? The gradual course towards enlargement that Nato has embarked on gives Russia time to get through at least another electoral cycle and other countries the chance to prove their “European” credentials. Now that the commitment has been made, backing down would not only disappoint the central Europeans and undermine alliance credibility, it would also encourage Russian hardliners to think that bluster and threat are effective methods for dealing with the west. That would not be a healthy precedent to set. n