Commentary

NATO Expansion as Empty Symbolism

The extraordinarily low cost estimates recently leaked to the press by NATO officials suggest that the expansion of the alliance to include Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary has become little more than political theater. Senators had greeted the Pentagon’s earlier calculations (a total cost of $27 billion to $35 billion over 13 years, with the United States’ paying a maximum of $2 billion) with justifiable skepticism. NATO’s projection that the entire cost of enlargement will not exceed $2 billion does not even meet the straight-face test.

At least it doesn’t meet that test if the alliance is serious about providing credible security commitments to the new members. If, on the other hand, enlargement is merely intended to be an exercise in empty symbolism, $2 billion is too high. Expansion for that purpose could be accomplished for a few thousand dollars — the cost of a print run for the revised roster of NATO members.

The enticing illusion of NATO enlargement on the cheap underscores how much the campaign for expansion has been driven by political calculations rather than sound strategic thinking. An unusually candid comment by a high-level official in a newspaper interview following the release of the Pentagon’s report provided a troubling confirmation. “Everybody realized the main priority was to keep costs down to reassure Congress. There was a strong political imperative to low-ball the figures.”

But even the Pentagon’s effort to minimize estimated costs was woefully insufficient from the perspective of the European members of NATO. West European leaders regard NATO expansion as a U.S. initiative, and they have stated privately for months that they are not going to raise taxes or cut social programs to pay for Washington’s pet scheme. (Indeed, one leader, French president Jacques Chirac, stated publicly that France would not pay a single franc for NATO expansion.)

The problem is that, even if the Pentagon’s unrealistically low projections were accepted, Congress would insist that the Europeans pay a good many francs (and marks, pounds and lira). Thus there was a powerful political incentive for NATO to come up with a lower — much lower — estimate that the Europeans were willing to support. By sheer coincidence, the new $2 billion figure corresponds with what the Pentagon calculated would be the U.S. share. Guess which country is being set up to pay most of the tab for enlarging the alliance.

Extending security commitments without providing the tangible military assets to back them up is foolish and dangerous. Such paper guarantees lack credibility and virtually invite a challenge at some point. The prospective new members of NATO ought to be extremely uneasy about the West’s growing fondness for enlargement on the cheap. They have been down that road before. In the late 1930s Poland and Czechoslovakia received solemn security pledges from allies (Britain and France), only to see those commitments wilt when challenged by a militarily powerful Germany.

Protecting allies (or more accurately, clients) is especially difficult when they are located in the geopolitical back yard of another great power. That is the core problem with NATO expansion. Russia has extensive interests in Central and Eastern Europe going back generations and, in some cases, centuries. Russian officials have been openly critical of NATO’s inexorable encroachment. The hostility Moscow has shown to the first round of enlargement will be magnified many times over if a subsequent round includes the Baltic republics — as President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have hinted will be the case.

True, at the moment the Russian military is in disarray and cannot challenge an expanded NATO. But we dare not assume that Russia will remain weak forever. There is no sunset clause with respect to NATO enlargement; we cannot decide to expand the alliance now when the costs and risks might be modest and then change our minds if the threat environment becomes less benign and the costs and risks rise.

If enlargement is meant seriously, it will be an expensive and dangerous long-term undertaking to protect the security of Central and East European nations. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that bolstering the defenses of the new members and stationing just a small number of NATO forces in those countries could cost $125 billion over 15 years. And that would be merely to deter a Russian force of 25 divisions — a tiny fraction of the military power the Soviet Union was once able to deploy. A larger, more credible forward deployment of NATO units would bring the cost to at least $167 billion and perhaps much more.

The American people should ask themselves whether the security of small Central and East European states is crucial enough to American interests to justify incurring such a financial burden. Even more important, Americans must consider whether they are willing to risk a military confrontation someday with a nuclear-armed great power over some obscure dispute involving the location of borders or the treatment of Russian minorities in neighboring countries.

Whatever the answer given by the public and the Senate, the issues ought to be faced squarely. The worst possible outcome would be a decision to expand NATO based on the assumption that it is a low-risk venture that can be undertaken for a financial pittance. Such an assumption is not just an illusion, it is a dangerous illusion.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author of Beyond NATO: Staying Out of Europe’s Wars.