Commentary

No to NATO Expansion: Good Arguments Fall on Deaf Ears

By Ivan Eland
April 3, 1998

Proponents of NATO expansion have failed to respond adequately to the arguments of NATO expansion’s critics, but those critics nevertheless face an uphill fight to defeat ratification of NATO expansion in the Senate. For some reason, the arguments against expanding NATO are failing to stick.

For example, expansion’s opponents correctly argue that, like costs for the operation in Bosnia, costs for NATO’s expansion will be much greater than the Clinton administration admits. An embarrassed administration was forced to accept the ridiculously low NATO estimate of $1.5 billion over 10 years as the cost of admitting three new members with obsolescent forces and dilapidated military infrastructure to the alliance. The administration had earlier rejected the NATO projection as being too low and was then forced to reduce its own estimate — which was three to four times higher than NATO’s — because major U.S. allies declared that they would pay none of the added costs of expansion.

The plummeting cost estimates were justified primarily by claiming that the armed forces and military infrastructure in new member states were suddenly in better shape than expected. That rationale contradicts leaked classified NATO documents, an intelligence assessment and the belief of outside experts that the infrastructure is in abysmal condition. Furthermore, the NATO estimate — the details of which conveniently remain classified — includes only the portion of expenses that would be funded from the alliance’s common budgets. When expenses accruing to national defense budgets of the three new members and current members are added, the Congressional Budget Office — the only organization that made public the details of its estimate — reports that the cost could reach a whopping $125 billion. Moreover, the costs would be far beyond even $125 billion if the administration’s open door policy toward further expansion is actively pursued. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the United States will pick up a gigantic tab sooner or later.


Before World War II, France and Great Britain offered a security guarantee to Poland and Czechoslovakia, but Paris and London then took few military measures to enable them to fulfill the commitment. History also shows that, over time, the security environment can change, making alliance commitments undertaken in more tranquil times extremely dangerous.


Opponents of expansion also argue that good relations with Russia — a country with a key role in stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and still the only nation that can annihilate the United States with nuclear weapons — should be the top priority of U.S. security policy. If stemming nuclear proliferation is now going to be one of Washington’s main missions, antagonizing Russia will undoubtedly lessen Moscow’s cooperation in that effort. NATO expansion has contributed to Russia’s failure to ratify START II and may impair cooperation with the United States in combatting other rising threats to mutual security. Antagonizing Russia merely to provide vague security benefits to small Central and Eastern European states is akin to a chess player’s sacrificing his queen to capture a pawn.

With all of those arguments, why are the views of the skeptics — including former senators Sam Nunn and Howard Baker — having difficulty getting traction on Capitol Hill? The principal reason is that, to members of the Senate, a vote for expansion seems to be without political cost. Taking advantage of the demise of the Soviet Union, the administration has downplayed the U.S. commitment to help defend the new NATO members if they are attacked. Instead, it has fostered the notion that expansion is merely admitting deserving nations into the Western club. That reasoning appeals to certain segments of the American public.

The reality is, however, that the NATO commitment to defend new members could be invoked if any one of them became embroiled in a conflict with another country in the region. Spending only $1.5 billion over 10 years for improvements to armed forces and military infrastructure indicates that no serious military preparations will back the new security commitment. That dredges up horrible memories. Before World War II, France and Great Britain offered a security guarantee to Poland and Czechoslovakia, but Paris and London then took few military measures to enable them to fulfill the commitment. History also shows that, over time, the security environment can change, making alliance commitments undertaken in more tranquil times extremely dangerous. For example, alliances in Europe made in the late 1800s became outdated after the turn of the century and dragged reluctant great powers into World War I. The historical record should give pause to those in Congress who think expanding the NATO alliance is cost free.

Ivan Eland is the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.