Any Alternatives to NATO Expansion?

July 30, 1997 • Commentary

Is there an alternative to NATO? This is the question no one asked before asking three Central European nations to join the defense organization. Why do we still need an alliance that was created to contain the Soviet Union?

The founders of NATO would surely pose this query today. Secretary of State Dean Acheson assured Congress that the U.S. troop presence in Europe would be only temporary, until the war‐​torn Continent could stand on its own. In 1951, Dwight D. Eisenhower said there should be “clear limits” on how long America stayed in Europe. A decade later he warned: “Permanent troop establishments abroad” would “discourage the development of the necessary military strength Western European countries should provide for themselves.”

His fears have been borne out. Although the Europeans remain at greater risk than the United States, they carry a far lighter military burden–America spends 60 percent more on defense than do all of the NATO European countries combined, even though they have a larger economy and population than the United States.

Indeed, this is why supporters of NATO are deathly afraid that someone might ask about the organization’s current purpose. Most people celebrated the collapse of communism, but some NATO enthusiasts worried more about the future of their organization. They therefore went into overdrive searching for alternative tasks.

Robert Zoellick, counselor to Secretary of State James Baker, announced that the State Department was looking “at how you transform established institutions, such as NATO, to serve new missions that will fit the new era.” Robert Hormats of Goldman Sachs suggested expanding the organization’s ambit to “student exchanges, to fighting the drug trade, to resisting terrorism, to countering threats to the environment.” David Abshire of the Center for Strategic and International Studies proposed that NATO “coordinate the transfer of environmental control and energy‐​conservation technology to the East, thereby benefiting the global ecology.” All that was missing was a program for turning tanks into bookmobiles in order to promote literacy in the Balkans.

More serious ideas involved intervening in “out‐​of‐​area” actions and managing change in the former Soviet bloc. But the Yugoslavian civil war demonstrated that NATO could achieve little without committing troops, something in no member state’s interest.

So expansion into Central and Eastern Europe became the organization’s new raison d’etre. The proposal thus should be seen for what it is–a desperate attempt to prevent anyone from asking, why NATO?

Lots of reasons have been advanced for preserving the alliance. Moscow could eventually become militarily hostile, but it will be years before the Russian Humpty Dumpty could be put back together in a way to threaten Europe. Anyway, the Western Europeans have nearly thrice the population and seven times the economic strength of Russia, the British, French, and Germans alone spend 20 percent more on the military than does Moscow.

Some countries still fear Germany, but the Germans do not have a double dose of original sin. We have more to fear from a Napoleonic revival in France than a regeneration of Adolf Hitler in Germany. There’s also concern over the stability of the former communist states, but those nations need access to Western markets rather than the presence of Western troops.

Moreover, Yugoslavia illustrates that there’s not much NATO can do to suppress nationalistic eruptions unless it is willing to intervene militarily, but the safer option is to stay out–to erect firebreaks to conflict, rather than to allow alliances to become transmission belts of war.

Equally serious, expansion of NATO threatens to lose the bigger game: reform in Russia. Moscow rightly views expansion of the quintessentially anti‐​Russian alliance as a threat. The result has been to inflame domestic nationalistic passions and push Moscow closer to China, both politically and economically. Reliance on NATO support could also lead countries like Ukraine to play a dangerous game of chicken with Russia in any future dispute.

But the most basic issue is America’s interest. The United States has nothing at stake in Central or Eastern Europe that warrants a threat to go to war to defend nations that until a few years ago were ranged on the opposite side of the military divide. Washington policy‐​makers are far too promiscuous in risking the lives of U.S. servicemen, treating young Americans as gambit pawns in a global chess game.

Instead of expanding NATO, Washington should set a definite disengagement timetable and encourage the Europeans to construct their own security alliance. Such a system could arise out of a NATO without America, the Western European Union, the European Union, or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Which one would be up to the Europeans.

Is there an alternative to NATO? Yes. Congress needs to ask that question before signing onto the administration’s NATO expansion plan.

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