Creating a Cold Peace by Expanding NATO

March 20, 1998 • Commentary
By Gary Hart and Gordon Humphrey

The U.S. Senate will soon cast a vote that will set the tone of U.S.-Russian relations for the next generation. If senators approve NATO membership for Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, NATO will move right up to Russia’s border, seriously endangering the once‐​in‐​a‐​century opportunity for the United States to build a constructive relationship with that vast and important country. Russia is particularly sensitive about her province of Kaliningrad, which shares 432 kilometers of border with Poland.

Approval of Poland’s application means NATO on Russia’s border in 1999. If the Senate approves the first group of applicants, it can hardly deny membership to the next round of applicants, including Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Those nations share an additional 734 kilometers of border with Russia. Thus, the United States will have responded to the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire with in in‐​your‐​face deployment of the NATO alliance right on Russia’s doorstep. Humiliating a former adversary is a dangerous thing for a great power to do, and we may pay dearly for our arrogance

Russian reformers who expected to be treated as friends and equals now find themselves cast beyond the pale as unworthy, uncivilized and unwashed. Russian leaders from across the entirespectrum bitterly resent NATO expansion.

There is simply no need to expand NATO. Even the proponents admit Russia poses no threat to her neighbors, nor could she for many years to come even under the worst of circumstances. Eastern and Central Europe do not need a military alliance, they need access to Western markets. Then why are supporters pushing NATO expansion? It got started in 1996 as an election‐​year ploy to pander to American voters who identify with the candidate nations. It has been carried forward on the argument that expanding NATO into Central and Eastern Europe promotes stability. Everyone is for stability. But how do we promote stability anywhere in Europe by promoting instability everywhere in Russia? Our highest priority ought to be the reduction of Russia’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, which still constitutes a real and present threat to the United States. Resentment of NATO expansion prompted the Russian legislature to delay ratification of the START II Treaty that would shrink Russian and U.S. arsenals by 3,500 strategic nuclear missiles each. The refusal to ratify that important treaty, despite pleas from Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin, is a concrete example of the way NATO expansion strengthens the hands of the irresponsible elements at the expense of Russian reformers.

Further, NATO’s encampment right on Russia’s borders forces Moscow to rely more heavily on her large stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons left over from Soviet days. Moscow has lately renounced a no‐​first‐​strike policy. Given the decrepit state of Russia’s conventional forces, she has little choice but to make do. Unfortunately, tactical nuclear weapons can be used to make up for inadequate conventional forces. How does forcing Russian to turn increasingly to tactical nuclear weapons promote stability?

Russia has an ugly nuclear mess on her hands. Forty thousand nuclear warheads and tons of nuclear weapons materials are scattered across her vast territories. Some are at risk of transfer to terrorists and rogue nations. Former ambassador to Russia Jack Matlock testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “When the people guarding [nuclear materials] have not been paid in six months… it is totally unreasonable to expect that all are going to resist the temptation of selling dangerous materials.” Clearly, the United States should go all out to help Russia dismantle her excess nuclear warheads and to bring all warhead materials under strict controls. NATO expansion thwarts that effort, too.

More broadly, NATO expansion poisons the well in U.S.-Russian relations. To contain Soviet communism, we fought two hot wars and a long cold war and spent perhaps $20 trillion. For 45 years, our citizens bore a heavy burden, including the risk of nuclear war or nuclear accident. At last we have an opportunity to build friendly relations with Russia. NATO expansion puts that priceless opportunity at peril, risking the waste of an enormous sacrifice of American blood and treasure. Worse, it risks a resumption of a dangerous confrontation between the United States and Russia, two nations that ought to be friends.

Russian reformers who expected to be treated as friends and equals now find themselves cast beyond the pale as unworthy, uncivilized and unwashed. Russian leaders from across the entirespectrum bitterly resent NATO expansion. To dismiss their concern by saying ordinary Russians don’t care misses the point. Ordinary Russians haven’t the luxury of looking beyond the daily struggle to put food in front of their children. But Russians who make foreign policy care greatly, and they shape history. Proponents of expansion who say the Russians will “have to get over it” reveal an arrogance and a short‐​sightedness that serve us ill. NATO expansion may prove to be the most damaging mistake in international relations since the humiliation of Germany after World War I, an act of hubris most historians count asthe cause of World War II.

About the Authors
The authors served In the U.S. Senate, representing Colorado and New Hampshire, respectively. Mr. Humphrey is a visiting scholar at the Cato Institute.