Expanded NATO Will Tempt the Bear

November 27, 1996 • Commentary
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Warsaw, Prague and Budapest are familiar to most Americans as the capital cities of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. But what about Bratislava, Ljubljana, Bucharest, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn? Most people outside Europe would hesitate to assign these capitals to their respective countries.

This is not an idle game. Bratislava’s representatives have come to Washington to press their case for U.S. military protection. In December, NATO’s leaders will discuss President Clinton’s preelection pledges to expand the organization. If this happens, the implications for Americans will be very stark. These cities will enter into what American geopolitical jargon calls the U.S. “defense perimeter.”

Asked to explain what this means, the administration’s spokesmen resort to obfuscation. Knowing of the public’s skepticism toward risky foreign commitments, they draw a veil over NATO’s war‐​related aspects. Instead, they present the new, bigger NATO as a sort of social club where like‐​minded gentlefolk will gather to discuss worthy, nonlethal topics such as the European democratic continuum.

This soft‐​focus image is purposefully intended to deceive. The hard core of NATO lies in the doctrine of collective defense spelled out in Article 5. In everyday language, the provisions of this article obligate the U.S. to go to war in the event of an outside attack on any NATO ally. The prospective new members of NATO know this full well. They are all–sensibly, from their perspective–insisting on the full application of Article 5 guarantees. This means that Ljubljana assumes the same status as London; an attack on Slovenia would demand the same U.S. reaction as an attack on England. The same force deployment. The same nuclear umbrella.

It betokens no disrespect to Slovenia (or any of the other aspirants) to observe that this does not make sense. NATO was assembled in 1949 to prevent large chunks of Europe from falling into the communist maw. It did this very successfully.

But that was then. There is no security threat of this kind even remotely visible in the Europe of today. The Russian military–the presumed if unspoken target of NATO expansion–is demoralized. Its equipment is in disrepair. The debacle in Chechnya demonstrates all too painfully Moscow’s inability to enforce its will even inside Russia. The notion that Russia credibly threatens Prague or Warsaw is preposterous.

This does not mean that the reasonable security needs of the newly independent states in Europe can be ignored. Of course they cannot. But the true issue is not membership of NATO. If it was, NATO would have done something to mediate the incendiary territorial quarrel between NATO members Greece and Turkey rather than stand inexcusably idle on the sidelines. The embarrassing dithering over the extension of NATO’s presence is Bosnia provides further evidence that NATO is in no state to assume new obligations.

No. The true issue is what to do about Russia. And it is here that the lessons taught by America’s post‐​World War II foreign policy leaders are so applicable. Their genius was to recognize that true security in Europe was impossible unless the defeated Germany was incorporated into the Western system. They therefore disregarded the vengeful voices seeking total German deindustrialization and instead anticipated from Day 1 German membership of NATO.

So it is with Russia today. The task facing those who lay claim to foreign policy genius is to design a system that draws Russia into the community of nations and, German‐​style, defangs it. There is no ready‐​made model for such a system. Charles de Gaulle pointed in the right direction with his vision of a security community from the “Atlantic to the Urals,” but there are Nobel Peace Prizes to be won for anyone who can put such a system into practical effect.

One thing is, however, certain. NATO expansion is a backward step. Not only does it produce unwelcome European obligations for the U.S., but it also vitiates the main game in Europe. Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov has warned on numerous occasions that an expanded NATO would cause Russia to “reconsider its options.”

With its conventional military dilapidated to the point of dysfunction, this can only mean one thing: that Russia would revert to the nuclear standoff, an arena in which Russia remains incontrovertibly competitive. This would be doubly ironic. By giving central Europe protection against a nonexistent conventional threat, the U.S. would resubject itself to an all‐​too‐​real threat: nuclear intimidation. Harry Truman would be turning in his grave.