What’s ahead for NATO?

March 11, 1998 • Commentary

While the American public has been worried about war in the Middle East, President Clinton is quietly expanding Washington’s promise to go to war in Europe.

American troops remain mired in the Balkans two years after the president promised to have brought them home, but that didn’t deter the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from voting last Tuesday to back NATO enlargement. Unfortunately, the president’s claims about NATO expansion are no more believable than his promises about Bosnia.

NATO was created in 1949 to deter Soviet aggression against war‐​devastated Western Europe. Although American policy‐​makers don’t seem to have noticed, the world has changed since then.

Western Europe has recovered economically. Both Communism and the Soviet Union have collapsed. Russia is at odds with many of the former Soviet republics. There’s no more Soviet‐​dominated Eastern Europe, which now would back the West in any conflict. In short, NATO has completed its work.

But government organizations, like old soldiers, never die. They just come up with new purposes. After the Berlin Wall fell NATO enthusiasts proposed that the alliance help protect the environment, suppress illicit drugs, and promote student exchanges. (Surprisingly, no one suggested turning armored divisions into mobile libraries to spread literacy across the continent.) Such arguments were rightly dismissed as desperate attempts to preserve an antiquated system that had lost its raison d’être.

The world remains a dangerous place, but an enlarged NATO would increase the dangers facing the United States. Expanding NATO expands America’s already expansive promise to go to war.

Proposals that the alliance “manage” change in Eastern Europe were recognized as little more plausible in light of the brutal Yugoslavian civil wars. Only the use of overwhelming military force, which was in no NATO member’s interest, would have had an impact there.

Now advocates of NATO want to expand the alliance to include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. But if the Senate says yes, expansion won’t stop there. The Baltic states — Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia — have all been lobbying for inclusion in the alliance. Some NATO officials even see Ukraine as a possible member

Expansion has nothing to do with American or even Western European security. The Soviet Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall and can’t be put back together. Whatever future threats might arise from Moscow can be easily deterred by the European members of NATO. Today the Western Europeans have roughly thrice the population and seven times the economic strength of Russia. Together just three NATO members — Britain, France and Germany — spend more on defense than does Moscow.

With no military purpose served by expanding NATO, many analysts treat the organization like a fancy country club, in which membership supposedly yields democracy and stability. Inclusion in the European Union would do more on both counts, however. The former Soviet satellites should be fostering economic development rather than modernizing their militaries, as required by NATO membership.

Of course, countries such as Poland and Romania still fear Russia. Their concern, however reasonable, offers no basis for American policy. Someone else’s desire for a U.S. security guarantee — which entails the promise to go to war with nuclear‐​armed Russia, if necessary — doesn’t mean that Washington should provide it.

Laurence F. Kaplan of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies argues that “American interests and ideals” often overlap. However, idealism always seems more appealing when someone else is paying the bill. The costs of an expansive foreign policy fall primarily upon those who Washington so often seems to forget that it is supposed to represent: United States citizens.

America has no interest in the Czech Republic, Hungary or Poland that warrants war. Already Washington 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 Slates. Let them protect their Eastern neighbors. American citizens should not have their wealth squandered to subsidize wealthy allies’ arid police irrelevant conflicts. American soldiers should not be treated like gambit pawns to be sacrificed upon a global chessboard.

In fact, despite oft‐​repeated complaints about “cuts” in military spending, defense outlays, adjusted for inflation, remain at Cold War 1evels. Washington is spending as much this year on the military as it did in 1980. The reason units are stretched thin, equipment is deteriorating, and morale is falling is because troops are being promiscuously deployed by policymakers more interested in appearing to be humane than in defending US. interests.

Bosnia is the most glaring example, but maintaining 100,000 soldiers in Europe as part of NATO is even more wasteful. Washington should shed, not expand, such commitments.

The world remains a dangerous place, but an enlarged NATO would increase the dangers facing the United States. Expanding NATO expands America’s already expansive promise to go to war. And to go to war in cases with only a tangential relation to U.S. security. The full Senate should say no.

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