WASHINGTON, D.C. Now that NATO has invited Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join, President Clinton must seek ratification of the new treaty by the US Senate. The Senate should reject NATO expansion. The scholar-diplomat George Kennan is correct in calling expansion the "most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era."
No reason cited in favor of expansion stands up to scrutiny. Expansion will not bolster democracy, because democracy is not threatened in the countries invited to join. If NATO membership were effective in promoting democracy, it makes more sense to invite Russia and Ukraine to join.
But if NATO is being turned into a club for countries that are already democracies, several questions arise: Why is such a club needed? Why aren’t all the democracies of postcommunist Europe invited to join? And why does expansion require billions of American tax dollars and an American nuclear guarantee? The Clinton administration has supplied no answers, only a series of flimsy rationales:
1. to prevent Bosnia-style ethnic conflicts. But the three new members (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic) are ethnically homogenous. Countries that face ethnic divides are not invited to join.
2. to fill a vacuum of power in Europe. But there is no vacuum; instead, there is a new, unprecedented and desirable system in place. It has three parts: the changes on the map of Europe brought by the USSR’s collapse; the transformation of governments; and changes in the military balance produced by a series of treaties to reduce nuclear and conventional weapons. The supreme interest is to strengthen that system;`NATO expansion threatens it.
3. to contain Russia. Some day, Russia might again be a threat. It is not, however, predestined to do so, and will be to weak to do so for years. Even then, Russia is not likely to threaten the NATO putative new members, none of which share a border with Russia, save for Poland and the tiny enclave of Kaliningrad. Countries that are threatened -- Ukraine, the Baltics states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania-- are not being offered NATO membership.
The Clinton plan is therefore nonsensical: countries that may need NATO protection won’t get it; countries that get NATO protection don’t need it. But NATO expansion is worse than pointless; it is dangerous. The prospect of NATO expansion caused Russia’s Duma to balk at approving the Start II treaty, which would cut the number of nuclear weapons aimed at North America. The Reagan and Bush administration put that cut at the heart of US/Russia relations. The Clinton administration replaced it with social goals in Central Europe -- goals that can be achieved by other, better means. Of course, the West should not give Russia a veto over its policies. But needlessly provoking Russia -- the direct and unavoidable consequence of expansion -- is a considerable cost that brings no benefits.
A second, unnecessary cost is a new division of Europe. Consigned to the "other" side would be new democracies that are important for both strategic and moral reasons. Excluding the Baltics, in particular, makes a mockery of expansion. All are democracies with market economies, and are making good-faith efforts to deal with ethnic minorities. But including them would bring NATO to Russia’s borders. Moscow has made it clear it will resist. West Europeans understand this and will balk at Baltic membership.
Because of their size and location, the Baltics can be secure in one of two ways: as part of a military alliance that protects them or as part of a Europe in which they do not need such protection. NATO expansion, as planned, risks denying them the second without giving them the first. The chief architect of expansion, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, has said that "we should not be in a hurry" to deal with Baltic membership. Wrong. Starting expansion without a plan for the Baltics is like taking off on a trans-Atlantic plane trip without landing gear, and the Clinton administration has no plan. Perhaps the Baltics can do without NATO, but by that logic so should Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
Economic costs to expansion also exist. The only thing we can say with certainty is that Clinton administration estimates of the costs -- $27billion to $35billion -- are ludicrously low. The Congressional Budget Office put the figures at four and five times that. Moreover, these estimates include only three new members. If countries bordering Russia join, a substantial contingent of US troops will probably have to be stationed within their borders indefinitely, creating a potential liability of hundreds of billions of dollars.
East Europeans, struggling to fulfill the social welfare obligations they inherited from the communist era, cannot pay. West Europeans, under pressure to reduce public spending to pave the way for the single European currency, will refuse to pay. So America will be stuck with the lion’s share of the bill. The inevitable American resentment will trigger a trans-Atlantic fight over burden-sharing that will undercut public support in the US for what is genuinely important: an ongoing American role in Europe. Ultimately, expansion risks adding Poland to the alliance and subtracting America.
Thanks to the wisdom of America’s founding fathers, the Clinton administration’s commitment to NATO expansion is not enough. Two-thirds of the US Senate’s 100 members are needed, and 29 senators have already questioned the wisdom of expansion. The Senate now has the opportunity to save America, its allies, all of Europe from folly by rejecting a scheme that is at best pointless, at worst, extremely dangerous.