Nato's Next Moves East

BERLIN: Nato’s next summit will take place in Prague in the winter of 2002 – that is, if President Bush doesn’t call his allies together before then. But the questions to be answered leading up to the summit are already clear: which, if any, country will be asked to join Nato; when will any new member join? Whatever decisions are taken, it is also clear that preparatory work must begin as soon as possible, and at least before the end of the year.

All this is different from 1997, when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined Nato. Back then, the outcome of the Madrid summit that agreed to their membership was uncertain until the final moments. That uncertainty ended when America succeeded in limiting invitations to three chosen countries, surprising those Alliance members who supported other candidates.

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Today, the most important issue facing Nato concerns whether or not to admit the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – now, after some delay, or never. Turning down or delaying Baltic state membership will be seen as a concession to Russia; acting in their favor will be regarded by Moscow as a slap-in-the-face.

No matter what decision Nato takes, containing the negative fall-out – in Russia or the Baltics – will not be easy. So a surprise conclusion in the manner of Madrid will only make matters worse, because careful preparations will be needed to contain the damage, and too much time will be lost if everything is put off until the meeting in Prague.

Some Nato members hope to evade these problems altogether through delay. Why not postpone enlargement, they ask, until some of the states demanding to join Nato have gained EU membership, where elements of their security concerns may be met? But postponement is not a viable option, for the following reasons:

- Russia itself placed membership for the Baltic three atop Nato’s agenda. Time and again Moscow has thundered that Nato’s first eastward enlargement must be its last. Bringing the Baltic states into Nato, Russia claims, would severely compromise its security (for that read Russian self-esteem). The strength of these protests, however, will make dawdling over Nato enlargement appear as a kowtow to President Putin;

- The West promised to continue enlargement at the Washington Summit of April 1999. Back then Nato heads-of-state welcomed the progress of various candidate countries, commending the Baltic states in particular. Nato’s leaders also promised to revisit enlargement by 2002 at the latest. So they cannot repeat the same formula in Prague and remain credible in both Russia and Eastern Europe;

- EU enlargement takes time while Nato enlargement is relatively speedy. Were negotiations over EU-admission of the Baltics near conclusion, postponing Nato-membership could be justified because the EU, with its new defense identity, is now both a security and prosperity union. As EU members, the Baltic states would indirectly come under Nato’s security shield, making explicit membership unnecessary perhaps. Unfortunately, years will elapse before negotiations over EU membership will conclude and be ratified. Stalling until that time is postponement by other means.

- At the Cold War’s end, Nato redefined itself as a stability network for all the Euro-Atlantic community, which includes Eastern Europe’s new democracies. Arguments which say that, because no direct security risk exists there is no need for a Nato guarantee of the Baltics – a view that sometimes gains attention in Berlin – break with this redefinition. Even if some Nato members want to distance themselves from this strategy, the Bush Administration unambiguously supports Nato’s role as a stability network.

Neither putative EU membership nor today’s favorable security conditions justify postponing enlargement. Diplomatic tricks cannot finesse the issue. Nato must either say “Yes” or “No” to the Baltic states. (To be precise, Nato must treat the applications of all three Baltic countries together. If only one were invited to join as a symbol of western determination, Russia would interpret this as appeasement, not steadfastness)

If Nato says “Yes” to the Baltics, it must make both Moscow and the Baltic three understand that enlargement is meant to increase stability along Russia’s western border, not threaten Russia. As a signal to both, Nato’s military presence in the Baltics should be kept to a minimum. In addition, the prospect of a democratic Russia eventually joining Nato might be openly acknowledged. Both must be done before any new enlargement is announced.

If Nato rejects the Baltic states it will need to prevent Moscow from interpreting that decision as confirmation that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania remain locked within Russia’s sphere of influence and that its Great Power posturing has paid off. Both inferences are potentially disastrous, not only for relations between West and Eastern Europe but, more importantly, for relations between Russia and the West.

Russia must be persuaded to confirm – explicitly and formally – the right of the Baltics, on their own, to choose their allies. In view of Moscow’s insistence that it will never accept such a decision, this will not be easy. Moreover, if Nato membership for the Baltics is rejected, they will need reassurance that the West will assist them, concretely, should their security be put at risk.

Admission or postponement are both legitimate decisions. But each will require considerable early efforts to reduce their fall-out. In weighing these options, admission of the Baltic countries quickly seems the better solution. Efforts to contain the damage caused by postponement will likely be far more demanding than any effort needed to ease tension after enlargement is announced. Moreover, at the next Summit following Prague, the Baltics must be at any rate be granted what, in view of their history, they have every right to demand: to be part of a stability alliance that is a matter of course for western democracies.