Hundreds of thousands of Romanians cheered President Bush as he welcomed us into NATO, and we meant it. Just like we meant it when we cheered Nicolae Ceausescu - both when he spoke and when he was executed. We are good at cheering. What we are not good at is understanding what we are cheering for. Our new NATO membership sounds great, but we really don't know why.
In 1998, Radu Vasile, then Romania's Prime Minister, visited Israel. Vasile expressed interest in purchasing Israeli military helicopters. Israel's President Ezer Weizmann, a former pilot, responded: "You must have serious enemies if you need these helicopters. Who are they?" "Not at all," Vasile answered, "we're at peace with our neighbours...our frontiers are secure. But we need up-to-date aircraft ... to join NATO.' "So," Weizmann said, "you don't have any enemies after all! But don't worry: NATO will find enemies for you!"
Most Romanians see NATO membership as a huge national victory, but some wonder if there is truth in Weizmann's joke: because, if the rationale for entering a military alliance is that you feel threatened, entering NATO is nonsense. For the first time in its troubled history, Romania has nothing to fear from its neighbours. Russia, "the hereditary enemy," now seems far away and consumed by its domestic troubles. Hungary, the other "hereditary enemy," is a fellow NATO ally; relations with Ukraine are nasty, but peaceful. Bulgaria is too small to matter; and Yugoslavia's wars are over.
Even so, the country must now, year after year, increase its military expenses so that it can begin to approximate NATO standards. That will be a hard thing to do for an economy whose recent economic growth, though real, remains shaky. Unlike joining the EU, which can provide important development funds, joining NATO means only sacrifice. Given our poverty, spending more money on military equipment seems irresponsible.