NATO Expansion: Too Much, Too Early

PARIS: Democracies are often guilty of doing "too little, too late" in the face of new challenges. Unlike dictatorships, the democratic process takes time, and implies compromise. The slowness of democratic states in meeting the fascist challenge in the thirties or the scourge of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans is often cited in this regard.

Democracies also act prematurely. Such cases of "too much, too early" tend to occur when the initial decision is politically undemanding, and short term consequences limited. NATO expansion belongs to this category. It is a fairly simple matter to declare the enlargement of the Atlantic alliance with little risk involved for NATO’s members: no foreign power is in a position to threaten their territorial integrity. No surprise that a number of Western democracies launched this venture in 1994, raising high expectations in Eastern Europe. Mercifully, the democratic process does make it difficult to execute a policy decision of this magnitude without public debate. As debate unfolds, harsh consequences emerge. Several questions must find answers before NATO’s enlargement should proceed.

Is NATO militarily willing and able to implement mutual defense obligations? Yes, perhaps, for countries contiguous with NATO: Austria, the Czech Republic, and Poland. But who dares suggest that this condition is fulfilled in the West vis a vis Estonia or Ukraine? A mirror-image of this question applies to new members: are they able and willing to contribute to the common defense by adopting NATO standards and making their military available for use by NATO?

Would early NATO expansion enhance or diminish the security of new members? Arguably, the answer here could be positive for countries which feel threatened by a powerful neighbor: i.e. the Baltic States or Ukraine. Conversely, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Hungary are safer, by virtue of geography, than (for instance) Finland or Sweden. In other cases, joining NATO could create less security: Finland, a member of the EU remains outside NATO for this reason; its existing modus vivendi with Russia is a stable and satisfactory one.