An ambitious, US-led campaign to bring new European nations into
NATO has stirred controversy throughout the Western Alliance as well as in the
lands of the old Soviet Union and its empire.
The Western plan proposes to consider full NATO membership
for former members of the now-defunct Warsaw Pact, under certain conditions.
Central and east Europeans overwhelmingly favor this prospect, especially the
US-backed security guarantees that come with NATO membership.
However, anti-Western Russian nationalists—and even many
pro-Western reformers—view the Alliance's planned eastward move with mounting
alarm. Americans and western Europeans, for their part, appear deeply divided
on the subject.
The problem dates to January 1994, when NATO offered a vague
auxiliary status to central and eastern European nations and former Soviet
In fifteen months, twenty-six nations—former Warsaw Pact
members, Soviet republics, and European neutrals, such as Sweden, Finland, and
Austria—had joined the Partnership for Peace. By November 1995, twelve nations
had become full-fledged "partners." Sixteen were participating in a
"coordination cell" at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in
Now, the sixteen current members of the Alliance are coming
face to face with the question of admitting new members to the NATO structure
and assessing the military, political, and economic consequences of these acts.
What follows is an accounting of the major points made by proponents and
The Case for Expansion
NATO, the most successful military and political alliance
the world had ever seen, engendered a high degree of western European cooperation,
integration, and stability for more than four decades.
In Europe's post–Cold War tumult, however, the formerly
anti-Soviet Alliance increasingly came to seem anachronistic. The great issues
and problems confronting Europeans were no longer to be found along the Iron
Curtain but in newly democratic and independent nations of eastern Europe and
the old USSR, with the political and economic futures of these countries at
Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher contended that the
Alliance faced a "historic choice." It could "embrace
innovation" and find a new purpose, or it could go on as it had for almost
fifty years and "risk irrelevance" and perhaps break up.
It is this prospect—the specter of Europe without NATO—that
deeply troubles US leaders. Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger said
expansion will bolster the US presence and western European "equilibrium"
and help thwart "reemergence of historical European rivalries" between
such big continental powers as France and Germany.
Alliance officials contend that the promise of membership
gives the Western democracies greater leverage over the political transformations
now under way in nations to the east.
NATO requires that prospective members be free-enterprise
democracies with civilian control over the armed forces. This, proponents of
expansion claim, strengthens the hand of political moderates in their
inevitable showdowns with hardliners, right and left, in the formerly
Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott contended,
"Nations that are encouraged in their aspirations to join NATO are more
likely to make a successful transition from their Communist pasts."
In a September 1995 report on the matter, NATO stated,
"The benefits of common defense and . . . integration are important to
protecting the further democratic development of new members."
Damper on New
In the view of proponents, NATO expansion will prevent or
minimize simmering rivalries in the East, such as the one that has torn apart
large swaths of what used to be Yugoslavia.
They say that the promise of NATO membership has helped
fledgling democracies in newly independent nations cope with and overcome some
of their chronic internal and external ethnic and territorial rivalries that
have swept these nations into conflicts for centuries.
Participation in the Partnership for Peace and the promise
of NATO membership, for example, is said to have induced Hungary to back away
from open conflict with Slovakia and with Romania over borders and toward
resolution of disputes, much as Turkey and Greece had muted their hostilities
to gain admission to NATO.
An expanded NATO and the Partnership for Peace, say
proponents, would strengthen military-to-military ties between Western and
Eastern nations and reduce the possibility of misunderstandings or
Already, the Partnership for Peace has provided some of the
military-to-military relationships that enabled the United States and Russia
to strike a landmark agreement in October that would enable them to field a
joint 4,000-member force in Bosnia-Hercegovina to carry out engineering,
construction, and transportation duties in support of the planned 60,000-member
NATO-led peace implementation force.
Extended US Influence
For Washington, an important, if unstated, goal is to ensure
continued US influence in the affairs of Europe and to have a major say in
eastern European security developments. "The bedrock of United States security
policy" remains the commitment to Europe, said Walter B. Slocombe,
undersecretary of defense for Policy. "We will remain fully involved in
European security issues."
For half a century, NATO has served as the mechanism for
exerting that influence, providing Washington's all-important bridge to the
Continent. Eastward expansion would ensure that the US would be able to play a
similar role in the nations emerging from the old Soviet empire.
Some believe that the West must move quickly to erect a
defensive structure to guard against a possible collapse of reform in Russia
and a revival of Russian imperialism.
The establishmentarian Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in
New York recently called for NATO to move more quickly to accept the
participants in the Partnership for Peace as full-fledged members, as well as
for the "partners" to prepare themselves more rapidly for full integration.
Charles Kupchan, a former European affairs expert on the
National Security Council who wrote the CFR report, said, "If Russia again
comes to pose a military threat to central Europe, NATO should be prepared to
carry out its traditional mission of territorial defense."
The belief is that this capability alone would have a major
influence on Russian political behavior.
The Case Against Expansion
Critics note that even the reform-minded Russian leadership
has repeatedly warned against expansion of the Alliance.
The Alliance's emphasis on expansion threatens to undercut
the all-important relationship with Russia, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) warned at a
seminar in Norfolk, Va., last June, and leads to the kinds of aggressive
behavior NATO seeks to deter.
The influential senior Democrat, who serves on the Senate
Armed Services Committee, added, "This is the stuff that self-fulfilling
prophecies and historic tragedies are made of."
Such critics as Senator Nunn say that this type of move is
likely to fan ultranationalist Russian sentiments and strengthen the very anti‑Western
fanatics that NATO wants to thwart by expanding into the east.
The Clinton Administration, in fact, braced for resurgent
ultranationalists to make broad gains in Russia's parliamentary elections,
setting the stage for a more dangerous backlash in the Russian presidential
election in June.
Robert Legvold, a Russian scholar at Columbia University,
warns that the political climate could change dramatically and bring greater
danger. "What we have now are Russians shouting, complaining, and
criticizing Western policies," he said, "but with the rise of the
ultranationalists, we could see Russia actually doing something about
New Lines of Division
Many Russians, reeling from their nation's embarrassing
strategic, political, and economic setbacks, worry that NATO is attempting to
exploit Russia's weaknesses "to gain the most favorable strategic position
for further confrontation," said Alexander Konovalov, director of Moscow's
Center for Military Policy and Systems Analysis.
"Moscow faces a take-it-or-leave-it offer—either agree
to a formal enlargement of NATO, or the enlargement will happen without Moscow's
approval," explained Alexei K. Pushkov, a foreign policy advisor and
speech writer who worked for former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
"This is confrontational."
Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin shook up a Europe-wide
summit in Budapest in 1994 by claiming that NATO expansion raised the
"danger of plunging [the world] into a cold peace."
A year later, at the UN General Assembly last October, he
again warned, "The strengthening of one bloc today means a new confrontation,
Alex Pravda, director of the Russian and East European
Center at St. Anthony's College at Oxford, said, "The overwhelming
perception in Russia is that [it] has no specific enemies, but neither does it
have any reliable friends."
Critics of NATO expansion maintain that NATO's goals may be
laudable but that there are better, less perilous ways to attain them.
Some contend that multinational European organizations would
be better suited to the task of securing European stability than a
nuclear-armed military alliance that had deployed forces against Russia for
more than forty years.
One group of analysts believes the Western European Union
should take responsibility for replacing NATO as the primary guarantor of European
Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev said that the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe ought to take on
"overriding responsibility" for the "maintenance of peace and
the strengthening of democracy and stability for the Euro-Atlantic area."
President Yeltsin himself suggested wider responsibilities for the United
Nations—where Russia enjoys a veto over the actions of the fifteen-member
New Military Dangers
The fast-moving pace of NATO expansion left little time for
a hard-nosed assessment of the military impact of the Alliance protecting a
vastly larger area.
John E. Peters, a European security specialist at RAND
Corp., foresees military and political headaches in this development. While
NATO remained "a sound Alliance for the defense of the sixteen, it is
unlikely to succeed at extending security eastward," Mr. Peters cautioned.
While he conceded that current Alliance members would enjoy "marginal
gains in crisis response and theater missile defenses" by moving its
boundaries to the east, the benefits "seem small" when compared to
the potential for trouble caused by alienating Russia.
Finally, some critics assert that while the US has no vital
interest in eastern Europe, it will be committed to defending these vulnerable
First Things First
According to Senator Nunn and others, NATO membership does
not deal effectively with the vexing question of east European economic integration
and thus sets the stage for conflicts and disagreements in this area.
Senator Nunn suggested that the former Warsaw Pact nations
first ought to secure full economic integration in the exclusive fifteen-member
European Union and demonstrate that they are irreversibly committed to
democracy and free enterprise before gaining membership in NATO.
The Immediate Future
A Delicate Balance
Faced with these competing pressures, Western leaders have
sought to reassure Russia, but they have not throttled back on the timetable
for the formal expansion.
To help assuage Moscow's deepening anxieties, the Alliance
has forged a direct relationship with Russia, dubbed "NATO Plus One."
The NATO Enlargement Study completed last September stated that cooperation
between NATO and Russia could "help to overcome any lingering distrust
from the Cold War period and help ensure that Europe is never again divided
into opposing camps."
Secretary of Defense William J. Perry urged the Russians to
broaden their ties with the Western Alliance, links that could potentially
include a "standing consultative commission" to coordinate defense
A NATO-Russia treaty, or something approximating it,
"would go some way toward reassuring Moscow," said Mr. Pravda.
However, the Clinton Administration seemed prepared to go
only so far to comfort Russia, fearing that Moscow might interpret more overt
moves as evidence that it held a de facto veto over NATO expansion. Washington
would offer Moscow "deeper and deeper dialogue," National Security
Advisor W. Anthony Lake said, but he added that NATO would expand despite
"That is our policy, has been our policy, will be our
policy," Mr. Lake declared. "It is not going to shift, because it's
the right policy to create a more peaceful Europe."
One Russian expert on the National Security Council
observed that the Clinton Administration was striking a delicate balance.
Partnership For Peace
Czech Republic March
Former Soviet States
Kazakhstan May 27,
Turkmenistan May 10,
Stewart M. Powell,
White House correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, has covered national and
international affairs for years in Washington and London. His most recent
article for Air Force Magazine, "The China Problem Ahead," appeared
in the October 1995 issue.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag