NATO Enlargement: What's the Rush?

NATO Enlargement: What's the Rush?

Mini Teaser: Temporizing is not always a good idea, but neither is impetuousness, and it is nothing other than impetuous to end the NATO enlargement debate prematurely, to decide such an important issue before its time.

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

The question of enlarging NATO has occasioned the most important
foreign policy debate in the United States since the end of the Cold
War, and rightly so. The issue is integral to determining America's
future role in Europe, still a very important place in world politics.

But it has been a curious and unsatisfying debate in several ways:
Unsatisfying because it often seems as though there has been no
debate at all, only contrary assertions passing each other without
making useful contact; curious because of the various and
contradictory trajectories of shifting opinions. Several policy
analysts who started out favoring NATO enlargement have subsequently
become opponents of it, while the Clinton administration has moved in
the opposite direction, from skepticism and efforts at deflection to
avid embrace and the declaration, last summer, that debate over
essentials was closed.

Not only have the intellectual and policy processes been out of sync,
but the debate has also divided both rock-hearted realists and
passionate idealists in unusual ways. That Henry Kissinger and VÃ clav
Havel find themselves together on one side of the issue, Paul Nitze
and Richard Barnett together on the other, suggests that this is a
trickier problem than most. And it is tricky, not least because the
question at the center of the debate--to enlarge NATO or not?--turns
out to be the wrong question (but of this more below).

Realist Enlargers

Realists define foreign policy as being first and foremost about
national security in the literal sense: protecting the country and
its citizens from physical or economic harm. How does the prospect of
NATO enlargement look from this perspective, in which geopolitics
trumps all? As indicated above, it looks equivocal, for, although
operating from the same premises, various realists reach different
conclusions. To give one striking example: a Council on Foreign
Relations working group co-chaired by Henry Kissinger and Harold
Brown could not agree on their Final Report in 1995. That
report--Should NATO Expand?--lists only Brown as chairman, a note
within stating that Kissinger and Samuel Huntington, though members
of the group, declined to sign it.

The central argument made by realists who favor enlargement is that,
in the nature of things, given its size and historical ambitions, a
resurgent Russia is likely again in due course to threaten Central
and Eastern Europe (hereafter, for the sake of parsimony, simply
Central Europe). It is therefore best to seize the moment of
opportunity and to move the line of confrontation east while Russia
is weak. We should consolidate the historic outcome of 1989-91 while
we can, permanently erasing the unnatural division of Europe
represented by the Cold War.

It is on the basis of this logic that such advocates refer
unrepentantly, and often unselfconsciously, to Central Europe, the
Baltic republics, and Ukraine as a No Man's Land or a cast of nervous
neutrals--as though the Washington-Moscow conflict were a historical
constant rather than a politically contingent condition. Peter Rodman
expresses clearly the essential logic of the pro-enlargement realist
case--its assumption of the incorrigible nature of Moscow's
ambition--in these terms: "The only potential great-power security
problem in Central Europe is the lengthening shadow of Russian
strength, and NATO still has the job of counter-balancing it. Russia
is a force of nature; all this is inevitable."

Further, not to expand NATO would be taken by the Russians as tacit
U.S. acceptance of Moscow's right to define Central Europe as its
security glacis. And to allow Moscow this interpretation would amount
to acquiescence in the rebirth of the Warsaw Pact, or something like
it--a folly, some say, destined to rival Yalta as a symbol of infamy.

Some prestigious early commentary also argued for NATO enlargement in
institutional as well as substantive terms. We need NATO against an
uncertain future, said Dr. Kissinger in 1994, but "NATO cannot long
survive if the borders it protects are not threatened while it
refuses to protect the borders of adjoining countries that do feel
threatened." Senator Richard Lugar's view that NATO had to go
out-of-area or risk being out-of-business was similarly motivated:
preserve the alliance by expanding its functions as well as its
members, for while we do not need a military shield now, we may find
it impossible to reconstitute one should we need it later.

Other realists favor expanding NATO less out of fear of a future
Russian military threat, and more as a means of achieving long-term
political stabilization in Europe. This argument comes in three
related variations.

First, expanding NATO is said to be necessary to protect Central
Europe's new democracies and their liberal economic reforms from
being swallowed up by political opportunists feeding on the
dislocations of the post-communist era. The West, it is maintained,
needs to give these countries a roof for their reconstruction more
than a wall against an external threat. This is particularly the case
in such an ethnically heterogeneous region, it is argued, because
liberal free-market democracies provide better protection against
explosions of ethnic hatred than regimes commandeered by nationalist

Second, keeping Central Europe at peace with itself, both within and
between its countries, helps prevent a broader danger, that of this
region's again becoming a theater for the intrigues of Russia and
Germany, a fate that has been its historic lot. Some worry more about
Russia, some more about Germany, but all worry about a collision (or
collusion) between them. The gist of the pro-enlargement view based
on this concern is that just as NATO managed in time to solve the
problem that had given shape to the First World War--the
long-standing Franco-German rivalry--so it should expand to solve the
problem that helped shape the Second World War--the equally
long-standing Russo-German rivalry. Few who reason this way claim
that this will be easy. What they do argue is that this should be a
pre-eminent task of a geopolitically-minded statecraft for the next
several decades, and that only the wise application of American power
can achieve it.

Third, there is fear of German resurgence itself. After forty years
of tense competition between the United States and Russia, few are
inhibited from speaking of Russia as a future problem. Not so with
Germany, a democracy and an ally; but the fear exists and the
inhibitions do sometimes break down. Tony Judt describes the basic
physiognomy of this fear in the context of EU deepening; now that the

". . . lead Europe, where should they take it? And of what Europe are
they the natural leaders--the West-leaning Europe forged by the
French, or the traditional Europe of German interests, where Germany
sits not on the eastern edge but squarely in the middle? . . . [T]he
image of a Germany resolutely turning away from troubling Eastern
memories, clinging fervently to its postwar Western allies, as though
they alone stood between the nation and its demons, is not very

Anthony Hartley, too, in an essay entitled "Thomas Mann and Germany's
Demons", argues that "Germany still retains the indetermination that
Mann saw in it. Behind it looms the ambivalence of German culture. No
one", he added, "can have much certainty as to the direction in which
a newly reunited Germany will jump." Robert W. Tucker and Thomas C.
Hendrickson have argued that Germany as "the most powerful state in
Europe will entertain pretensions to a role and status commensurate
with its power. In doing so, it is bound to stimulate the suspicions
and unease of a continent that has not forgotten the past."

Adding to the anxiety is knowledge that the Germans as a people still
cannot decide what the rightful borders of their country should be;
that stridently nationalist rhetoric has been heard with greater
frequency since reunification; and that German government ministers
even speak of wanting apologies from the Czech Republic for the
postwar expulsion of the Sudeten Germans.

Clearly, the possibility that German interests will pull it away from
its Atlantic moorings, destroying NATO in the process, and lead to a
Germany with nuclear weapons haunts many minds. Translated into the
terms of the NATO debate, this becomes an argument that, if Germany
continues to sit on the eastern frontier of NATO, its inevitably
large diplomatic (and economic) agenda in the lands between it and
Russia will become divorced from U.S. power and political influence.
But if Central Europe is brought into the alliance, it is argued,
America can play a leavening role, reducing the prospect of conflict
over expanding German power.

These various arguments for enlarging NATO--one emphasizing the need
to deter the Russians militarily, others the need to secure Europe
politically--are sometimes characterized as complementary, as well
they may be in some respects. But in one sense they are mutually
exclusive: The former cannot hide its anti-Russian premise, while the
latter believe that expanding NATO need not be anti-Russian and that,
once they get a grip on their reduced circumstances, the Russians can
be so persuaded. And they should acquiesce, the reasoning goes,
because unless Moscow contemplates future aggression in Central
Europe, Russians should be grateful for any institutional arrangement
that promises to save them from yet another historic confrontation
with the Germans. However, with one school marking them as villains
and the other marking them as benefactors, many in Moscow cannot help
wondering which argument is sincere and which is pretext. Plans that
include both enlarging NATO and creating other arrangements to
assuage Russian concerns, while not illogical in themselves, seem to
particularly frustrate Russian observers.

Essay Types: Essay