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

Realist Doubters

Other realists, with no less impressive credentials as masters of
realpolitik, reject all these justifications for enlargement. As for
the Russia-oriented argument, they point out that there is simply no
Russian military threat in sight, and that there will be plenty of
time to respond if one begins to emerge. And what other sort of
occasion to advance Russian ambitions is there likely to be? Central
Europe fell into Soviet domination because the Red Army moved into a
virtual political vacuum with the defeat of Nazi Germany, and Moscow
solidified control partly through the use of communist
"internationalism." Today there is no such vacuum and no such
"internationalism", and neither is likely to reappear in the
foreseeable future.

As for the argument that NATO can be kept alive by enlarging its
membership and functions, opponents of enlargement see in this a vast
underestimation of NATO's considerable and well-appreciated "as is"
value as a guarantor against Russian imperial recidivism. That view
is also criticized for reversing means and ends, letting the survival
of NATO drive security policy rather than serve it.

As for the more political arguments for enlargement, realist skeptics
are impressed with both the social and moral transformation of
Germany and the weakness of Russia. They therefore argue that
Russo-German competition will not unsettle Central Europe as it once
did. NATO enlargers are said to be busily engaged in solving
yesterday's problems, with those who fear the Russians still fighting
the Cold War, and those who fear the Germans still fighting the two
wars before that.

Most such observers find it highly improbable that Germany would
write off decades of integration into Atlantic and European
institutions, and the German government, if anything, shows more of
an inclination to deepen that integration. Moreover, it is plain that
an awakening German pride no longer finds expression in military
ambitions and metaphors, and that its demographic profile shows a
rapidly aging and slightly shrinking population, leaving the country
without means for protracted military assertion. Current demographic
and economic trends suggest further that the relative size of the
German economy will decline as well, to the point that within fifty
years the German and French economies will be roughly the same size,
both of them in turn of a similar order of magnitude to that of Great

As for Russia, those inclined against enlargement see neither the
Russian people nor the Russian elite as imperialist. Rather, as
Charles Fairbanks has put it, "Russian national reassertion is not a
mass taste or instinct, but a posture or gesture." Russian concern
for the "near abroad", it is claimed, is no more (or less) imperial
than the historic U.S. concern for the Caribbean and Central America.

Some argue further that there is already a security structure in
place in Central Europe, composed of a floor-to-ceiling array of arms
control agreements (CFE +INF+START) and networks of economic and
institutional engagements, all buttressed by what amounts to a moral
commitment to European peace. Both the United States and Russia are
parties to these agreements, so Central Europe is already included
"in effect" in the security structure that bridges Europe. But given
the fragile condition of both the Russian state and psyche after the
Soviet era, advancing NATO toward the Russian steppes might well lead
to the collapse of these existing military-strategic understandings.
Enlargement is thus characterized as being less likely to solve a
problem than, as Sam Nunn put it, "to help create the very threat we
are trying to guard against."

More specifically, it is argued that if NATO pushes itself part but
not all the way eastward, it will create a compressed and volatile
tinder out of the Baltic states and Ukraine. It would, in short, not
eliminate an unstable zone between Russia and Germany but bring a
more combustible one into being. This would be the case not only in a
political but also in a military sense. Pushing NATO's military
muscle eastward would invert the nuclear first-use imperative of Cold
War days: instead of NATO employing that posture to deal with its
conventional military inferiority to the Warsaw Pact countries,
Russia would do so in response to the new NATO conventional
superiority. It would be awkward, to say the least, to refute Russian
logic on this point, since it is a logic that NATO itself invented.

To drive home the point that NATO enlargement would represent
geopolitical overreach of a dangerous kind, some of those opposed to
enlargement put the matter in these terms: If it had been proposed to
you in 1989 that the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union both would come
peaceably to an end, that Germany would be reunited in NATO, and that
all Russian military forces would withdraw behind their own
frontier--and that all that was asked in return was that NATO not
take advantage of this retreat by moving eastward--would you have
accepted? Extraordinary as it would have sounded then, had it been
put so succinctly and all in one breath, this is more or less what
was in fact proposed in the "two-plus-four" agreement for the
reunification of Germany, and later accepted as the Warsaw Pact
collapsed. The United States affirmed and helped guide this
progression of events from the pinnacle of its leadership, and most
Russian observers today see U.S. support for NATO expansion as being
inconsistent with this undertaking. Thus Sergei Karaganov, one of
Russia's friendliest critics of NATO enlargement:

"In 1990 we were told quite clearly by the West that dissolution of
the Warsaw Pact and German unification would not lead to NATO
expansion. We did not demand written guarantees because in the
euphoric atmosphere of that time it would have seemed almost
indecent, like two girlfriends giving written promises not to seduce
each other's husbands."

In short, then, it is argued that expanding NATO represents both the
breaking of at least an implicit promise, and an expression of
geopolitical greed toward a humiliated former superpower adversary
that still possesses enormous nuclear clout, and whose cooperation is
still needed on a range of critical international problems. It is to
ignore Churchill's famous advice--"In victory: magnanimity"--in the
most pig-headed way.

The concern of other realists is focused on the prospect that
expanding NATO will vitiate its core mission: that of a military
alliance which, while not urgently needed at present, might be so
needed in the future. It is especially risky to push on with
enlargement before we have answers to some important questions:

* How will expanding the alliance influence NATO's military strategy?
If NATO troops and nuclear weapons are deployed forward in Central
Europe, how many and whose will they be? Will the CFE and INF
treaties have to be re-negotiated--assuming the Russians do not
renounce them outright?

* If military forces are not moved forward, what would the resultant
multi-tiered membership structure do to NATO's political coherence?
To the functioning of its unanimity rule? To the already difficult
problem of reaching a consensus on the alliance's role in out-of-area

* What steps are to be taken to ensure that new members will meet
existing standards of military capability and performance? Or will
standards be lowered for new members, and if so at what risk to
military effectiveness?

* How much will the various versions of enlargement really cost the
United States, particularly at a time when our allies' military
expenditures are falling even faster than our own? Since when does a
military alliance, in the absence of a threat, take on expansive and
expensive new responsibilities at a time when the defense budget of
every member of that alliance is falling?

* How does the seemingly bipartisan concern to curb the power of the
U.S. federal government play against the assumption of substantially
more responsibilities abroad? Having once secured sixty-seven Senate
votes in favor of enlarging the alliance, will it be possible to get
even simple majority votes, year after year, on the appropriations
bills required to fulfill the commitments undertaken?

These are hardly minor issues. Without at least tentative answers to
such questions it is difficult to see how a sensible conclusion about
enlargement can be reached at all.

Finally in this regard, some observers who oppose the expansion of
NATO but take seriously the anxieties of the Central Europeans,
suggest more modest steps, such as expanding the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union to
meet the needs of the supplicant states. The general point in such
suggestions is that we have choices other than extending formal
security guarantees or doing nothing. "The Cold War framework has
distorted our perceptions", writes Robert Jervis. "We have become
accustomed to thinking that important interests require firm
commitments and that little else will be effective. We have neglected
much of the range of classical diplomacy."

The NATO Debate as Culture War

Most of what we hear about NATO enlargement falls into the realist
domain--but not all of it. There is, in addition, an undertone of
argument that takes an idealist or, better, a cultural form. This
undertone has to do largely with divergent interpretations of what
constitutes politically binding "kinship." It is, in essence, the
replaying in a new context of the debate over the "West", and there
is a close symmetry between the two. Partisans of enlargement
generally affirm the reality of the "West" along both historical and
ideological lines, while those opposed most often do not.

Essay Types: Essay