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

As for the historical rationale, those favoring NATO enlargement
argue that Slavs and Hungarians, as well as Slovenians and Balts,
share the heritage of the Renaissance and the Reformation, being both
culturally "modern" and within the domain of Western Christianity. As
for the ideological, Central European countries are deemed fit for
inclusion to the extent that they are democratic and free-market

Those persuaded by the historical rationale are represented
prominently by Samuel Huntington, who favors NATO expansion as a
means of politically unifying the cultural West around U.S.
leadership to face Orthodox, Islamic, and other civilizations. Those
more focused on ideology would expand NATO in order to expand the
"West", conceived as a metaphysical zone of free political choice
(democracy), free markets (capitalism), and free minds (liberty).
Many credit Havel's argument that the West has a moral commitment to
protect Central Europe. But the practical side of the argument
usually takes pride of place: Societies marked by such qualities do
not war on one another, so the clear American interest is to expand
the domain of Western civilization by bringing Europe's fledgling
free to shelter under NATO's wing.

Contrarily, those inclined against enlargement generally argue that
there is no West in a meaningful politico-military sense, now that
there is no communist East against which to define it. Some go
further, claiming that there never was any such thing as a political
West. What seemed to be the "West" arose from Cold War melodrama, a
notion summoned from the vasty deep but now banished back to its
vaporous etherae. Why ethereal? Because claims for the "West" as a
traditional repository of positive political values do not stand up
to scrutiny. Germany was undoubtedly Western over the past century,
yet it often respected neither human rights, nor the rule of law, nor
representative democracy, not to speak of having started two world
wars in which over sixty million people were killed. And three
centuries before that, divisions between Catholics and Protestants
were often murderous. Since the so-called West has neither venerable
pedigree, nor a clear set of political values, nor any experience of
continuous political unity within the last thousand years, the extent
to which Central Europeans are culturally Western is simply
irrelevant to a debate about contemporary security issues.

So much for the historical case; what about the ideological one?
First of all, many observers question the true extent and likely
longevity of genuine political and economic reform throughout Central
Europe. Others wonder as well if contemporary Western Europe is still
"Western" in the philosophical sense. The contemporary idea of
"Europe", it is said, which champions corporatism in place of
democracy, socialism within and protectionism without in place of the
free market, and a continental-scale bureaucracy in place of the
prerogatives of liberty, does not square with Western political
values as they are traditionally understood. Many of those who
espouse this view see West European societies much enfeebled by the
demobilizing comforts of the welfare state, and their governments
easily cowed by any halfway ruthless challenger.

The implication for NATO enlargement is obvious: If the Europeans
have lost their own political verve to the point that they do not
seriously contemplate ever again having to defend their own vital
interests, what makes anyone think that Frenchmen, Germans, or
Dutchmen will fight for the sake of Poles or Hungarians? On occasion,
too, West Europeans seem far more intent on keeping Central Europe as
a plantation, exploiting its cheaper skilled labor and resources but
keeping out its lower priced goods and bumptious immigrants. Some
West Europeans may therefore favor NATO expansion to deflect
pressures for the expansion of the EU. Others may do so because they
fear a "deeper" Europe that would exclude America and Central Europe.
But very few support it because they feel a strong historical or
ideological kinship with Central Europeans. That being the case, it
is argued, NATO enlargement must be decided solely on strategic
grounds, stripped of any larger purported cultural significance.

Getting Serious

Whether the NATO debate is about the definition and scope of European
civilization, the structure of European security, or some of both, it
is a serious matter--more serious than the debate over enlargement
has often been. Some proponents of enlargement sing the praises of
marching eastward as if prepared to lug the caissons themselves,
ready to die for Bratislava without being able to find it on a map.
Others urging Czech, Polish, and Hungarian membership in the first
round seem to be unaware of the fact that without Slovakia, and sans
Slovenian or Austrian entry into NATO, Hungary has no border with any
NATO country. There are also those who seem to miss the exhilaration
of Cold War competition, and who actually relish irritating the

On the other hand, some arguing against enlargement hold
simultaneously that since Russia is so weak, there is no need to
expand, and that since Russia may one day again be strong, it is too
dangerous to expand. Relatedly, others argue that since Russia is
weak expansion is not needed, and, simultaneously, that expansion
would be too expensive given falling budgets and other needs--but
enlargement at the political level can proceed without large
additional military expenses as long as Russian behavior makes such
expenses unnecessary.

A greater barrier to serious intellectual engagement than any amount
of wayward punditry, however, has been the Clinton administration's
weaving and wobbling its way to a conclusion on NATO enlargement. The
sitting administration's actual policy record inevitably shapes
thinking about major foreign policy issues; in this case, the Clinton
team's dissociated approach to European security has had the general
effect of disorganizing the existing stock of geopolitical knowledge.

The administration's embrace of the pro-enlargement view proceeded in
an ungainly two-step process. First, by late 1993 expectations of
quick economic and political reform in Russia had acquired a thick
patina of doubt, inspiring the new elites in Central Europe to
remember their histories. Their subsequent ministrations to
Washington were not entirely welcome to Clinton administration
principals, who had until then ignored NATO (and other traditional
U.S. alliances, too) in favor of assertive multilateralism,
democratic enlargement, and other catchy-sounding substitutes for
geopolitical thinking. These ministrations led, however, to the
deliberately off-putting episode of the Partnership for Peace, a
halfway-house of both commitment and understanding that ended up
assuming more substance than its authors probably intended, for fast
on the heels of the Partnership came the growing American policy
debacle in Bosnia. The administration's subsequent embrace of NATO
enlargement seems to have come partly from concern to repair the
damage done by its mistakes there. This repair job was undertaken
despite the fact that it contradicted U.S. policy of pragmatic
partnership with Russia.

In other words, U.S. policy toward Bosnia formed reactively, in
isolation from any sense of a general U.S. policy toward Europe,
eventually endangering NATO; and then U.S. policy toward NATO formed
reactively, in isolation from its implications for U.S. policy toward
Russia, eventually endangering partnership. This was a perfectly
backwards way of thinking about European security, but we have been
backing into that subject for so long now that it has become for many
an unconscious habit. We need to turn around and face front: The real
issue is not how large NATO needs to be, but how large the American
role in Europe needs to be to assure European security after the Cold
War. It really is important to start with the right question.

If it is to be successful, security policy must respond realistically
to the level of threat. In the case of security guarantees offered to
distant allies, that sense of realism turns on two factors: how
serious the threat is, and the extent to which one's allies can meet
it on their own. Clearly, then, what Europeans themselves do now that
the Cold War's constraints are gone will have a major impact on the
problem at hand. Whether the new democracies of Central Europe become
going concerns, and what becomes of efforts to create European
political union are clearly the two key factors involved.

To the extent that Europe coheres politically and inclusively, it
should dampen internal conflict, embed Germany safely in a
multinational diplomatic cushion, and provide both an economic and
social basis for Europe to manage more of its own security problems.
If Europe does not cohere, or if the core EU countries "deepen" their
association at the expense of Central Europe, then a less benign
result may be expected. This is not the place to examine all possible
European security environments that may arise over the next few
decades; the point is simply that planning the U.S.-led facet of the
European security equation--NATO--cannot proceed in isolation from
consideration of other integrally European facets.

The future of European integration and the future of NATO are each a
function of the other, in the sense that the ideal extent of the
American security role in Europe is that required portion that is
left after what the Europeans themselves provide. The Europeans could
do much more for themselves than they do at present if a more
autonomous NATO-European pillar within the alliance were to develop
in tandem with a wider inter-governmental European Union. If it does,
the United States could, and should, still contain both Germany and
fears of Germany, and offset Russian strategic forces. But Europe
could, and should, assume more of the political and conventional
military burden for balancing Russia, and for keeping its own house
in order. This defines the difference between Copernican and
Ptolemaic conceptions of the U.S. orb in Europe--the former includes
America as a part of that world, but not as its center, as the latter
would have it.

Essay Types: Essay