NATO's Expansion: Why the Critics Are Wrong

NATO's Expansion: Why the Critics Are Wrong

Mini Teaser: An expansion of NATO can only occur under strong U.S. leadership.

by Author(s): William E. Odom

Until the twentieth century, modern international systems were constructed in Europe and largely confined to Europe. In this century, they have been started in Europe but made global, involving North America and East Asia centrally and other regions peripherally. Likewise, the destruction of these systems has begun in Europe. The open question today, therefore, is whether Europe is in the construction or destruction phase. Given the trends there, the smart money is on destruction.

Why so? The short answer is leadership, especially U.S. leadership. Stable systems have always been created by the leaders of the major powers. The configuration of power today is such that only the United States can launch the construction of a new system, although it would need the cooperation of several other key states. Having adequate power, however, is not enough. Leadership with a strong sense of direction and the plodding consistency to remain on course is no less critical. Yet power and leadership will not be enough if the window of opportunity closes under the forces of disorder.

The window appears to be closing more rapidly as a result of the failure in both U.S. and European elites to agree on a strategy and build a political consensus to support it. This hiatus in concerted thought and policy action began in the last two years of the Bush administration after perhaps the greatest achievement of diplomacy in European history: the reunification of Germany within NATO, a peaceful realignment in Europe with no modern parallel. Yet that feat may prove a hollow victory because President Bush failed to rally NATO in 1991 to act in Yugoslavia and to plan for security arrangements in the eastern half of Europe. The window has been closing ever since.

The absence of effective policy action has not been matched by an absence of thinking about a strategy or the tendering of unsolicited advice. Advice abounds but consensus has been scarce. American former statesmen, scholars, and pundits are vocal but deeply divided on the major issues of the Bosnia crisis and the expansion of NATO. Europeans, including Russians, are no less divided. All the differing policy prescriptions are too numerous to examine separately; thus I shall suggest a few general approaches which subsume most of the variants. In reviewing them critically, I make no pretense at concealing my own policy preferences.

Russia First

The first set of prescriptions gives Russia first priority in U.S. foreign policy. President Richard Nixon advanced the "Russia first" approach most vigorously during the Bush administration. Within the Clinton administration, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott is reportedly its strongest proponent, although he is hardly alone among incumbent U.S. officials. Although President Clinton shares Talbott's view, he apparently began to move away from it in the fall of 1994 as he gave NATO expansion more serious consideration. Former Undersecretary of Defense Fred Iklé also belongs to the "Russia first" camp, calling for a Russian-American defense community. And former NSC staffer Stephen Sestanovich, also a close student of the Soviet Union, warns against any U.S. policy that might enable Russian nationalists and extremists to destroy Russia's inchoate democracy--more precisely, he warns that expanding NATO and accusing Moscow of imperialism within the Commonwealth of Independent States are not conducive to the promotion of democracy in Russia. The unlikely political mix of Nixon, Iklé, Sestanovich, Talbott, and Clinton suggests that this camp straddles the left-right political divide in U.S. politics, but a closer look exposes its internal left-right differences.

Talbott's rationale, it seems, is betting on Russia's successful transition to liberal democracy. Sestanovich shares this outlook, dismissing the reassertion of Russian hegemony over much of the former Soviet Union as a significant threat to Russian democracy. The virtue of the goal cannot be disputed. With cooperation between the United States and a democratic Russia, a security systemfor the whole of Europe can be worked out, and the Western Europeans would be highly supportive of such cooperation. Iklé's rationale, on the other hand, depends less on Russian democracy and more on military cooperation, thus having the logic of a security condominium.

The problem with the democracy rationale is twofold. First, Russia has to succeed as a democracy and that outcome is far from certain. Second, it has to succeed fairly soon; otherwise, disorder in the Balkans and setbacks in the transition programs in the states of the former Warsaw Pact cannot be dealt with in an effective fashion, because the necessary cooperation from Moscow will not be available. Indeed, fears of upsetting Russia will prevent Western unilateral
action to deal with such problems.

To a significant degree, these adverse consequences have already beset the Clinton administration, and they may explain its decision to propose the expansion of NATO in December 1994. In short, this variant of the "Russia first" strategy has had its chance, and has come up wanting. Giving up on it, however, does not mean writing off Russia or ceasing to help its successful transition. Rather it means recognizing that European security has to be addressed now, without conceding a Russian veto on the solution, with Russian cooperation if possible, but without it if necessary. In other words, the virtue of the "Russia first" strategy need not be cast off despite what its proponents fallaciously insist, as they surrender their moral dignity by watching silently as the Chechens are smashed into submission.

The problems with the cooperative security rationale are no less serious. First, the Russian military is too diminished from failed perestroika reforms and from general decay to be capable of the kind of relationship Iklé and others seek. Second, the Russian military is so entangled in domestic politics that it finds as many reasons to treat the United States as an adversary as it does to treat it as a partner. Any reliable partnership would require repeated U.S. approval, implicit if not explicit, of anti-democratic Russian behavior, of which the case of Chechnya is only one example. Russian policy in Central Asia and the Transcaucasus would create the same moral and political burdens for a United States that entered into a security arrangement.

Let Europe Take Care of Itself

Another set of views boils down to leaving Europe to its own security devices. Its variants are several, but at root they all come to a common prescription: the United States should no longer guarantee European security. Some of its proponents still support NATO but oppose its expansion. Others really do not care if NATO survives. Many of its proponents do not advance it as a coherent strategy but merely invoke it to justify shifts in budget priorities toward U.S. domestic programs.

Its most vociferous proponents are libertarians. The Cato Institute's incessant spokesman on foreign affairs, Ted Galen Carpenter, calls NATO an expensive anachronism, but one that is downright dangerous because it has the capacity to drag the United States into European wars. It is time, he insists, for Europe to organize its own defense and pay the price of peace in Europe. Owen Harries offers a less prescriptive view that comes close to the same conclusion, asserting that the "West" as we knew it in the Cold War no longer exists. Instead of calling for the end of the Atlantic Alliance, he argues that the objective conditions for its maintenance are gone and that efforts to expand it, perhaps even merely to salvage it, will fail. In the absence of a Soviet threat or its equivalent, foreign policy interests within Europe and across the Atlantic are too incompatible to be reconciled by U.S. leadership.

Three realities make this approach more likely to create dangers greater than the ones it seeks to remove. First, were the United States to leave the security of Europe entirely to Europeans, no common Western European defense community would replace it. The only state powerful enough to lead such a community is Germany, a leader France and Britain will not accept. Yet neither France nor Britain can take the lead itself. Franco-German cooperation in the European Union aims to overcome this mutual distrust, but the prospects of its reaching a common European defense and foreign policy look dimmer today than it did two or three years ago.

The Bosnian affair has demonstrated the core problems of achieving a so-called "European pillar" based on a political union that could prosecute effective military operations under a single command. In the face of U.S. passivity, France, Britain, and Germany quickly revealed that they are far from a common foreign policy, even in Europe. Germany's early recognition of Croatia prompted France and Britain to condemn Bonn and tilt initially to the Serbian side. This old pattern of competitive diplomacy is unlikely to remain confined to the former Yugoslavia; it can easily spread to Central and Eastern Europe.

The second reality is Russian foreign policy. Russia has lost an empire but not yet its imperial aspiration. Without an American presence in Europe, Russia may succeed at the diplomatic game it is already playing--encouraging dissension among the Europeans and disengagement on the part of the United States. A senior German CDU (Christian Democratic Union) leader, Kurt Bidenkopf, was told by the former Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev, in 1989, that after the Cold War the Europeans will soon be "dancing around the golden calf of Moscow's favor." Likewise, Karsten Voigt, a senior SPD (Party of Democratic Socialism) member of the Bundestag, said to a Washington audience in December, 1993 that leaving Germany as the easternmost liberal democracy in Central Europe would inevitably force it to make deals with Russia over the rest of Central Europe. The danger to Europe is not a new Russian military threat but rather Russian internal disorder, coupled with a foreign policy aimed at dividing Europe as the United States looks on passively.

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