Reflections of a Repentant Sinner

Reflections of a Repentant Sinner

Mini Teaser: Although he supported limited NATO expansion from the beginning, Robert Tucker now believes that an initially good case has been turned into a policy that is pregnant with disaster.

by Author(s): Robert W. Tucker

Sometime during the spring of this year, the Senate will approve the Clinton administration's policy of enlarging NATO, initially through the accession of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. It is expected to do so by a large majority after what is likely to be a lackluster debate in which the principal issue will concern the financial cost of expansion to the United States. As one who has supported limited NATO expansion from the beginning, I now believe that an initially good case has been turned into a policy that is pregnant with disaster.

A significant departure in the nation's foreign policy is about to be endorsed by the Congress. Opinion surveys report that the policy of NATO enlargement enjoys public support. They also indicate, however, that this support is based on a striking ignorance. A public whose inward focus is perhaps greater than at anytime since the 1930s is apparently unable even to identify the potential new members. For this condition, the administration is surely in large part responsible. It has made little effort to explain its policy, let alone to acknowledge candidly its possible costs and risks. In the absence of such effort, particularly on the part of the President, there is nothing that resembles the kind of broad consensus necessary to sustain a policy that presages a marked extension of American interest and power, and that may one day exact a considerable price.

The administration has made clear that Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic represent only the first round of NATO expansion. Further rounds are to follow, and while the extent of the future NATO has never been specified, the logic of the administration's policy-with its goal of an undivided and democratic Europe-points to the eventual inclusion of virtually all states situated between the old NATO and the present western border of Russia. The open-ended character of American policy was confirmed in January of this year when the government signed a formal agreement pledging Washington's support for the efforts of the three Baltic states to become members of NATO. While the so-called Charter of Partnership does not-and could not-promise membership to these states, it nevertheless constitutes an understanding that, in the words of the New York Times' Steven Erlanger, "future American administrations will find difficult to dilute." With the exception of Ukraine, Russia has shown the greatest sensitivity over the prospect of the Baltic states one day becoming members of NATO. Taking note of this, the Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott recently declared: "Quite bluntly, Russians need to get over their neuralgia on this subject."

Although the Senate is not expected to enter any reservations in approving this administration's policy of seeking accession to membership in NATO of the Visegrad states, it is at liberty to do so. There is nothing to prevent it from voicing its disapproval of further rounds or, at the least, from putting the executive on notice that approval of the first round is not to be construed as foreshadowing approval of further rounds. It should do so. The administration should be resisted in its efforts to foreclose the future of a policy on which there is as yet so little public understanding, let alone anything approaching a settled consensus. Beyond the Visegrad states, the promissory notes the administration has made out should be discounted. Such action will admittedly mean some loss of American prestige. But as Owen Harries has remarked in these pages, "prestige is not everything. When the alternative is to persist in serious error it may be necessary to sacrifice some prestige early, rather than much more later."

Why exempt even the first round from these strictures, other than the reason that its approval is by now all but determined? In some measure, the answer must be that here our commitment has gone the furthest and withdrawal would be the most damaging. In greater measure, though, the answer, I still believe, is that here a persuasive rationale does exist for expansion, though it is not the rationale of the Clinton administration. At least this is the case with respect to Poland, the centerpiece of the first round. It is admittedly less applicable to the Czech Republic and hardly applicable at all to Hungary.

The participants in the NATO debate have regularly shared the assumption that the essential and simple choice for NATO is to expand or not to expand. But there has always been a second choice: between those who talk in terms of a limited and clearly defined expansion and those who conceive it as an open-ended process. One's conception of the nature of expansion necessarily follows from the purpose for which it is presumably undertaken. If the administration's policy of expansion is open ended, it is because the purpose of expansion-an undivided and democratic Europe-sets no clear limits. Does it include Ukraine? Administration officials have indicated that it may well do so. Indeed, they have left open the possibility that it may one day include Russia itself.

By contrast, a policy of expansion may be strictly limited. Clearly, it will be if it is governed by, and responsive to, the purpose of consolidating that community of states whose security and well being have formed the principal interest of the United States since the Second World War. On this basis, the justification for including Poland in NATO (and, though in lesser measure, the Czech Republic) is apparent. Were Germany's eastern border to remain the eastern border of NATO, the most powerful European member of the Western Alliance might in time become the most insecure member as well. Unprotected by the Alliance on its eastern border, Germany might one day seek to provide for its security by independent efforts. A Poland that stands outside NATO might in these circumstances once again become the contested ground between Germany and Russia. It was roughly these considerations that led Helmut Kohl soon after reunification to voice concern over the prospect of a security vacuum on his eastern frontier.

The case for supporting limited NATO expansion on these grounds once seemed and still seems to me quite persuasive. Admittedly, it rests heavily on the assumption that the past will continue to have relevance for-to have relevance for, let it be emphasized, not to foreshadow-the future. Many believe that this assumption is misplaced and perhaps they will be proven right. Still, if there is but a modest prospect that the future will bear some resemblance to the past, a policy of limited expansion seems only prudent provided that its costs are not exorbitant.

The principal objection to NATO expansion of any kind is, of course, that the costs will be exorbitant, both in terms of the financial burden imposed and, more importantly, the consequences expansion will have on Russia's political development and its future relations with the Western states. But the costs of expansion must be expected to vary markedly, depending upon the extent of the expansion.

There is no merit in the argument, though one often hears it on both sides in the debate, that expansion is expansion and that it will make little difference in the end to Moscow where NATO expansion finds its ultimate limits. Instead, Russian opposition to a clearly limited expansion, it seems only reasonable to assume, will differ from its opposition to an expansion that is open-ended and that promises, as does the administration's policy, to leave Moscow hanging in uncertainty for a considerable period. To be sure, some Russian opposition to NATO expansion, however limited, must be considered inevitable. But a policy of strictly limited expansion would at least draw the issue of NATO security in the post-Cold War world in moderate terms. Thus drawn, the prospect of striking a satisfactory balance between the security requirements of NATO and Russia's traditional interests in eastern Europe, a balance that eventually enjoyed legitimacy on both sides, would be enhanced.

The Clinton administration seems never to have seriously considered a strategy of limited expansion. Although reluctant to take up the issue of NATO expansion at all in the beginning, once it did the decision was apparently made to pursue an open-ended policy. In supporting this policy at the outset, I did so in the quite mistaken conviction that it was something other than what it professed to be. For the record shows that despite some early ambiguity, the design that is apparent today was also more or less apparent then. If that design is now clearer, it is because what are still only initial measures of implementation have nevertheless brought a greater measure of clarity. The Charter of Partnership concluded with the Baltic states is one such measure that must remove residual doubts about administration intentions.

The question persists why this administration seems determined to pursue a policy that on the face of it is at odds with its general disinclination to take on costly and onerous commitments (a disinclination that is not refuted by its present commitment in Bosnia). That the public has no real understanding of the risks and costs NATO's open-ended expansion might eventually entail, and would not give its support if it did understand, there is every reason to believe. But the same can scarcely be said of those charged with the formulation and conduct of foreign policy. Or so it would seem. Yet how to explain a policy of expansion subordinated to the grandiose end of building "an undivided, peaceful and democratic Europe", thereby doing, in Madeleine Albright's words, "for Europe's East what NATO did 50 years ago for Europe's West"?

The prevailing explanation-certainly among NATO skeptics-is simply that administration policy has been a response to a growing fear that without a new and grand purpose NATO would now become irrelevant, and that with its irrelevance America's primary means for exercising influence in Europe would be lost. In this light, Bosnia's significance is that it drove home this point, thus finally prompting American intervention there. But even if one accepts this explanation, it still does not satisfactorily account for a policy that must incur considerable costs and risks. It may be that the administration does not recognize the risks, that its policy is based on the assumption that a fully democratic Russia will emerge in the years ahead, a Russia that no longer entertains traditional interests and aspirations and that no longer minds if an expanded NATO reaches to its border. Conversely, it may be that the administration does fully recognize the risks but is nevertheless prepared to run them in order to achieve its ends. Neither conjecture, however, seems very plausible. While the first bespeaks an almost willful disregard of experience and the lessons it teaches, the second suggests an aggressiveness and risk-taking propensity that are quite alien to the administration's spirit and outlook in foreign policy.

Perhaps the most satisfactory explanation, particularly for an administration whose President has seldom seemed very serious about foreign policy, is simply one of inadvertence. Persuaded that NATO had to be given a new purpose, and that this purpose had to transcend the framework of the old NATO, the administration committed itself to a course that must increasingly force it to choose between risks it has little inclination to run and transforming an Alliance whose open-ended expansion requires it to take these risks. The signs increase that the choice will be the transformation of NATO from a military alliance to a "cooperative security" (read: collective security) arrangement. Those like Henry Kissinger who now decry this prospect, yet who pushed for what seemed to be open-ended expansion, may soon have more reason for repentance than this sinner.

Essay Types: Essay