The Bush administration's push for an immediate offer of a NATO membership action plan to Georgia and Ukraine at the NATO summit in Bucharest has been blocked, which is good. Not so good is the fact that this was only thanks to the opposition of Germany and France; that NATO leaders like the organization's Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer continue to insist that an offer in the fairly near future is inevitable; that since both the U.S. parties and all the U.S. presidential candidates favor this course, they may well be right; and that in the United States and most of Europe, a question of immense importance for the security of the West was not even seriously debated in public.
What was also not so good-no, why engage in diplospeak? What was virtually criminal in its strategic irresponsibility and intellectual fatuity was the fact that this push took place against the background of three developments, any one of which should have counseled the greatest caution in assuming new and dangerous responsibilities.
The first is obviously NATO's and America's growing difficulties in Afghanistan, which provided the other major issue at the summit. And what a success the summit was! What a tribute to NATO's commitment to the common effort in Afghanistan, and spirit of collective self-sacrifice! France came up with 700 new soldiers, which makes approximately one for every 400 square miles of Afghan territory or for every 40,000 Afghans. The richest group of countries on earth came up with 18 new helicopters for Afghanistan; a fraction of the numbers it takes to ferry millionaires to their European ski resorts on any given day.
The way things are going, NATO will either have to fight on in Afghanistan for a decade and possibly a generation, or the war there will be lost; and if it is lost, what credibility will the alliance retain when it comes to guaranteeing anyone else's security? And can anyone guarantee on today's evidence that the Canadians or Europeans will in fact have the will to go on fighting there indefinitely?
Secondly, there was the new crisis in Iraq, and especially in Basra, which appears to have been brought to an end in a draw largely thanks to Iranian influence. This casts severe doubt on the lasting success of the Bush administration's "surge" strategy and rips to shreds whatever was left of the ludicrous British claim that we are withdrawing from southern Iraq because we have succeeded in stabilizing that area.
However, quite apart from the hostility of British public opinion to the entire Iraqi operation, Britain simply had to withdraw most of its troops from Iraq if it was to increase its essential troop presence in Afghanistan. In Britain as in the United States, there is now nothing left for any other new and sustained military deployment. So: a U.S. and British force to defend Georgia, anyone? From where exactly? The cast of Dad's Army?
Finally, there is the global economic downturn. We do not know how deep this will go, and must hope for the best. Some of the predictions from sober and reliable experts are however very gloomy indeed; and already-impeccably free-market commentators like Martin Wolf of the Financial Times are writing that some of the key economic ideas that have guided Western policy in the past 20 years will have to be abandoned or radically changed.
It is not just that such an economic situation cries out for caution when it comes to the assumption of new and possibly very costly responsibilities; it is that if God forbid we end up in a really severe global recession, many of the political and cultural assumptions that have underlain Western policy, and EU and NATO enlargement, may come into question, not forever, but for a critical few years. Chief among these is that democracy too is on a fixed and inevitable path of expansion.
In circumstances of sharp economic decline, I wouldn't give ten cents for the survival of democracy in Georgia or Ukraine. If these countries have been made members of NATO, we will all be faced with a horrible embarrassment-something that may already be around the corner in Turkey, if the military establishment, via the courts, presses ahead with its apparent desire to ban and disempower the ruling Islamist party. Indeed, if living standards worsen drastically, democracy in parts of Eastern Europe, relations with immigrant communities in Western Europe, and the attraction of the entire Western democratic model could be called into question, at least for a while.
In these circumstances, it is hard to see what conceivable rational calculation could support the extension of NATO membership to two new countries, one of them (Georgia) involved in unsolved civil war, and the other (Ukraine) with a population a large majority of which opposes NATO membership. And this is called "spreading democracy"?
Leaving aside domestic political calculations in the United States, what this whole process reflects is the profound infantilism of many of the Western attitudes concerned. In the United States, the infantile illusion of omnipotence, whereby it doesn't matter how many commitments the United States has made elsewhere-in the last resort, the United States can always do what it likes; in much of Western Europe, the infantile syndrome of dependence on the United States, nurtured by a profound desire not to have to think and act in an adult fashion concerning the needs and costs of European defense; and in Eastern Europe, an infantile obsession with historical grudges against Russia.
If this process continues, then we will find ourselves in a situation where NATO has made an Article 5 commitment to fight if necessary for a Georgian Abkhazia and a Ukrainian Sevastopol. Mr de Hoop Scheffer has been urging NATO expansion to these countries, and has even-unconscionably-sought to preempt democratic debate within the organization of which he is supposed to be the servant by declaring that the discussion is over and that Ukraine and Georgia will definitely be admitted soon whatever happens. Scheffer is Dutch. Is he suggesting that the Dutch army-to give it that name-would fight to defend Ukraine or Georgia? Having given the absolutely obvious answer to that question, does anything more really need to be said?
Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department at King's College London, a senior editor at The National Interest and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington, DC. His latest book, Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World, coauthored with John Hulsman, is published by Vintage.