NATO Expansion: Time for Damage Control

March 1998

By Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

All indications point to early Senate approval of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe. This ill-conceived U.S.-led initiative endangers not only progress in arms control, but also the constructive evolution of both U.S.-Russian relations and Russian democratic society.

Russians across the entire political spectrum see NATO expansion as a provocative threat. Any Russian hopes that this might be a one-time politically motivated U.S. action limited to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have been dispelled by the Clinton administration's repeated declarations that the door to NATO membership remains open to additional countries, including the Baltic states and possibly Ukraine. Although President Boris Yeltsin has grudgingly acquiesced to the first tranche of expansion under protest, he has denounced the inclusion of former republics of the Soviet Union as unacceptable. Such a development is seen as an anathema in all Russian political circles.

Senate action on NATO expansion comes at a particularly inauspicious time. Concurrently, the Russian Duma, seriously divided over the election of a new prime minister, is scheduled to consider the long-delayed ratification of START II. A strong case can be made that the Duma should enthusiastically endorse a treaty that formally establishes strategic nuclear parity between a severely weakened Russia and the United States. A majority of the delegates, however, may well conclude that it is domestically advantageous to oppose the treaty in an act of defiance to Yeltsin, and to the United States, which is now seen as aggressively pushing an anti-Russian alliance in collaboration with Germany.

The United States should be focusing its efforts on helping Russia evolve into a strong democratic and economically stable state that can be counted on as a friend on the international scene. To do otherwise runs the serious risk of making an adversary of a country with a stockpile of some 20,000 nuclear warheads—the only country that could actually threaten the survival of the United States. Given its history, Russia has made incredibly rapid progress toward democracy and a market economy, but success is not inevitable and must not be endangered by secondary foreign policy objectives or U.S. domestic political considerations. Putting Russian reformers in a position where they will be seen as having allowed NATO expansion undercuts their political support and the prospects for carrying out reform.

The Clinton administration has failed to articulate a persuasive case for NATO expansion. We are told it will assure political and economic stability in Eastern Europe. But, if economic stability is the goal, membership in the European Union and not a military alliance is the answer. It has been argued that expansion will protect new members from a possible future Russian threat. But, if reducing that threat is the goal, surely efforts to help Russia emerge as a partner is a better answer than undertaking actions tha help create the threat. We are told of a moral obligation to Eastern Europe because of its 45 years of subservience to communist tyranny. But no thought is given to the debt owed Russia for its enormous World War II sacrifices, without which the outcome of the war would have been quite different. Finally, it is asserted that U.S. security guarantees, including the nuclear umbrella, can be extended to the Russian border without significant U.S. expenditures. But, in fact, many tens of billions of dollars will be required to bring the new members' forces up to minimum NATO standards, which will never happen unless paid for one way or another by U.S. taxpayers.

Ultimately in dealing with skeptics, the administration falls back on the simple argument that it is too late to make a change in the policy because it would be embarrassing to the U.S. credibility and image abroad. This rationale, which is the last resort of a bankrupt policy, brings to mind disturbing memories of Viet Nam.

The Senate is unlikely to find the political will to block the first tranche of NATO expansion. The American people, however, deserve a serious debate on the merits of extending the U.S. security guarantee to countries, including the Baltic states, which cannot be defended by conventional forces. Significant principled opposition in the Senate will send the administration and Duma a strong signal that the dangers of expansion are understood and will be kept under control. The administration should avoid provocative rhetoric on the potential Russian threat and avoid any commitments to a second tranche, and in no case suggest including the Baltic states or Ukraine. Such modifications in the U.S. stance, recognizing legitimate Russian concerns, could help assuage the Duma's anger sufficiently to permit ratification of START II and prevent a dangerous deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations.