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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Tranche Fever
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April 1998

By Jack Mendelsohn

On April 30, four years after President Clinton announced that NATO expansion was not a question of "whether" but rather "when," the Senate approved three new members for the alliance by the seemingly comfortable margin of 80-19. This tally was deceptive, however, since a number of members voted for ratification after having earlier voiced reservations.

The debate over NATO expansion has now shifted from trying to block the first tranche of what George Kennan termed "the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era" to "whether and when" the alliance should welcome a second tranche of new members. This issue has been on the table since the July 1997 Madrid summit when alliance leaders committed NATO to "maintain an open door to the admission of additional Alliance members in the future," and named five likely candidates for the next round: Romania, Slovenia and the three Baltic states.

The NATO expansion debate brought a number of lawmakers to the realization that Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary were just the beginning of a long list of candidate members for NATO protection and U.S. support. Senator John Warner's (R-VA) proposal for a three-year cooling-off period before extending any further invitations attracted 41 votes including Jesse Helms (R-NC), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Strom Thurmond (R-SC) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), who all voted for expansion with 59 opposed.

The administration, which knows that 41 votes would be enough to block any future resolution required for further expansion, has been circumspect in speaking about the timetable for another tranche. Indeed, the administration is now seized with the problem of what to say about the "open door" policy at NATO's April 1999 summit marking the 50th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty when the new members will be officially inducted. When commenting on the "open door" policy at next year's summit, the president might well call for the same background music as did Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who, for the original April 1949 signing, asked the military band to play "I Got Plenty of Nothin'" and "It Ain't Necessarily So."

Our NATO allies are also restrained in their support for further expansion: A recent U.S. Information Agency poll found 51 percent of the Germans, 44 percent of the French and 42 percent of the British surveyed to be against any new invitations at this time. And, while the Russianleadership has reluctantly acquiesced to the inevitable first tranche, the entire Russian political elite remains unequivocably opposed to expansion in principle, and has made it clear that invitations to any of the former Soviet republics to join NATO will precipitate a crisis in relations. Moreover, NATO expansion has already been largely responsible for the Duma's delay in ratifying START II.

As a practical matter, no decision on further expansion is likely to be taken until 2001, well after the U.S. and Russian presidential elections. In the meantime, a number of major political, military and economic issues will be clearer. We will have a better idea of whether strategic arms control between the United States and Russia can move to START III and, possibly, begin to constrain tactical nuclear weapons as well. We will know whether the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty can be redesigned to further reduce and constrain conventional forces in Europe. And we will have a better idea of when the European Union, which should be in the lead in integrating the newly democratic countries into the Atlantic community, will open its doors to the six new members including Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Estonia now under consideration.

All of these developments are much more important to U.S. and European security than another tranche of NATO members, and there is no rationale for expansion which is not satisfied by the other processes already under way throughout Europe. On the contrary, continuing NATO's eastern expansion will interfere with these positive trends: it risks chilling the START process, forcing Russia to cling to its tactical nuclear weapons to compensate for conventional military weakness, stressing the CFE Treaty to accommodate potential NATO deployments in the East, and diverting resources from the real problems confronting the Baltics and the countries of the former Warsaw Pact.

The Clinton administration has never had any strategic vision of where NATO expansion would lead. The allies have never been enthusiastic about admitting the Baltics or the Balkans. Now, it seems clear that a fair number of senators recognize that the nation has embarked on a chartless voyage that undercuts U.S. security interests in developing long-term relations with Russia and confidence in the U.S. ability to construct a post-Cold War security architecture.