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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
Senate Approves NATO Expansion, Signals Caution on Future Rounds
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April 1998

By Wade Boese

As expected, the Senate on April 30 approved NATO membership for the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland despite objections from a number of senators that expansion could damage U.S.-Russian relations and endanger future progress on arms control. (See the Senate Resolution.) After being criticized for generally failing to give the issue of NATO expansion the scrutiny it merited, senators finally engaged in four days of wide-ranging debate before voting 80-19 (13 more than necessary) in favor of adding the three former Cold War adversaries to the alliance. However, by narrowly defeating an amendment that would have postponed for three years any new invitations to join the alliance, the Senate signaled the administration that future rounds of expansion could be more contentious. The United States is the fifth NATO member to ratify the accession protocols; the others are Canada, Denmark, Germany and Norway.

During the debate, the Senate held floor votes on 11 amendments, defeating nine and approving two, while agreeing to several others without votes. Amendments designed to delay expansion, such as those requiring states to be European Union members before joining NATO or prohibiting further invitations until NATO has revised its strategic concept, were easily defeated. The Senate also rejected two amendments which would have required votes on the continued deployment of U.S. forces in Bosnia before the U.S. instrument of ratification for expansion could be deposited. Amendments mandating reports on the threats facing NATO and clarifying the Senate's understanding of NATO's mission and the U.S. role in NATO passed, as well as an amendment requiring the president to certify that the three new members are fully cooperating with the United States in accounting for U.S. MIAs.

Opponents Speak Out Although prognoses of the impact of an expanded NATO varied from the emergence of a less-cooperative Russia to a return to the Cold War, a belief that NATO expansion would undercut democratic forces and energize hard-liners in Russia fueled much of the opposition to NATO expansion. Countering arguments that Russia has accepted expansion, some opponents pointed to a resolution passed by the Russian Duma on January 23 calling NATO expansion the "most serious military threat to our country since 1945."

Senators from both parties warned that expanding NATO could push Russia to place even greater emphasis upon nuclear weapons to compensate for its deteriorating conventional forces an overall security situation. Dale Bumpers (D-AR) asserted that, "We are forcing them to rely more and more heavily on nuclear weapons. And the more you rely on nuclear weapons, the lower the hair trigger for nuclear war." Several senators highlighted the Duma's failure to ratify START II, which Yeltsin submitted in June 1995, as evidence of the negative impact expansion has already had on Russian arms control.

Expansion opponents also charged that adding new members would do little to address the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which Paul Wellstone (D-MN) proclaimed should be the "number one" concern of the United States. Some senators warned that NATO expansion would make it more difficult to secure Russian cooperation in countering proliferation and controlling the "leakage" of nuclear technology and materials from Russia.

Kent Conrad (D-ND) argued that reducing Russia's tactical nuclear arsenal should be the top priority of the United States and that NATO expansion may "create the very danger from Russia that it is intended to prevent." Noting that General Eugene Habiger, commander-in-chief of U.S. Strategic Command, estimated that Russia has between 7,000 and 12,000 tactical nuclear weapons (while the United States has roughly 1,600, with 400 in Europe), Conrad proposed an amendment for initiating discussions with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons, but his efforts failed.

Uncertainties surrounding the cost of expansion and NATO's future members and missions also prompted criticism as senators objected to signing a "blank check." With at least nine additional states, including the Baltics, having voiced interest in joining NATO and growing calls, such as those by former Secretary of Defense William Perry, for NATO to do more than just defend common territory, opponents charged that the administration's cost estimates for the United States of $400 million over 10 years was misleading. A number of senators voiced concern that the Europeans would not share the burden and that the estimate neglects any assistance the United States may provide in upgrading the new member's militaries.

Bob Smith (R-NH) called attention to a recent poll, conducted from April 23-26, that showed that only 32 percent of the public supported expansion when confronted with cost estimates that put the U.S. taxpayer share at between $400 million and $19 billion over 10 years for the first round of expansion.

Proponents Answer Critics

Joseph Biden (D-DE) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) disputed claims that expansion would hurt arms control by pointing to the ongoing Nunn-Lugar program, which helps Russia dismantle its nuclear arsenal, and to the Duma's ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention last year. Lugar attributed Duma inaction on START II as stemming from their concern with what they perceived to be the treaty's "inequities" and a desire to go to a "START III agreement sooner rather than later." Other senators argued that Russia has used NATO expansion as a convenient excuse for not ratifying START II.

Many senators who supported expansion emphasized its value in consolidating democracy and free markets in Europe, while others stressed the importance of filling a political and security vacuum. Supporters dismissed the contention that NATO poses a threat to Russia, noting that the resolution of ratification makes it very clear that NATO's core purpose is collective defense.

The Clinton administration has repeatedly defended maintaining an "open door" for new members, but the Senate, led by John Warner (R-VA), nearly shut it. Prompted by concerns that membership would be offered to other East European states, possibly even the Baltics, before an assessment could be made of the costs and threats generated by the first round of expansion, Warner proposed an amendment proscribing new invitations for three years.

Senators rallied against the amendment arguing that closing the door would cause disillusionment among aspiring members and draw a new dividing line in Europe. Moreover, many senators opposed limiting NATO's flexibility to extend new invitations and further claimed that a pause would be a victory for the hard-liners in Moscow.

Although the Senate rejected the amendment 59-41, a number of expansion proponents, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC), voted for the mandated pause, indicating that winning the necessary two-thirds of the Senate for future rounds might prove a much harder task.

The Senate Resolution

The resolution of ratification finally approved by the Senate affirms that NATO remains "first and foremost a military alliance" with the core purpose continuing to be the "collective defense of the territory of all NATO members." In deterring aggression against NATO members, the resolution emphasizes that nuclear weapons will continue to make an "essential contribution" and that U.S. nuclear forces stationed in Europe make that deterrent credible.

Nevertheless, the resolution despite some worries that NATO could become a "dial-a-soldier" organization in the words of Warner does not limit NATO to collective defense. The resolution states that members may engage in other missions "when there is a consensus among its members that there is a threat to the security and interests of NATO members."

Reflecting the Senate's objections to signing a "blank check" on expansion and to guard against the United States picking up the tab if European allies refuse or are unable to pay their share, the resolution calls for the president to certify before the deposit of the instruments of ratification that the U.S. share (approximately 25 percent) of the three NATO common budgets (civil, infrastructure and military) will not increase as NATO expands. The Senate also capped the total amount of U.S. expenditures for the common budgets at the fiscal year 1998 level "unless specifically authorized by law."

Addressing concerns of a number of senators that NATO may have provided Russia a voice in NATO decision-making through the Permanent Joint Council (PJC) established by the May 1997 NATO-Russian "Founding Act" (See ACT, May 1997) the resolution conditions NATO expansion on the understanding that Russia does not have "any role" in NATO decision-making and that any discussion of NATO doctrine in the PJC will merely be "explanatory." While the resolution states that it is in the interest of the United States to "develop a new and constructive relationship" with Russia, there is a veiled warning against the threat of the "reemergence of a hegemonic power confronting Europe."

In the end, a number of senators who had voiced reservations with expanding NATO, including Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Max Cleland (D-GA), voted for adding the three new members. But Hutchison, bolstered by the strong show of support for the Warner amendment, warned the administration against putting the "cart before the horse" on any future expansion.