October 13, 1997
SUBJECT: NATO Enlargement
The following memorandum
is the second in the Projects series on the topic of NATOs
NATO Enlargement is in Americas Strategic Interest (Oct.
2. NATO Enlargement: What is the "Threat?" (Oct. 13, 1997)
3. Russia and NATO Enlargement (Nov. 11, 1997)
4. The Cost of NATO Expansion (Jan. 20, 1998)
Enlargement: What is the Threat?
One of the most common
arguments made against the inclusion of Poland, Hungary and the Czech
Republic in NATO is that it is unnecessary: from where, the critics of
NATO expansion ask, is the threat against these countries supposed to
be coming? Although they admit that it is understandable why the three
countries would fear Russia given their histories, one need only look
at the Russian army's performance in Chechnya and the Russian public's
reaction to the war to see that this is not a serious threat today.
This approach to the question of expanding NATO, however, misunderstands
what the alliance is about, and why its expansion is important. To understand
the question properly, one must look more broadly at the issue, starting
with a bit of history.
During the Cold War,
the United States and its allies were focused on the military threat posed
by the Soviet Union. And NATO was understood as a response to the massive
number of Soviet armed forces deployed in Central and Eastern Europe.
Over time, it became natural to look at national security issues from
the perspective of the threat being addressed: before any new weapon system
was developed, or any new initiative was taken in international relations,
it made sense to inquire about the threat to which the action was meant
to respond. Hence, it was hardly surprising that, when the Soviet Union
collapsed and the Cold War ended, many using an argument similar
to the one put forward by the opponents of expansion thought that
NATO should wither away as well.
But this didn't happen.
Whatever the proximate reason for NATO's creation, it had come to stand
for something more significant. NATO had become more than an alliance
whose existence depended on its serving the immediate interests of its
parties. Instead, it had evolved into the centerpiece of a community of
nations, held together by shared political values as much as common interests.
This community has
been variously described: Max Singer and Aaron Wildavsky called it (along
with Japan, Australia and New Zealand) the "zone of peace and democracy."
[The Real World Order: Zones of Peace/Zones of Turmoil (1993) p. 3.] Former
Secretary of State James Baker defined the relationship by observing that
war among these states had become, not merely unlikely, but "unthinkable."
Indeed, this is merely a special case of the more general proposition,
which many international relations theorists have noted, that liberal
democracies rarely, if ever, go to war with each other and typically do
not resort to war except in response to the aggressive behavior of another
NATO's expansion into
Central Europe is also of value in helping Russia move toward becoming
a member of the "zone of the peace." While critics of the alliance's
expansion often point to a possible negative reaction from Moscow, the
effect over the long run is likely to be positive. By including key Central
European states in NATO, the option of a revived imperialism in that region
is effectively taken off the table and, with it, a Russian temptation
to ignore or put aside its far more important task of internal reform.
From the perspective of Moscow, NATO expansion is the equivalent of the
legendary sign in the New York City alleyway: "Don't even think of
Finally, NATO can serve as an influence on the internal political development of its less stable members. It stands for certain norms of internal behavior, such as democratic civilian control of the military; the military-to-military contacts occur within NATO help solidify these norms with respect to the military organizations of the newly democratic states. Thus, Spain's entry into NATO following the end of the Franco dictatorship not only marked a decision for democracy on the part of the country, but also made it more difficult for the military to try to resist that decision. NATO membership for the new entrants will likewise promote positive trends in their militaries and security services; it will strengthen the hands of those who want to implement Western norms and dishearten those who might still hope to reverse the democratic gains of the past eight years. This inclusion into the "democratic club," as much as any immediate threat, is what drives the new democracies of Central Europe to want to join NATO. It will represent a solidification of the new direction of their politics, as well as a recognition of it by the major Western democracies.
Viewed in this light, NATOs expansion should be considered not in terms of a specific threat (or the lack of) to which it responds, but as a major opportunity to consolidate the expansion of democracy. Any realistic view of future American security policy must admit that we will not shed our responsibilities in the world any time soon. If this is so, then the current situation represents a tremendous opportunity to strengthen the community of nations which can be most useful in our attempts to meet those responsibilities. It would be short-sighted to pass it up.