Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 21

NATO’s Future: The Risks of Not Expanding

by Paul A. Goble

On September 28, NATO Secretary General Willy Claes is scheduledto release a 30-page report on the Western alliance’s principlesfor enlargement. Advance press coverage in Europe suggests thatthe document says that the new members will have all the rightsand responsibilities of current members–including the nuclearumbrella and the possibility of stationing nuclear weapons ontheir territories. It rejects any possibility of a Russian vetoover any particular new member, although it says that the alliancewould like to have good relations with Moscow. And it suggeststhat a key goal of enlargement is to enhance European securityby protecting the new democracies of Eastern Europe and the formerSoviet Union. While this is only the first step of what promisesto be a very long process, it will certainly enrage many in theRussian capital and embroil the governments and publics of the16 current NATO countries in a discussion of what the alliancecan and should be.

Purposes New and Old

As more than one wag has put it, NATO was created in 1949 tokeep the Russians out of Europe, the Americans in, and the Germansdown. Put that baldly, it is clear that the alliance has lostsome of its raison d’etre as a result of the collapse of the Sovietbloc and the increasing integration of Germany into the EuropeanUnion. But the role of NATO in providing a shield behind whichdemocracies can develop and flourish, in guaranteeing regionalstability and maintaining a balance of power in Europe, and inkeeping the US engaged in its fated role as a countervailing powerhas not fundamentally changed, even if some of the parametershave.

Indeed, NATO, or at least the NATO countries, are now challengedby three tasks that no other regional organization is equippedto deal with and to which NATO must respond to lest it ceaseto be relevant:

–First, NATO must cope with the fundamental geopolitical factthat twice in this century wars have emerged in the zone of weakstates bounded on the east by Moscow, on the west by Berlin,and on the north and south by the Baltic states and Ukraine. In the past, stability in this region has been purchased by occupation,or by the threat of occupation after intense geopolitical competition. Unless NATO or some other international institution with teethprovides an umbrella for the states in this region, the countriesin this fault zone will inevitably behave in ways certain to inviteintervention of one kind or another from east or west — withall the negative consequences that could have for the securityof not only Europe but the United States as well.

–Second, as events in Bosnia have shown, NATO alone has thecapacity, when it has the will, to move to contain if not to solvethe ethnic and other conflicts on its own periphery which couldall too easily lead to divisions among the great powers, and henceto a broader geopolitical competition. Had NATO not acted inBosnia, it would have revealed itself to be a hollow shell. Thealliance’s other promises would have been called into question;and an alliance in which members have doubts about its ultimateresolve resembles a religion in which no one believes. It maysurvive for a time, but it will not really exist.

–Third, NATO is, for better or worse, the chief agency linkingthe United States to Europe. Were NATO to die, the linkages betweenWashington and the West European capitals would weaken, WesternEurope itself would be less orderly, and hence less capable ofthe integration which many people there hope for. The likelihoodthat the members of the European Union would increasingly lookto their own interests and goals, rather than to common ones,would increase.

Russia – Hopes and Fears

Many people now discuss the issue of NATO’s expansion and, hencesurvival, in terms of two widely held but seldom closely examinedideas. One is the notion that the survival or the expansion ofNATO will simply push Russia back into her old ways. The otheris the notion that Russia has already transformed itself and thusdoes not pose a threat either to us or to her neighbors. All toooften these mutually inconsistent views are advanced by the samepeople at the same time. NATO was and is a defensive alliance. If Russia does not plan to extend its influence by force, ithas nothing to fear. If it does express concerns about the existenceof NATO, then its leaders are either seeking to exploit the incrediblepower of weakness–apres moi, le Zhirinovsky–or are demandinga special role for Russia in Europe which is inconsistent bothwith Russia’s past and with her current status.

When the Warsaw Pact collapsed and the Soviet Union disintegrated,Moscow clearly hoped that NATO would pass away as well. Russiaargued forcefully for a revamped OSCE as the successor, pan-Europeansecurity architecture. When it became obvious that no one believedthat the OSCE could play such a security role, Moscow backed downand demanded that Russia have a special relationship with NATO–onein which the 16 would be somehow equated to the one. And whenthat idea fizzled and the Partnership for Peace program took off,Moscow began to grudgingly concede that NATO might expand to includesome of the Visegrad countries, but nevertheless continued towarn against any expansion into what had been the USSR–in particularthe Baltic states and Ukraine.

On September 25, for example, Russian defense minister PavelGrachev said that Moscow would use all its resources short offorce to prevent NATO from admitting any or all of the Balticstates. But the latest NATO document suggests that it is preciselythose countries which both need the protection that NATO can give,and that NATO has not deferred to Russian wishes at least fornow. As a result, Moscow may do more than just talk about usingits influence against the Baltic countries and their efforts tojoin NATO; but as Russian diplomats and generals understand, toomuch pressure in this area could easily become counterproductiveand may force NATO to move more quickly than many in NATO wantto. The gray areas which the Balts and Ukrainians fear could easilybe lightened or darkened, depending on both NATO’s approach andon Moscow’s response. One straw in the wind was the announcementon September 28 that Belarus had tightened its borders with theBaltic states. Another is the increasingly tough Russian approachto Baltic trade and banking relations.

Problems and Prospects

It is a certainty that both Moscow and Western commentaries willmake too much of this latest NATO document. As almost everyoneforgets, NATO expansion is not a decision that will be made inBrussels or in Washington on one particular day; it must be madeby all the member states. Each and every member must sign andratify a bilateral defense treaty with the potential member. If one of the 16 does not, the new candidate is excluded frommembership. (And each new member acquires this effective vetoover all subsequent candidates.) Even in the best of circumstances,achieving such universal agreements would not be easy. Giventhe splits in the alliance on a variety of questions, severalcountries are likely to vote against taking on the additionalburdens which any expansion of the alliance would entail.

Many in the United States are unwilling to do more right now,feeling that America has made enough of a contribution to thedefense of Europe and that now the Europeans should do more forthemselves. While psychologically understandable, such an attitudeis self-defeating. Without American leadership on this issue,NATO will certainly not expand. Moreover, the withdrawal of acountervailing power from Europe virtually guarantees new conflictsthere, conflicts into which the US will almost certainly be drawnat some future point.

The most likely vetoes are from Greece, or one of the other southerntier NATO member states. Greece is perhaps the prime candidateto cast the decisive vote. Its tense relations with Turkey alreadymake it unhappy with the alliance. Greece is all the more likelyto listen to Moscow’s arguments because Russia has been recentlyand enticingly attentive to Athens. Kozyrev went there in Septemberand played into Greece’s desire for a significant boost in incomeby holding out the prospect of the construction of a pipelineacross Greek territory which would bypass the Turkish straits.Indeed, over the next year Russian actions in the capitals ofthese southern tier states are likely to be far more significantin terms of alliance expansion than are the Russian statementswhich will surely attract more attention.

Given this constellation of forces, NATO is likely to fail toexpand, or to expand only part way. In the first case, it willquickly lose its central place in the European security architectureand that continent will return to the instability that has markedmost of its history. In the second, it will create, or more preciselyfail to cope with, the new-old gray area between Moscow and Berlinand will set the stage for the geopolitical dynamics we have seenso often before.