NATO Membership: Handle With Care

AS is often the case in affairs of state, the current debate in the United States over whether to extend NATO membership to the nations of Eastern Europe minimizes two significant issues.

The administration, following President Clinton's European tour, stresses that its Partnership for Peace initiative opens the way for eventual membership and that the countries concerned have accepted the formula. The US policy was formed mindful of Russian opposition to such membership.

Conservative critics assert that Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Baltic States are unhappy with this solution and desire immediate membership. They contend that now is the time - when Moscow is weak and its direction uncertain - to extend the North Atlantic umbrella to the nations of Eastern Europe. Russian President Boris Yeltsin should not have a veto over US policy in Europe. But other issues remain:

First: Would the US public and Congress in fact agree to extend a US commitment under the North Atlantic Treaty to the western borders of Russia? Under that treaty - the basis for NATO - members agree to regard an attack on one as an attack on all. With the anti-commitment mood in the US, it can be argued that the public and the Congress are not likely to favor extending this commitment eastward.

Second: Is it in US interests to force a policy that would be seen by many Russians, both civilian and military, as a further Western effort to humiliate this proud nation?

After the recent Russian election and the surprise showing of the militant nationalists under Vladimir Zhirinovsky, one theme appeared again and again: We are a proud people with a proud history; we deplore our current weakness. Resentment is directed at the loss of empire, dependence on foreign advisers (especially American), and external criticism of their failed system. Such sentiments are heard particularly from Russia's military and reinforce a suspicion, long held by many Russians, that the US intends to reduce their nation to a second-class power. Mr. Yeltsin's opposition to an early extension of NATO membership to Eastern Europe comes undoubtedly from an awareness of these strong feelings and a concern that an extension, without Russian approval, would be exploited by the nationalists as another sign of a design to humiliate Russia.

Humiliation is a dangerous emotion in an uncertain political environment. It lends itself to the demagogue who, in simple terms, promises a return to earlier days of pride and success. The German feeling of humiliation after the Versailles Treaty led to Hitler. By contrast, the policies of respect for the defeated after World War II led to new, stable, and friendly democracies.

Russia's military strength and vast potential mean that its future course remains of major importance to the US and to Europe. That course will rest not only on the success of internal democratic and economic reforms, but also on preserving in a positive vein the pride in nationhood expressed every day in voices from Moscow to Vladivostok.

For the US administration, to implement such policies toward Russia under today's circumstances is far from easy. Democratic reforms must be encouraged with far fewer US and multinational resources than the Russians expect. Washington must respond to Yeltsin's desire for endorsement without destroying his nationalist credentials or binding the US irrevocably to him in the event of future changes. US officials must establish a working relationship with the Russian military without deepening suspicions or enhancing a sense of wounded pride.

The situation at the end of the cold war is not unlike those that followed the two world wars. The victor has the opportunity to build or degrade the vanquished. It is not in the US interest to provide the seeds for deeper Russian humiliation by a hasty expansion of NATO, especially if the likelihood of US support for such expanded membership is uncertain.

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