Few involved in the debate over the expansion of the North Atlantic alliance (NATO) appear to be focusing on the possibility that the US may again face congressional rejection of a significant foreign policy initiative. It wouldn't be the first such incident in US history.
The Senate refused to support Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations after World War I, and, more recently, Congress rejected executive commitments in diplomacy, security, peacekeeping, and trade. The results are often bitter disappointment abroad and a decline in US credibility.
According to press reports, President Clinton, in a meeting with Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski on July 8, promised that the alliance would take further steps this year toward admitting new members. As one of his last acts as Senate majority leader, Bob Dole introduced legislation urging membership for Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic and establishing a $60 million fund to facilitate their readiness.
Any addition to NATO membership requires agreement of each of the member governments and their legislatures. This means concurrence in the broader application of the North Atlantic Treaty, including Article 5, which states, "an armed attack against one or more ... shall be considered an attack against them all."
So far as one can determine from the public statements, neither the administration nor congressional leaders have addressed whether two-thirds of the US Senate, in the present mood of the country, would agree to extend US security obligations to the Polish-Ukrainian border. One issue is the cost of raising the readiness of forces in the new nations to NATO standards. A Rand Corporation study estimates that $30 billion to $40 billion would be required of the 16 current members over a 10- to 15-year period.
Proponents of a NATO expansion point to the importance of ensuring the security of the nascent democracies of Eastern Europe at a time when democracy in Russia is still evolving. At the same time, they stress the importance of stabilizing a region that has spawned countless wars. Further, in an election year, US politicians are mindful of the idea's popularity among voters of Polish, Czech, and Hungarian descent.
Opposition to the idea can be anticipated not only from those who shy away from the commitments and the costs, but also from those who give priority to establishing a sound relationship with Russia. They fear that Russian-nationalist sentiment, opposed to having an alliance of former adversaries so close to the country's borders, could inhibit even moderate leaders from cooperating with the West on other issues.
One of only a few discussions on the congressional implications of a NATO extension appears in an article by Jeremy Rosner in the July/August 1996 issue of Foreign Affairs. Rosner writes that "ratification of NATO enlargement is hardly a foregone conclusion as many of its advocates assume." He points to a number of elements of possible opposition to ratification but says it is politically feasible, "especially if the next president embraces it as a personal project and works closely with congressional leaders of both parties." But these conditions are not always easy to meet.
A formal submission of NATO extension to the Senate is probably years away. The NATO ministers must first approve invitations to the prospective members, and the earliest this could occur is the next NATO meeting in December. Negotiations with each government on meeting the conditions of membership would follow. Only then would the treaty extension be submitted to the parliaments.
Given the uncertainties of politics and the changing mood of the US public, serious consultation with the present Senate on the possibilities for ratification would have little meaning. Even a vote today - in an election year - on candidate Dole's bill would give few clues to future Senate action.
Expanding NATO may make sense, but at this early stage, the initiative calls for a cautious approach, and so far, public rhetoric does not display such caution. Without candidly addressing the Senate's role, Washington is moving toward a denouement that could damage US credibility and cause disappointment among nations waiting in NATO's wings.
*David D. Newsom is Cumming professor of international studies at the University of Virginia.