Going to War Over Warsaw

NATO expansion means the ultimate commitment. Should the US make it?

Next week in Madrid the North Atlantic Council is expected to approve expanding NATO to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. This is a bad idea. Fortunately it cannot be put into effect unless the United States Senate concurs by a two-thirds vote. The Senate needs to think hard and long before it does this.

The reason NATO was created in 1949 was to provide a collective defense mechanism for Western Europe against a real and palpable Soviet threat.

The signatories of the treaty agree "that an armed attack against one or more of them ... shall be considered an attack against them all; and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them ... will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith ... such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force."

A drastic step

When the Senate approved this provision, it committed the United States to react to an attack on Copenhagen or Paris or Rome the same way it would react to an attack on New York or Boston or Washington - that is, to go to war. This was, and is, serious business.

Even in the chilliest days of the cold war, the United States was careful about making such a drastic commitment. In all, it was a party to seven defense treaties during this period. In only one besides NATO is there such a categorical promise to go to war. That one is the Rio Treaty covering Latin America, an area with which the United States has had a protective relationship going back to the early 19th century.

All the other defense treaties covered countries in Asia, and the commitment is fuzzier. It is that an attack on any party "would be dangerous to [the] peace and safety" of the other parties and that each party "would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes." This weaker language was used on the insistence of key senators. The threat to Asia in the 1950s was commonly thought to be as great as the threat to Europe. Yet the Senate was skittish about the perils of entanglement in Asia and refused to make the same guarantee that it had approved for Western Europe. Is the Senate now prepared to go further and commit the United States to go to war over Warsaw or Budapest or Prague?

The threat to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic has vanished. The impetus to enfold them in NATO's embrace comes not from an imminent danger, such as led to NATO's creation, but from other sources.

One of the most influential of these is the Clinton administration's readiness to pander to ethnic groups for domestic political purposes. The East Europeans have been quick to work the American grass roots in behalf of their foreign policy agenda. A dozen state legislatures have endorsed Polish membership in NATO. Washington has received several high officials from other countries seeking membership, including some from countries that are not likely to make the cut for July admission. These include, among others, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Lithuania.

The president of Macedonia came to lobby Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has her own Czech roots. Where does this end, and at what cost to the United States?

The House of Representatives, never slow to respond to ethnic interests, has passed legislation endorsing inclusion of all the emerging democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. In a separate action, the House has also voted to cut off funds for US troops on the NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. If the House doesn't want to be involved in Bosnia, it had better think again about getting further involved in Poland.

Pride versus security

For many East Europeans, admission to NATO has perhaps as much to do with national pride as with national security. It would represent, in their view, acceptance in the broad Western family after years of seclusion in the East. This is understandable. It is in US interests to expand political and economic ties between Western and Eastern Europe. Surely there are ways to do this without committing ourselves to another war. Some that come to mind include broadening the Western European Union and the Economic Community.

It is equally understandable that the countries of Eastern Europe should seek to use their many familial and cultural ties with large numbers of Americans. These ties run both ways. They can be (and in the past, have been) used to serve US purposes. But it is a serious mistake to confuse this sort of relationship with the US national interest in a matter as basic as going to war.

A feel-good speech to ethnics in middle America is a poor way to make foreign policy for middle Europe.

* Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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