Steering NATO - Not a One-Country Job

NATO's Madrid summit is now history. The Clinton administration ensured that the meeting yielded the list of candidates for NATO membership that it preferred.

But the administration's approach to pre-summit consultations created some serious frictions in the alliance, and troubled even those allies who strongly supported the administration's goals. Now, as NATO enters the critical process of negotiating and ratifying the enlargement decisions taken in Madrid, the Clinton administration has an opportunity to reflect on the leadership style most likely to achieve its policy goals in the months ahead.

The issues facing the United States and its allies are not trivial. Allied leaders in Madrid rallied together to produce a "successful" outcome, inviting the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland to join NATO, leaving the door open for other qualified candidates, and noting their continuing efforts to build a "new NATO."

But the real success of Madrid will be measured by subsequent events. The debate in the United States Senate on the candidates nominated for NATO membership will likely be an intense discussion of the American role in Europe and in the post-cold-war world. President Clinton apparently sees the outcome as critical to his place in history. The stakes are high. It is not surprising that administration officials are focused on ensuring that it all comes out right.

On the other side of the Atlantic, challenging economic circumstances and weakened political consensus in many continental nations are making life difficult. The US economic model is admired but not seen as universally applicable to European circumstances. This fact was made clear by several European leaders following the "G-8" economic summit in Denver, at which the president had clear bragging rights based on current US economic success.

In spite of tough times, European Union (EU) leaders would like to move ahead with deepening the Union through the formation of a European Monetary Union. They claim to support enlarging the EU to bring in new democracies from Eastern and Central Europe. But doing both in the next several years will be difficult at a time when economic margins are so slim and domestic political support notably fragile. The summit of EU leaders in Amsterdam last month clearly put European weaknesses on display.

It's not easy being No. 1

Self-confident US behavior has rubbed many Europeans the wrong way. When the Clinton administration revealed its choice of three candidates - Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary - to participate in the first wave of NATO enlargement, many allies privately applauded. Even France, which is a strong proponent of including Romania and Slovenia, was not surprised that the United States and several other allies would only support a smaller group.

But the fact that the United States appeared to have abandoned the process of NATO consultations in making its choice clear, and then said its decision was non-negotiable, troubled even our closest allies. It strengthened the hand of those in Europe who claim that the United States is acting like a "hegemonic" power, using its impressive position of strength to have its way with weaker European allies. One official of a pro-American northern European country that supports the package of three told me, "We liked the present but were troubled by the way it was wrapped."

US officials say that they wanted to keep the issue within alliance consultations but that their position was being leaked to the press by other allies. They decided to put an end to "lobbying" for other outcomes. Their choice to go strong and to go public may be understandable and even defensible. However, the acknowledged leader of a coalition of democratic states probably needs to set the very best example in the consultative process if it wants other sovereign states to follow.

Perhaps it is just hard being No. 1. US officials have noted that the United States is "damned if it does, and damned if it does not" provide strong leadership. Perhaps the style of the NATO decision simply reflects a Washington culture in which the bright and brash more often than not move ahead in the circles of power. But the style does not work well in an alliance of democracies.

Whatever the explanation, US-European relations would have been better served by a US approach that allowed the outcome to emerge more naturally from the consultative, behind-the-scenes consensus-forming process. The final result would have been the same, and the appearance of a United States diktat to the allies would have been avoided.

Speak softly

In the months to come, difficult issues will arise in the context of the debate on ratification of the first enlargement package. In the United States Congress, defense burden-sharing - the relationship between US defense efforts and those of its current allies - may be a more contentious issue than the credentials of the candidate countries. Further, the United States and its allies face the prospect of a difficult debate about what should be done in Bosnia after the mandate for the current allied Stabilization Force there runs out in June 1998.

Given the volatile nature of these issues the administration will have its hands full. Effective United States leadership will be required to ensure outcomes that serve US interests. Under these circumstances, perhaps US policymakers might wish to reflect on Teddy Roosevelt's advice to "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

The United States already has a big economic, political, and military stick. It can afford to speak softly.

* Stanley R. Sloan is the senior specialist in international security policy with the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress.

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