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Is US Ready for the Consequences of Expanding NATO?

By David D. Newsom / October 8, 1997



As key issues of keeping US troops in Bosnia and NATO expansion converge, Washington foreign policy conversations are taking on an unreal quality.

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Officials involved in decisions on Bosnia insist that progress is being made in the implementation of the Dayton accords. Responses to specific questions, however, are often vague: "Obviously, there are difficulties." "Certainly, greater progress will require dealing with issues of war criminals and the resettlement of refugees." "US troops will not stay one minute longer than needed."

Proponents of NATO expansion avoid precise answers to two key questions: the cost to the US and the effect on Russia's cooperation in nuclear arms control. "These will not be problems," is the standard reply.

Further, although an expanded alliance will obviously place greater burdens on the US military, Pentagon planners and budgeteers, at least in public, are silent. And no one appears to see the irony of congressional unwillingness to face risks and commitments in Bosnia while considering far greater potential obligations in Eastern Europe.

Clearly, those pressing for objectives they believe to be in the national interest - a prolonged presence in Bosnia and NATO expansion - are stressing the positive. They fear that to do otherwise will only provide ammunition to opponents. Proponents of admitting Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to the North Atlantic alliance, in particular, are apprehensive about too many questions being raised on the eve of Senate consideration of the ratification of the extension.

But the questions need to be asked. In the case of NATO expansion, presidential commitments to prospective new members have gone too far for the US to turn back without seriously eroding European confidence in Washington. The Senate hearings and possible amendments, as part of the ratification process, however, provide the opportunity to examine these questions if members and executive branch witnesses are serious; mere emotional references to Munich and Yalta will not suffice. At present, estimates of the costs to the US, to European members, and to future members vary widely. Assumptions are made regarding European contributions at a time of belt-tightening on the continent. These estimates and assumptions need to be challenged and assessed in the hearings.

Other issues also need to be examined. The Russian Duma is delaying the ratification of START II, a significant step in nuclear disarmament. To what extent is Russian concern over NATO enlargement a factor in this delay? The derailing of years of effort to reduce the nuclear threat would be a high price to pay for alliance enlargement. On the military side, what kind of contingencies might involve the US in an extended NATO? Have military plans and budgets taken these into account?

Finally, Senate hearings should find some way to bring home to risk-averse Americans the true implications of the enlargement commitment. The new members of the alliance will fully expect that, in the event of a threat to their territory, US troops will be part of the response. Bosnia has demonstrated that NATO actions are not feasible unless the US is prepared to share the risks with other members. Europeans will not agree to face fire on the ground while Americans supply logistics and air cover.

Foreigners take seriously commitments made by the US. Yet on countless occasions, whether to besieged Shiites in Iraq, southern Vietnamese, or Bosnian Muslims, US diplomats have had to explain why the US was not honoring what others saw as commitments.

Perhaps it is in American interests to stay in Bosnia until peace prevails or to expand NATO, but the full implications for the US in both cases need to be acknowledged. Such acknowledgment would reduce, although probably not eliminate, the possibility that, at some future Eastern European crisis, US envoys may need to explain to beleaguered and disappointed Hungarians, Czechs, and Poles that the US president and the Congress, while recognizing obligations under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, do not see a sufficient US national interest to justify putting the lives of American men and women at risk. Let Europeans do the job.

* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.