It is not enough to call the offer of NATO membership to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland the first step taken by the US to reorder a Western world torn asunder first by world war and later by cold war. It is not enough to argue that Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians deserve a place in the alliance, because they were abandoned behind the Iron Curtain until 1989, and have built market democracies since.
From the American point of view, the only argument for NATO enlargement is the national interest of the US. NATO enlargement meets this test because it strengthens the institutions that keep the Western world peaceful and prosperous.
Russia's reaction has been presented as an argument against enlargement. Yet there is no evidence that NATO enlargement is bringing hardliners to power in Moscow. Since polls show that Russians are indifferent to the issue, it is inconceivable that anti-NATO sentiment will turn the tide against Russia's reformers.
As to Russian elites, NATO enlargement is already having a salutary effect. By not expanding until now, we taught Russian imperialists they have a veto over US foreign policy. By enlarging NATO, we make it hard for imperialists to claim Russia is still a superpower. So Russia is more apt to tend to its own affairs, and less likely to meddle in those of its neighbors. Two recent examples make this clear. Russia and Ukraine just signed an economic agreement revealing that Russia has at last begun to see Ukraine as a sovereign state. In March, the Polish foreign minister, while in Moscow, found acceptance of Poland's choice to join NATO.
These steps taken as the Senate debates ratification of NATO enlargement, are hardly the growls of an angry bear. Moscow now treats its neighbors with more respect. This is in everyone's interest. Russia's major problems are domestic, and reforms can only be delayed by attempts to revive old spheres of influence. And we often forget Russia's two foreign policy problems are the Muslim south and the Chinese colossus. In this context, the Russian debate over enlargement seems inconsequenial.
It is, of course, too much to hope that US and Russian interests will coincide on all points. As the Iraqi crisis shows, there will be places where US and Russian interests diverge. Opponents of enlargement suggest that Russia's pro-Iraqi stand demonstrates the adverse consequences. This is a misunderstanding: Russia, like France, opposed US military action because it believed it had an interest in courting Arab clients.
That we should not expand NATO because such incidents arise is absurd. Abandoning enlargement to court support against Saddam would have been fruitless. The Russians would still go to Baghdad seeking after old alliances, learning along the way they have the power to derail US foreign policy. Cooperation with Russia is crucial, and we can expect it to take place where there are common interests. Enlargement doesn't alter this.
NATO is the bedrock of the free Atlantic community created after World War II. It has prevented the revival of European rivalries. As the war in Yugoslavia has shown, the EU's "common foreign and security policy" is hopelessly ineffective. Only intervention by NATO - Europeans and Americans together - proved effective in ending that horrible war. NATO offers the only possibility of such future cooperation.
Opponents of enlargement have argued as if the choice were between the NATO we have now and an expanded NATO. There never was any such choice. The alliance needed a mission for the post-cold-war world, just as the post-cold-war world needed a stronger alliance. Enlargement gives the alliance its sense of purpose while retooling it for the new security environment, and it preserves the US voice in Europe and the European peace.
The enlargement of NATO is a compelling national security interest of the US. Sometimes one can do well for oneself by doing right by others. The Senate will have such an opportunity.
* Tim Snyder is a historian at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.