Can NATO Absorb New East-European Members?

A DRUMBEAT for enlarging the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will reach a crescendo this fall on both sides of the Atlantic. It is propelled by the alliance's criminal inaction in Bosnia, an impending NATO summit in January 1994, and fear of NATO's waning relevance.

On Capitol Hill Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana has popularized ``out of area or out of business'' sloganeering, while think-tank analysts have begun to echo that conviction. German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel used an early September speech to advocate NATO's extension into East-Central Europe, endorsed a few weeks later by NATO Secretary-General Manfred Worner.

If the nations of East-Central Europe were accepted into NATO, fresh perils and false promises would befall a Europe already beset by post-euphoric communism. NATO'S own capabilities would be eroded.

When East Europeans first tasted political freedom in 1989-90, there was eager anticipation of a post-cold-war European security system that could emerge from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). But by December 1991 the language of collective security had been shelved. The foreign ministries of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary began a campaign for NATO membership, while ``Atlantic clubs'' or NATO ``friendship associations'' sprouted, advocating their countries' entries into the alliance.

A NATO that reached to the Bug River and Transylvania would import the intractable problems of Europe's eastern half - peoples and borders. That every nation has a diaspora and every state harbors irredentist issues will not disappear. When Hungary's principal security issue - its diaspora of more than 3 million in Slovakia, Transylvania, and Vojvodina - is invoked by Budapest as a nascent NATO member, will NATO become a player in such disputes?

Admitting some, but not all, former Warsaw Pact members also raises the thorny issue of membership criteria. Criteria related to democracy never troubled NATO while Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar led that member state; neither Greece nor Turkey lost membership when military coups took place, and Italian corruption troubled no one very much either.

Publishing criteria today is unlikely to foster alliance integration or warm relations with states that are excluded.

A troubling consequence of NATO's extension east may be the perception of heightened threat to Russia and other Soviet successor states, forging a re-integration under Moscow's tutelage. Boris Yeltsin uttered a vague acceptance of Polish or Czech entry into NATO in visits to Warsaw and Prague. But Russian nationalism, not Mr. Yeltsin or his foreign ministry, is the problem.

Proponents of NATO's expansion rely heavily on the argument that democratic transitions in Eastern Europe will be more stable if these countries are rapidly included within the North Atlantic alliance. Yet this, too, misses the point. We want successful transitions, not just rapid ones.

Polish Vice Minister of Defense Przemyslaw Grudzinski has spoken of a 50 percent increase in defense budgets that would be needed to get Polish forces in shape to contribute in a meaningful way. NATO subsidies can only partially allay such costs. Political costs may be damaging too as rediscovered national interests are again seen to be subordinated to a supranational authority.

The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and Western aid organizations have already begun to experience such a backlash, now perceived by publics as encroaching on sovereignty and trampling national pride. Once issues of diasporas, environmental disputes, refugees, and trade are seen to be untouched by alliance membership while demands for burden-sharing increase, NATO-love will turn into indifference or antagonism.

Confusing NATO's capacities for common defense with Europe's need for collective security, however, is the most egregious error. For four decades, NATO served Western democracies admirably, deterring attack and offering a credible defense were such aggression to have been mounted.

We still need that capability, albeit at much-reduced levels, in light of potential Russian irredentism and concerns regarding the southern flank expressed by Mediterranean NATO members.

Much more, however, we need means by which to abate threats. Deterrence and defense counter threat with threat. While that psychology can never disappear from our calculus of security, the United States and its allies now require an ability to prevent conflicts and defuse crises.

The tasks of collective security include confidence and security-build-ing measures, conflict-resolution mechanisms, or peacekeeping deployments. Few imminent threats to peace and prosperity are amenable to deterrence or defeat by well-endowed national militaries or alliances. Instead, a panoply of new threats lines the horizon: uncontrolled migration, economic collapse, the diffusion of advanced weapons technologies, or ethnic and religious strife.

NATO has not been in that business, nor should it be. To ``metamorphose'' it into a collective security organ will, inevitably, weaken its efficacy in the role it filled for four decades without providing effective collective security.

Eastern Europe's security solution lies in policies that would see security not built by enlarging capacities, but through threat abatement. We need to place the Atlantic-to-Urals in a robust collective security organization, endowed with more capacity to act (e.g., peacekeeping), than Helsinki process institutions (CSCE) can provide. Europe needs to continue on the path of economic and political integration as the EC expands. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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