Should NATO Close Shop?

It may be time for US to insulate itself from Europe's squabbles

AMERICANS who believe that NATO was a cold-war alliance created to defend Western Europe from the Soviet Union were surprised on Jan. 10, when President Clinton at the NATO summit announced plans to expand the alliance's security umbrella to cover Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. To be sure, the administration's ``Partnership for Peace'' initiative stops short of offering full NATO membership to these states. Still, the clear purpose of Mr. Clinton's proposal is to ``reassure'' those states by enmeshing them in the NATO security system and ultimately making them full members.

But NATO's eastward move is risky. The Bosnian war has highlighted the problems of using NATO as a peacekeeping or ``peacemaking'' force in Eastern Europe's nasty internal quarrels. Even more worrisome is that moving NATO east means the United States would be thrust into the middle of potentially dangerous competitions among such big European powers as Germany, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. Umpiring these rivalries will be risky because the factors that led to successful cold-war deterrence will not be replicated in post-cold-war Europe. Moreover, America's commitment to the stability of the Western half of Europe alone cost $100 billion last year; an expanded role for NATO will push that price even higher.

Given the way in which the US has defined its European interests since World War II, NATO's eastward extension is logical - indeed mandatory. This definition, however, is the problem. After World War II, the US sought to construct and maintain an international economic and political order based upon what officials at the time termed an American ``preponderance of power.'' Indeed, NSC-68, the seminal National Security Council document outlining America's cold-war strategy, defined the goal of US policy as building an international environment conducive to American economic interests and political values. It stated that Washington would have pursued its ambitious world-order aspirations even if the Soviet threat had not existed.

Western Europe was the centerpiece of this strategy. The post-1945 integration of Germany and its West European neighbors into US-dominated security and economic institutions enabled the US to stabilize relations among the West European states by preventing Germany from embarking upon independent policies. By banishing power politics and nationalist rivalries from Western Europe, NATO protected Western Europeans from themselves, thereby facilitating economic interdependence and political cooperation among the West Europeans and between Western Europe and the US.

Today, it is argued that this complex fabric of relations will be endangered unless NATO moves east. If the US through its NATO leadership fails to do for post-cold-war Eastern Europe what it did for post-World War II Western Europe - protect Europeans from themselves - the Europeans will take matters into their own hands.

Those who, like Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, assert that NATO must either ``go out of area [expand] or out of business'' are, in a sense, correct. Unless NATO moves east to deal with these threats, the alliance will no longer be viable, and without NATO the US no longer will be able to play its pacifying role in Europe. However, proponents of this argument leave unasked and unanswered the stark question confronting America today: What would be worse for the US, a renationalized Europe where states have reverted to their historical pattern of economic and security relations, or a US-led effort to provide for the security of the entire continent?

The bottom-line question is how European turmoil would jeopardize American interests. US policymakers answer that turmoil on the continent would destroy economic interdependence within Western Europe and between the US and the European Union. Indeed, this concern ultimately drives the policy of expanding NATO.

It is commonly held that the economic links forged by interdependence foster peace. But in fact, interdependence generates costly and dangerous American strategic commitments. This is why the logic of NATO expansion is so unsettling. Expansion rests on the belief that, because US economic interests dictate that America must ensure stability in Western Europe, the US must also stabilize those adjacent areas from which turbulence could radiate.

In addition to the problems inherent in NATO's move to the east, the assumption underlying that policy - that the US can prevent European instability - is incorrect. Regardless of what the US and NATO do, post-cold-war Europe is bound to be unstable. Germany, Russia, and Ukraine cannot be prevented from acting as great powers and Eastern Europe's long-standing national, ethnic, and religious conflicts will almost certainly explode violently.

European security affairs are returning to normal patterns after a cold-war hiatus. Post-World War II Europe's relative tranquility was a function of the continent's bipolar division under which each superpower maintained order in its sphere. Atlanticists make a big mistake in assuming that the aberrational ``Long Peace'' was - or can be made to be - Europe's normal state of affairs.

Now that the cold-war superpower condominium has vanished, the US cannot prevent Europe from relapsing into its historic (if lamentable) security and economic competitions, multipolarity, and the formation of regional power balances. By moving NATO east, the US merely guarantees that it will be swept up in Eastern Europe's coming turmoil.

America must now ask whether it would be wiser for Washington to accept the inevitable and to design strategies that will insulate America from the economic and political consequences of future European rivalries. While political and economic benefits flow from American preponderance and from interdependence, these must be weighed against the very real costs and dangers of a policy that makes the US responsible for the stability of the entire European continent. From this perspective, it may be better for America if NATO does go out of business. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles 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@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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