RECENTLY, on American television, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev explained the problems besetting Russian-NATO relations far better than Western officials have been able to.
Regrettably, Western elites have stopped listening to Mr. Kozyrev as a friend. Instead, they have begun to reprocess the foreign minister's words through a filter of distrust.
The fact that the West has stopped treating Kozyrev as a friend doesn't mean he has stopped thinking like a friend. Kozyrev continues to tell us things we need to know. The West is only hurting itself by turning a deaf ear to him.
Of all the points Kozyrev has made to his would-be Western friends, the two most important are:
1. Russians fear isolation. Western democracies are still Russia's best friends, but Russians feel they've been betrayed. The West talked a lot about the aid it intended to give the new Russia, but it never materialized. Now there is talk of a Russian "partnership" with NATO. This is the right idea, but again, it seems to be more rhetoric than reality.
2. A partnership plan isn't working because of the way NATO is organized. Even if NATO wants a partnership with Moscow, it will fail because there are 16 member nations in NATO, and NATO has an internal mechanism requiring those members to consult among themselves. They make their compromises, and then they come out with ready-made decisions. Sometimes they consult Russia, sometimes not. Russians are increasingly concerned that NATO doesn't include them.
It behooves NATO to listen to Kozyrev. The West, after all, has said a new and substantial partnership between NATO and Russia will resolve Russian fears of isolation. If that is true, and if NATO is not trying to further isolate Russia, then the organization should pay closer attention to what Kozyrev is saying about the problems his country has encountered in trying to form a partnership with it.
The crucial problem is what Kozyrev calls the "organizational trap." NATO is so focused on reaching consensus among its member nations that there is no room left for give-and-take with external partners such as Russia. It won't consider adjusting its decisions after they have been made by internal consensus, out of concern that the consensus will unravel.
The "organizational trap" is overlooked in Western discussion on NATO. It is known in the West only in a different context - that of the European Union, where it goes by the name of the "joint-decision trap."
The nature of the trap is simple: The tougher a group's procedure for making joint decisions, the harder it is to adjust such decisions, once made, to changing realities, or to renegotiate them with external actors. Also, it is more likely that joint decisions will lock member countries rigidly into obsolescent policies.
When all decisions have to be made by unanimous consent, they tend to turn into a trap. On the other hand, when decisions can be made and changed by majority vote, they are no longer a trap.
The EU has discussed this problem in depth, because it welcomes the solution - less reliance on unanimity. NATO does not recognize any possibility of such a solution. As a result, it has ignored the problem.
Unanimity is only a diplomatic habit in NATO; there is no legal requirement for it. NATO is unable even to recognize that its own procedures are the obstacle to partnership with Russia. Instead, it projects onto Russia all the blame for the problems and all the burden of change.
NATO is making the same mistake with regard to its own expansion. As long as NATO allows each member a unit-veto, more members will mean more unit-vetoes and a further weakening of the organization's ability to make decisions.
Eastern Europeans are being asked to adjust to a number of criteria before joining NATO, in the hope that they will become more like the West and more compliant toward Western policies. In other words, NATO doesn't want them to make trouble.
But these countries are already adjusting to revolutionary changes and can hardly afford any added burdens. They are being asked to make adjustments to relieve NATO of having to make its own internal adjustments. This won't solve the problem. No matter what criteria are met, more members will still make it harder to reach decisions unanimously. Until the unanimity procedure is challenged, the problem will remain unresolved.
Since NATO members distrust Russia and therefore won't give it veto power, Russian membership in the organization is ruled out as long as the unit-veto goes unchallenged. This is why Russia opposes NATO expansion into Eastern Europe. It doesn't want to be isolated.
Russia knows the only way it will be seriously consulted in NATO decisions is to become a full member. It also knows that the more members NATO has, the more Russia will become isolated from the organization and from European decisionmaking. These beliefs are not phantasms of Russia's anti-Western imagination; they are hard realities. The West is the one refusing to face such realities.
RUSSIA's official goal is a partnership with the West, through a wide range of institutions, including NATO. Its other, semi-official goal is "political membership" in the organization - in other words, a seat on the North Atlantic Council, where NATO's decisionmaking takes place. This would help overcome the threat of isolation, but it would also raise the problem of NATO's refusal to give Russia veto power. NATO would have to overcome this problem in order to make Russian membership work.
All the ways of overcoming Russian isolation bring us back to the same point: overcoming the veto in NATO. If we have the good manners to listen and learn from the experience of the people on the receiving end of NATO's partnerships, we may yet find our way to that solution.