The decision to expand NATO into Eastern Europe, endorsed by President Clinton in a major address just before his reelection, is the most significant and dangerous extension of American security commitments since the late 1940s. Foreign ministers of NATO's 16 member nations met this week to prepare the way. But before Americans pursue this course, which is favored by both Republican and Democratic leaders, they should understand where it could lead.
First, the logic that dictates NATO expansion, like the domino theory, ensures an exhausting proliferation of "security" commitments. The reasoning goes that, if America must guarantee the stability of Western Europe, it must stabilize those areas that could unsettle Western Europe.
It is often argued, for instance, that the alliance must expand to prevent turmoil in Eastern Europe, because mass immigration to Western Europe could threaten stability there. But turmoil in, say, Ukraine or North Africa could also destabilize Western Europe. Must NATO and its nuclear umbrella, then, expand ever farther eastward and southward?
Sen. Richard Lugar, an ardent advocate of the NATO plan, argues that "there can be no lasting security at the center without security at the periphery." But, if this formula is accepted, the "threats" to American security will be nearly endless.
Although, as the president acknowledged, the cost of NATO's expansion will be high - last year America spent $90 billion maintaining the stability of Europe's western half - the other costs may be greater.
NATO expansion could provoke a new cold war. The cold war ended with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Moscow agreed to quit Eastern Europe and to allow German unification - a development which, given the history of German-Russian relations in the 20th century, Moscow regarded with trepidation. Moreover, Russia acceded to the continued existence of an alliance that had been hostile to it and even agreed to the inclusion of the newly unified Germany in that alliance. In return, Moscow received assurances from the US and its allies that they would not take advantage of this situation to tip the geopolitical balance, thus potentially threatening Russia's security.
From Moscow's perspective, the United States, by pushing to bring its powerful military alliance to Russia's borders, has reneged on this bargain. Indeed, opposition to NATO's extension is probably the one issue that unites virtually the entire Russian political class. To put the matter in perspective, imagine what the US response would be if a Russian-led Warsaw Pact, heretofore confined to Eastern Europe, decided to exploit a temporarily weakened American position by incorporating Western Europe and Canada into an enlarged alliance. America would interpret this action as an encirclement strategy. We should not expect Russia to view an expanded NATO any differently.
Although American officials regard NATO expansion as a benign act, it is, as the president acknowledged, a means to consolidate and extend America's military and political leadership in Europe. If NATO becomes the dominant security organization on the continent, Russia, a European power, will be excluded from Europe's councils.
Why, Russian leaders have asked, must Europe's security remain the responsibility of an alliance run by a superpower across the Atlantic?
Forty-six years ago the French commentator Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber defined America's role in Europe: "When a nation bears the responsibility for the military security and economic stability of a geographic zone, the nation is in fact - whether it wants it or not - the head of an empire." Whatever America's motivations, for the US to expand its imperial role in Europe cannot help but alarm Russia and thus create an enemy where none now exists.
Benjamin Schwarz is the executive editor of World Policy Journal.