The West has accomplished the virtually impossible: By embarking on an ill-conceived policy of NATO enlargement, it has unified an otherwise fragmented Russian society in nearly unanimous and very genuine opposition to this now-central Western security policy initiative. This is quite an achievement.
Many Russians do not believe NATO itself poses a direct military threat to Russia. They do think that NATO enlargement exploits Russian vulnerability, excludes Russian participation, and reinforces the arguments of those within Russia who have long opposed the trend toward multilateral security cooperation.
Therefore, while NATO enlargement need not threaten Russia, it does as things stand now. The key to understanding this is to recall that NATO, as Lord Ismay said, served three purposes: to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down. This means NATO's functions were collective defense, creating transatlantic security, and what we today call "integration" and "transparency." NATO's success had many causes, but at least one important reason was that its form followed function: Collective defense made sense against the Soviet Union which was not a member, while transatlanticism, integration, and transparency made sense because they were important among members - especially with respect to Germany.
Support in the West for NATO enlargement arises from the positive example of Germany's rehabilitation and integration after World War II - NATO's contribution to solving "the German question." Through its political and military structures, NATO bound Germany to a pattern of multilateral security cooperation that provided assurance to its neighbors that Germany had neither the intention nor capability to relive its violent past. Security assurance and transparency are very much needed in Eastern and Central Europe, where the history of conflict and turmoil of political and economic transformation make mistrust more dangerous than weapons themselves.
So, after the cold war, enlargement could extend the German experience and spread stability, assurance, and security. Furthermore, serving these tasks through enlargement would reinforce American commitment to transatlantic security. Given that NATO also was built upon an extraordinary degree of military cooperation, integration, and capability, we do not want to lose NATO because its blending of political purpose with military missions is unprecedented and perhaps impossible to recreate.
The problem is that enlargement without Russia ignores three issues.
First, Western support for enlarging NATO to spread integration and transparency is indistinguishable from a policy meant to enhance NATO's political and military capacity as a collective defense alliance against Russia - NATO's first historic function.
Second, if the reason for NATO enlargement is truly, genuinely, and only spreading the benefits of transatlantic security, integration, and transparency - that is, the function of collective defense against Russia is ruled out - there is no logical reason for Russia not to be a member. How can an exclusive military alliance serve the purpose of integration and transparency, which require inclusivity? Officially, of course, NATO's policy is that Russia is not precluded from membership and might someday join. This is woefully inadequate. If we are serious that enlargement is for integration and is not directed against Russia, Russian membership should be on the policy agenda now, and Russia should seriously be offered membership.
Third, enlargement without Russia ignores that NATO's value as a security institution for military cooperation does not depend on the traditional mission of collective defense against an external enemy. NATO's evolving missions and capacities for peace operations, humanitarian missions, and the whole range of post-cold-war defense preserve and extend its role in making military cooperation possible and effective. This successful evolution is exemplified by multilateral political-military cooperation - which includes Russia - in Bosnia.
NATO can have its cake and eat it too: It can be the political-military core of transatlanticism which also provides for security through integration, assurance, and transparency for states that might otherwise threaten one another. But the condition for this happy outcome is that Russia be a member - there is simply no other way. Otherwise, the threat to Russia is either that NATO as a collective defense alliance grows in power and geographic scope; or that NATO as a security institution for integration excludes Russia from the most important and the most effective institution for security cooperation in the post-cold-war world.
Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin has repeatedly said that perhaps Russia could join NATO's political structures, and he has invoked the French, Spanish, and Icelandic models as support that this would have a precedent. But in public discussion, he stands virtually alone.
Publicly, forcefully, and honestly offering Russia membership in NATO would entirely change the terms of the debate. It would in all likelihood break apart the Russian consensus against NATO enlargement, since it would erase the issues to which many Russians object. It would remove the basis for the legitimate and thoughtful Russian objections to NATO enlargement, and expose those who oppose NATO for the sake of opposing NATO. It could well support the emergence of a stable and thoughtful moderate consensus on security cooperation, which has been lacking since the Soviet Union broke apart.
Most of all, it would demonstrate that it is not NATO enlargement itself which threatens Russian national security, but rather NATO enlargement that excludes and dismisses Russia's security interests and participation.
*Celeste A. Wallander is an associate professor of government and a faculty fellow of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University.