Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has repeated a common mistake about NATO. She evidently has accepted the belief that each member has a veto on each policy, and that Russia cannot join NATO for this reason. "Russia will have a voice, but Russia will not have a veto," she told journalists in Brussels on Feb. 18. "We will try as much as possible to act with Russia, but when we cannot, we will act as an alliance."
The right of veto is a myth. We "try as much as possible" to act with France, a NATO member, but when we cannot we sometimes "act as an alliance." The same would be true of Russia as a member of NATO. Decisions in NATO are sometimes postponed out of politeness to dissenting members, but a member of NATO has no right of veto over actions by the others.
For decades it has been a public relations habit of NATO to avoid stepping on nationalist toes and to downplay the actual strength of the alliance. One way has been to say that each member country has an equal say and a right of veto on every decision. This has a grain of truth, but legally it is false. The grain of truth is that in NATO most decisions are made by consensus and with a front of unanimity. In reality, consensus is not always unanimity. Sometimes even the front of unanimity has been breached, with a few countries publicly disagreeing ("reserving their positions") in footnotes.
There are real costs to going on pretending everyone has a veto. It has meant ruling out any serious discussion in NATO about how to include Russia. It has led Russia to ask for veto power "like every member." The problem of relations with Russia remains insoluble as long as it is held that every member of NATO, even Luxembourg, has a veto. It would be far better to make Russia a member, while dropping the pretense that members have vetoes, than to keep Russia in an inferior position outside of NATO and give vetoes to lots of other countries.
There is a decisionmaking problem for expanding NATO to any country, not just Russia. If it operates on a basis of unit veto, then it cannot afford to have too many members. It is irrational to think that the veto can safely be extended to numerous small countries in Central and Eastern Europe but not to one big country called Russia.
While the veto is a habit in the North Atlantic Council, the council can change its rules if it sees a need. The North Atlantic Treaty itself - as its main author, Theodore Achilles, used to proudly point out - left the decisionmaking process unspecified, for the very purpose of ensuring the council could make decisions without veto as needed.
Unanimity only a habit
Two of NATO's early secretaries-general, Paul-Henri Spaak and Dirk Stikker, were advocates of decisionmaking by weighted voting and no veto. In his memoirs, "Men of Responsibility," Mr. Stikker devoted several pages to refuting the idea that there is any right of veto in NATO. But, as the cold war dragged on, the habit of presenting a front of unanimity to the enemy grew ingrained. People forgot there was any alternative.
The cold war has ended. Recognizing its tasks are more diverse, NATO talks about increasing flexibility. Unfortunately, this is only on the administrative level through "combined joint task forces." It needs to be done on the political level. Then new memberships will become manageable - for Russia as well as Central and Eastern Europe.
A Russia in a NATO with weighted voting would have perhaps 15 percent of the vote, while the stable democracies in the West would have more than 60 percent. (The Central/East European states would have the rest.) Russia would have no chance of blocking any legitimate decision nor of mobilizing a majority to support an aggressive move. But it would finally have the major bargaining weight it deserves, and a chance of organizing coalitions around initiatives of its own that are compatible with Western interests. In such ways, a weighted vote would give Russia the chance to defend its interests by normal means and to find constructive roles to play as a part of the West.
Giving up equal power
Representatives of some small Eastern European countries have already proposed that NATO operate by the weighted vote instead of the unit veto - even though this means giving up any pride of an equal veto power in favor of a relatively small weight within NATO. They understand that this is needed so NATO can admit new members without drawing new dividing lines or losing its effectiveness. NATO is the worse off for the failure to heed them.
Russia, unlike smaller Eastern European countries, cannot beg every day at the door of NATO and answer every petty objection raised against its entry. This is too humiliating for a great power, and too discrediting for its politicians. It is more than humble enough for Russia to consider joining NATO at all. It should be enough of an opportunity for the West that Russians indicate that, despite everything, they want to join.
When Russians offer a compromise formula such as "political membership" that could make the relationship work in the coming period - and this has been done in recent weeks by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and others - the West should take it up and figure out the specifics. This means resolving the veto problem by establishing a procedural option of weighted voting in NATO and acknowledging the legal fact that there is no right of veto in the alliance. Once that is done, it will be possible to resolve all the other problems as matters of detail.
* Ira L. Straus is US coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO.