At the heart of the current United States debate over the expansion of NATO lies a key question: Should the US remain engaged in Europe?
The North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 represented more than an alliance against the Soviet Union. Along with the contemporary Marshall Plan, it proclaimed an unprecedented commitment by Washington to remain involved in the security of Western Europe.
Since 1949, Europe has made great progress toward unity, primarily through the development of the European Union (EU). Some voices on the Continent call for Europe to take on greater responsibility for its military security through strengthening the Western European Union (WEU). The US, however, is not a member of either the EU or the WEU. Its only formal security tie to Europe, other than NATO, is through the weaker Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). And many Europeans today, remembering the tragic enmities that brought on two world wars, will be the first to admit that the stabilizing presence of the US is still necessary in European affairs. The US and NATO roles in Bosnia emphasized this once again.
The proposals to bring Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and perhaps others into NATO spring in part from those nations' recognition of the importance of a US commitment to the Continent's security. They view no other organization as likely to ensure high continuing US interest in what Russia does and in the effects of potential intra-European rivalries. Those in Washington favoring NATO expansion agree, fearing any lesser US involvement could leave a dangerous vacuum in Central Europe.
NATO enlargement is far from certain, but progress is being made. In her recent visit to Moscow, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright presented imaginative proposals to the Russians to help allay their concerns about alliance enlargement. President Clinton will pursue the matter further when he meets with President Boris Yeltsin in Helsinki on March 20. In his speech to the Russian parliament on March 6, Mr. Yeltsin repeated his opposition to NATO expansion. Yet this may be part of his effort to bargain for the best terms with the West before he accepts new arrangements in Central Europe.
Beyond the Russian factor lies the requirement that all 16 NATO nations approve the new members before they can become formal members of the alliance. In some cases, approval can be a cabinet decision. In others, including the US, parliamentary ratification is required.
During the ratification process, some will question whether to preserve NATO in the absence of a Russian threat. Others may attempt to bargain acceptance of enlargement to gain other political objectives. Turkey could seek support against Greek actions in Cyprus or use its vote to leverage admission to the EU. Some in France may press further for a greater French military role. Norway and Denmark may raise the issue of including the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), a proposal anathema to the Russians.
Though the Clinton administration is moving to build support in the Senate for ratification, gaining the necessary 67 votes in a body that has been cool to the deployment of US forces in distant lands will require a concerted bipartisan effort. The submission to the Senate of the treaty's amendment to include the new members is at least a year away. A vote may be delayed until the next election.
Many arguments will be heard in that national debate, raising fundamental issues of foreign and security policy. Why is a commitment to Europe necessary in the post-cold-war world? Do we really want to commit to sending American men and women to fight on the borders of the Ukraine? Why don't the Europeans do more for themselves? What about the primacy of Asia in any list of US interests?
After the long and tortuous preparation now in progress, the US Senate and public could decide "no." If that happens, it will mean Washington is turning its back on Europe. The impact on the influence of the US and on the long-range stability of a historically fractured continent could be tragic.
*David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.