NATO's Credibility Problem

Conventional wisdom from the White House says NATO will project democracy and stability to its new members. However, one alliance member, Turkey, is currently at war with its Kurdish population and has invaded a neighbor, Iraq, in order to pursue Kurds. When pressed to reconcile Turkey's treatment of the Kurds with the political objectives of NATO membership, NATO officials respond that domestic issues are not a concern of the alliance.

Turkey also remains on a potential war footing with Greece, and nearly half of the human rights cases the European Court of Human Rights is examining have been filed against Turkey. Clearly, NATO membership has not yielded the kinds of results that we are led to believe.

Czech President Vaclav Havel recently made much of his belief that Greece and Turkey would have been at war three times in the last 10 years were it not for NATO membership. But Mr. Havel ignores the two nations' war over Cyprus and the stationing of UN peacekeeping forces there, and the fact that it was not NATO but the US that restrained Greece and Turkey from clashing over an islet in the Aegean Sea last year. Considering that Turkey and Greece have been members of NATO since 1952, NATO's credibility in conflict resolution is questionable.

Advocates of expanding NATO argue that Turkish-Greek tension is an anomaly and point to reconciliation among prospective members of NATO. The Poles are reputed to have better relations with the Lithuanians and Ukrainians, and improved relations between the Hungarians and Romanians is also attributed to the NATO enlargement process. Yet, it was the European Union and the Stability Pact sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that produced these results - not NATO.

On the other hand, relations between the Czech Republic and Slovakia have worsened since the NATO expansion debate began. The Slovakian government contends that Czech- Slovak disputes over gold reserves and ownership of banks and national treasures - and the Czech Republic's unwillingness to negotiate on these issues - abrogate the enlargement criteria of settling outstanding problems with neighbors.

Romanians have found that Hungarians are increasingly assertive now that they see themselves backed by America. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's logic that the prospect of membership in the next wave of NATO enlargement will engender good behavior and relations between the "haves" and the "have nots" is contradicted by the facts. The example of Turkey should serve as a warning. After NATO enlarges, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic also will gain a cover from NATO's policy of "benign neglect" of members' human rights records and violations of international law.

Attributing the role of stabilizer and democratizer to NATO without considering the role that other institutions play, including the UN and the OSCE, continues to lead policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic to erroneous conclusions about the nature of NATO and its ability to ensure good behavior among its members.

* Daniel T. Plesch and Kirsten Ruecker are director and research assistant, respectively, at the British American Security Information Council.

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