Are Americans Ready to Go to War for Prague?

NATO summit today to invite new Eastern Europe members

With today's historic invitation to Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, one question has yet to receive much attention: Will Americans be obligated - and willing - to defend Prague?

So far, debate in the US over NATO expansion has been confined to official Washington and the foreign policy elite. The arguments have focused on Russia's objections to the alliance's embrace of its former satellites, assuaging the ire of states denied invitations, and the costs of bringing in new members.

But before the Senate votes next summer to ratify NATO's expansion, President Clinton will have to convince two-thirds of its members and the general public that it is worth sacrificing American lives to safeguard the new democracies of Eastern Europe.

"I think other countries that need help should get it," says Gerri Link, a young mother in Greenville, Maine. "But it shouldn't always be us."

A guarded willingness to accept NATO expansion and the obligations that go with it, seemed the prevalent view of those interviewed over the weekend at Independence Day events around the country.

"People in the US think 'Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic' and they think communism. But what right did Roosevelt have to give those countries to Stalin?" asks Valeria Papadopulos, a pediatrician in Montclair, N.J., who lived in Poland and moved to the United States in 1949. "Now those countries need to feel they belong somewhere, and have some feeling that they will be defended and not belong to Russia," she says.

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press earlier this year found that only a narrow plurality - 40 percent to 45 percent - favored the admission of new members. But only 20 percent of Americans had followed the issue of NATO expansion.

As far as the general public is concerned, "we are still at a stage where this is not high on the radar screen," says Andrew Kohut of the Washington-based polling organization.

The lack of interest may be rooted in a number of factors, experts say. To begin with, there is a widespread perception that Russia and its former Eastern European satellites have successfully made the transition to free-market democracy. Few Americans see any scenarios in which that transformation could be reversed.

Second, the lack of a military rival to the US, coupled with the booming domestic economy and record-low unemployment, has produced a greater sense of national well-being. Taking their cue from political leaders who stress the need to address unresolved domestic problems, many Americans are focusing on issues within their own borders.

Summit stirs debate

But the summit meeting attended by Mr. Clinton and 15 other leaders of NATO states in Madrid today and tomorrow may help stimulate the kind of discussion that some US senators would like to see more of.

"The decision to extend US security guarantees to three more countries is one that deserves far more debate and circumspection than it has thus far received, regardless of whether one supports NATO expansion or not," asserted a bipartisan group of 20 senators in a June 25 letter to Clinton.

"Although NATO won the cold war without ever firing a shot, the victory was possible because our enemies knew we would fight," added the letter. "Are the American people willing to make that same commitment to the three countries in Central Europe ... and possibly more in the future?"

But given the lack of public interest to date, what that commitment entails may not be widely understood.

Ever since the alliance was formed in 1949 to repel a Soviet thrust at Western Europe, it has been universally believed that members are bound to rush to each other's defense, an attack on one considered an attack on all. In fact, there is no such automatic commitment.

NATO obligations

Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty makes intervention a decision of individual members. During the cold war, there was never a doubt how the US would decide. Furthermore, 300,000 American soldiers and hundreds of nuclear warheads were deployed on the East-West divide to ensure that the US would be the first to tangle with a Soviet onslaught.

That threat is gone and so are nearly all the US warheads and two-thirds of the troops.

And in the post-cold-war era, there may be less perceived need to stay abreast of events in Europe.

"I don't keep up with international politics," says Tina Dale of Washington, D.C., as she visits New York's Central Park with her children. "So I don't know the political climate of those countries or attitudes toward joining NATO, nor their respect of the US, she says."

But such lack of interest does not necessarily translate into opposition. There are circumstances, experts say, under which Americans would be prepared to sacrifice "blood and treasure" in defense of the new Eastern European democracies.

A majority - 62 percent - is ready to bless NATO expansion as long as the US does not bear an inordinate share of the responsibilities and acts in concert with its partners, according to a survey conducted by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes.

"A majority of Americans understand the notion of collective security," says the program's director, Steven Kull. "What is key in their minds is that it is a collective operation, not a unilateral action by the US."

"The argument that got the lowest support was one that said we should expand NATO because that would allow us to consolidate our victory in the cold war," Mr. Kull continues. "The big winner was that it would be inclusive and bring other countries together to promote peace."

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