NATO Expansion: Does It Have an End?

The Senate will probably ratify enlargement, but new applicants and friction with Russia lie ahead

They came, they enlarged, they departed. So might run the epitaph to the recent summit meeting in Madrid, where the heads of government of NATO's 16 members met and approved the first expansion of the organization in more than a decade.

Invitations to join were extended to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic; if all goes as planned, NATO will grow to 19 by the time the organization celebrates its 50th anniversary in April 1999.

But a good deal will have to happen before and after that date if NATO enlargement is to succeed. Most important, perhaps, all 16 of NATO's current members have to approve the expansion. In most cases, this can be assumed. One country whose favorable vote cannot be assumed, however, happens to be the alliance's most important member, the United States.

Why is US support in question? After all, the idea for NATO enlargement only gained real life once it was adopted and promoted by the Clinton administration. But the administration fumbled its handling of this initiative, launching it before either Congress or the American public was educated about its benefits and liabilities. Indeed, the president committed the United States to going ahead with enlargement before most Americans even knew it was an option.

What has ensued is a belated but nonetheless intense debate within the foreign policy establishment over the wisdom of proceeding. Advocates point out that enlargement is the best way to stabilize the new democracies of Eastern and Central Europe and ensure that this region never again becomes a battlefield. Enlargement also promises to lock in the gains realized at the end of the cold war and constitutes a hedge against the possibility that a hostile Russia might reemerge.

Opponents muster at least as many arguments. NATO enlargement is criticized as sure to make doing business with Russia more difficult, harmful to the security of those European states not brought in, and costly at a time defense budgets are shrinking. It is also seen as distracting policymakers who ought to be concentrating on more important and pressing foreign policy concerns, such as promoting open trade, building relations with China, and salvaging Middle East peace. There is even the argument that enlargement is bad for NATO because it will complicate the task of reaching consensus and making decisions.

The Senate debate

All of this will come to a head over the next six to nine months as the Senate prepares to vote on revising the treaty that binds the US to NATO. Much of the Senate debate will probably focus on money. Estimates of how much enlargement will cost the US vary widely, but a bill of several hundred million dollars a year for a dozen years is well within the ballpark. This will be too much for some senators, especially when a number of NATO's European members balk at paying what is judged their fair share.

Other senators will question enlargement on policy grounds, echoing the same doubts already raised by various experts. Also, there are sure to be questions as to why American sons and daughters should be prepared to risk their lives defending these faraway places.

In the end, though, NATO enlargement is all but certain to gain the two-thirds vote required. The vote will not simply be about NATO, but something more: this country's willingness to follow through on its commitments and be a major world power. A negative vote would be portrayed as the late 20th century equivalent of the Senate's defeat 80 years ago of US membership in the League of Nations. Few in the Senate will want to accept such a responsibility.

More difficult hurdles will emerge in the aftermath of the vote. Enlarging NATO is as much a military as a political initiative. The three new members must improve their military capabilities, while the alliance will have to integrate the new members as well as improve the collective capacity to defend them. All of this will take time and money.

Also difficult will be managing Russia's reaction. The "Founding Act" signed in Paris in May between NATO and Russia created a permanent joint council intended to facilitate consultations between the two and help assuage Russian unhappiness with the decision to enlarge. But friction is inevitable. It is only a question of time before NATO will have to declare consultations with Russia to be over and act in a manner that Moscow opposes.

Then there is the problem of the states that did not get asked to join. NATO has already taken an important initiative by establishing a special relationship with Ukraine. In addition to expanding Western military cooperation with Ukraine under the Partnership for Peace framework, a mechanism is being created for regular consultations between Ukraine and NATO. In addition, the next phase of NATO enlargement - which could come in less than two years - will likely take in Romania and Slovenia, two states that made clear their desire to enter this time around but were told "not now."

No. 1 dilemma: the Baltics

The biggest problem of all is likely to involve the Baltic states: Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Demands in the United States for their inclusion in NATO are sure to grow; just as certain is Russia's opposition to their entry, along with that of several European NATO members who view Baltic membership as dangerously provocative. There is no way to square this circle and leave everyone satisfied. The question of what to do about the Baltics will burden NATO and the United States for years to come.

All this makes it clear that NATO enlargement is less an event than a process. Moreover, it is a process with an uncertain future. To paraphrase what is often said about wars: The only thing certain about NATO enlargement at this point is that it will be more difficult to end than to begin.

* Richard N. Haass, who directs the Foreign Policy Studies program at the Brookings Institution, is author most recently of "The Reluctant Sheriff: The United States after the Cold War."

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