NATO was created, as Lord Ismay, NATO's first secretary general, put it, "to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down." The alliance, obviously, has performed those roles extremely well, considering that Western Europe is still free and very prosperous, while the Soviet Union has expired. Moreover, Germany is today a peaceful, democratic nation whose Army was reduced to less than 400,000 troops as a part of the treaty permitting its reunification in 1990.
But is now the time to bring the Russians into NATO? Proponents of the idea argue that there no longer is much likelihood that Russia will invade Western, or even Central, Europe. The Russian military is hard- pressed to find the resources to defend its own somewhat reduced borders. Moreover, Russia wants to become a part of the European Community.
Toward this end, the Russians in recent months have gone out of their way to demonstrate their eagerness to create a cooperative relationship with the West. They have accepted President Bush's call for drastic cuts in strategic nuclear arsenals. They even have muted their criticism of Mr. Bush's decision to withdraw the United States from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. This 1972 agreement prohibits the testing, development, and deployment of the national ballistic missile defense system that the president wants to deploy.
The Russians also have joined the US-led war on terrorism. They have shared intelligence with Western special services, opened Russian air corridors for "humanitarian supplies" to Afghanistan and, more importantly, maintained the flow of Russian oil to the West at a reasonable price.
Equally significant, the Russians have toned down their criticism of NATO's impending decision to admit additional East European states to the alliance. The new members could include Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, states that border Russia and were once part of the Soviet Union.
The Russians clearly would like to become a part of NATO. Russian President Vladimir Putin said recently: "There is no longer any reason for the West not to conduct talks" on Russian membership in NATO.
Such an event would cement Russia's ties to the European Community, allow Russia to reduce further its expensive military establishment, and open Russia to the markets of the West.
Realizing the growing importance of Russian assistance, NATO has begun to take steps that could eventually bring Russia into the alliance. On Dec. 7, NATO members met with Russian Foreign Minister Ivan Ivanov and concluded an agreement that will strengthen Russia's decisionmaking role in the NATO-Russian Permanent Joint Council, which was established by the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations. That agreement gave Russia a voice in the alliance but not a role in making decisions.
The case for eventual Russian membership in the alliance is a strong one. It is quite clear that even the newly modified Permanent Joint Council will be limited in the number of issues that both sides will be able to discuss and act upon, thereby maintaining the current awkward relationship between NATO and Russia as well as the old cold-war division of Europe.
Equally significant, many, if not most, Europeans believe that Russian membership in NATO would complete the process of building a structure of European states that might finally bring lasting peace to the continent.
Keeping Russia out of the alliance indefinitely, on the other hand, will not only leave a major gap in that mosaic, it could also revive Russia's traditional xenophobia and aggressiveness.
At the very least, the prospect of Russian membership in NATO would prevent continued friction with Russia over NATO's eastward expansion. The Russians could hardly criticize a process in which they were invited to participate.
Obviously, a negotiated settlement of the tragic Chechen conflict, including autonomy for Chechnya, accompanied by the withdrawal of most Russian troops, would go a long way toward easing opposition to Russia's entry into the alliance.
At the same time, NATO should make it clear to the Russians that the continued development of democracy in their country including the maintenance of a free news media, which has been under attack from the Putin government is a prerequisite of Russia's admission into the alliance.
In 1991, when the cold war ended, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin asked NATO to admit his country as a full member of the alliance. NATO scornfully dismissed his request, arguing that Russia was not ready for membership in the alliance. The consequences, at least in part, of that rejection were a short-circuiting of Russia's democratic development, rampant corruption, and near economic collapse, accompanied by friction between NATO and Russia over Bosnia and Kosovo.
Now, as a consequence of the Sept. 11 tragedy, the West has a second chance to finally conclude the cold war, end the division of Europe, and make Russia a full partner of NATO in combating terrorism and curbing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. NATO, and particularly the United States, which leads the alliance, should not squander the opportunity the Sept. 11 tragedy has offered.
NATO should make clear to the Russians that their continued cooperation with the alliance, as well as steady progress in the development of democracy and respect for human rights, particularly in Chechnya will lead to Russia's eventual admission into the alliance, certainly by the end of this decade.
Ronald E. Powaski is a professor of history at Cleveland State University and author of 'Return from Armageddon: The End of the Nuclear Arms Race?' (Oxford, 2000).