Relations with the Great Powers: NATO and Russia

By Garthoff, Raymond L. | Brookings Review, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Relations with the Great Powers: NATO and Russia


Garthoff, Raymond L., Brookings Review


Expansion of NATO - or, as its advocates now prefer to term it, NATO enlargement - is the most important international issue on the agenda today. Yet it has received far too little real consideration. Support in Washington and most other NATO capitals seems widespread, but it is not deep. The issue did not figure in the fall U.S. election campaign, mainly because the idea was endorsed by both presidential candidates, in speeches to audiences in states with a political constituency of Americans of Polish, Czech, and Hungarian descent. In July, NATO will presumably announce its readiness to open negotiations with three Central European countries eager to enter NATO and considered most appropriate - Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. A promise will be made that others, as yet unchosen, will follow.

NATO was a great success story of the Cold War, so why not build on that success? For a few years, from 1990 until 1994, it was generally agreed that NATO must transform itself in the post-Cold War world, but that transforming a military alliance inherited from an era of confrontation of contending blocs was best done by changing its role, rather than by taking in new members. When the Paris Charter of Europe in 1990 marked the end of the Cold War, NATO had a border running through Central Europe. That border, however, was an unavoidable legacy of the Cold War. To create new lines of division of Europe by enlarging NATO to the East would not be explicable as an inheritance. New security arrangements could best be handled, it was thought, through individually differentiated agreements with non-NATO countries, through a Partnership for Peace (PFP) with each country that so desired, without creating a new and enlarged bloc. The PFP was launched at the start of 1994. But before it could prove itself (as indeed it has), the United States, which had sponsored it, suddenly endorsed expansion of NATO membership. Why?

The sudden shift had three principal sources. First, the political leaders of several former Communist Central and Eastern European states, above all in Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest, were impatient to enter (Western) Europe, and the road to membership in the European Union looked steep and long. NATO membership seemed the best path. The PFP was no substitute. Moreover, they harbored fears of future Russian pressures and wanted the security blanket assurances of Article V. Second, some (not all) German leaders decided that German economic expansion into East-Central Europe would be most palatable in the framework of a multilateral redefinition of relationships. Again NATO was more feasible than the EU, and the PFP was irrelevant. Finally and most decisive, President Clinton was persuaded by those in his administration, initially a minority, who favored an enlargement of NATO as the best vehicle to revivify and transform the alliance - and thereby to preserve and enhance the one institution that gave the American voice in Europe its greatest resonance. That it appealed to a vocal domestic political constituency was an added advantage. Even more important, it could represent an American initiative and a success story in the alliance and at home.

Ironically, extending NATO's protective umbrella to Central Europe against a possible resurgent Russian threat was regarded as an easy step precisely because it was understood that there was no real likelihood of Russian military aggression against any of its western neighbors, so that extending the U.S. and NATO commitment carried no real risk, while it would reassure the East-Central Europeans and gain their gratitude and support.

RUSSIAN REACTION

It was, of course, recognized that the Russians, who were just overcoming doubts and joining the Partnership for Peace, would not like it. But the advocates of NATO expansion believed that because the Russians could not really do anything about it, they would simply have to reconcile themselves to it.

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