NATO Expansion Still a Bad Idea

By Thomas Friedman Copyright New York Times News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), March 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

NATO Expansion Still a Bad Idea


Thomas Friedman Copyright New York Times News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


So it's all OK now? That's the word from the Clinton folks. They got the mood music they were looking for in Helsinki: The Russians will complain about NATO expansion, but Boris Yeltsin will accept the goodies the United States offered him to tolerate NATO's moving closer to Russia's border.

Therefore, we will have the best of all worlds: NATO expansion to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, vague assurances to the Balts and others left out that they can join later and even some progress on arms c ontrol thrown in to boot.

As one U.S. official quipped to me, referring to my own criticism of NATO expansion: "When do we get to see the headline `Clinton Right on NATO Expansion, Critics All Wrong'?" Not yet. To be fair, if Clinton is able to achieve this best-of-all-worlds scenario, it would indeed merit real praise. My priority is that the arms control treaties with Russia be implemented and the reform process there be enhanced. That is what would really secure European stability. If the administration can deliver both, while also pursuing its dubious, politically inspired NATO expansion scheme, then it would be churlish to oppose this Helsinki package. But we are a long way from drawing that conclusion. To begin with, many of the key issues involving NATO expansion remain unresolved: What will happen to all the countries, particularly the Balts, that don't get into NATO now? How will the U.S. Congress react when it discovers that Clinton's Helsinki package comes with a price tag of at least $40 billion, and a U.S. military commitment to defend the Polish border? How will the Russian Parliament react to this deal? But beyond these unanswered questions, I remain a skeptic because this Helsinki "success" is based on two white lies. The first is that, though the Russians don't like NATO expansion, they've decided to make the best of it. In truth, that is not what Helsinki demonstrates. What it shows is that "Russia has concluded it is simply too weak to stop expansion," notes Johns Hopkins University foreign policy specialist Michael Mandelbaum, a leading critic of NATO expansion. And the problem with expanding NATO on such terms, Mandelbaum argues, is that up to now "the entire post-Cold-War security structure in Europe, whether the unification of Germany or the conventional and nuclear arms control treaties, has been based on Russian consent. …

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