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NATO Expansion: Too Much, Too Early

First posted in 1995-by Francois Heisbourg-PARIS: Democracies are often guilty of doing “too little, too late” in the face of new challenges. Unlike dictatorships, the democratic process takes time, and implies compromise. The slowness of democratic states in meeting the fascist challenge in the thirties or the scourge of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans is often cited in this regard.
Democracies also act prematurely. Such cases of “too much, too early” tend to occur when the initial decision is politically undemanding, and short term consequences limited. NATO expansion belongs to this category. It is a fairly simple matter to declare the enlargement of the Atlantic alliance with little risk involved for NATO’s members: no foreign power is in a position to threaten their territorial integrity. No surprise that a number of Western democracies launched this venture in 1994, raising high expectations in Eastern Europe. Mercifully, the democratic process does make it difficult to execute a policy decision of this magnitude without public debate. As debate unfolds, harsh consequences emerge. Several questions must find answers before NATO’s enlargement should proceed.
Is NATO militarily willing and able to implement mutual defense obligations? Yes, perhaps, for countries contiguous with NATO: Austria, the Czech Republic, and Poland. But who dares suggest that this condition is fulfilled in the West vis a vis Estonia or Ukraine? A mirror-image of this question applies to new members: are they able and willing to contribute to the common defense by adopting NATO standards and making their military available for use by NATO?
Would early NATO expansion enhance or diminish the security of new members? Arguably, the answer here could be positive for countries which feel threatened by a powerful neighbor: i.e. the Baltic States or Ukraine. Conversely, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Hungary are safer, by virtue of geography, than (for instance) Finland or Sweden. In other cases, joining NATO could create less security: Finland, a member of the EU remains outside NATO for this reason; its existing modus vivendi with Russia is a stable and satisfactory one.
It is not clear whether or not Poland is better off vis a vis the Russians in Kaliningrad through membership. Are the perceived security threats to potential new members of the sort which can be met with NATO’s military and political means? The presence of large Russian ethnic minorities in Estonia, Latvia or Ukraine could present a security challenge to these states; but NATO is not relevant and could prove a liability in such cases. Would NATO membership of some countries have a positive or a negative effect on the security of states that do not become members? Unfortunately, the answer here is much less equivocal. In a few cases membership will have no discernible effect on the security of the others: this would apply if Austria and the Czech Republic joined. Membership of states such as Poland, Finland, or Slovakia, would leave the Baltics and Ukraine dangling, creating the presumption that they would be thrown to the wolves. Hence the wariness in Ukraine towards rapid NATO expansion.
Last but not least, would speedy enlargement of NATO have a positive or negative impact on Russia’s security policy towards its neighbors? There is every reason to believe that a nationalist reaction by the Russian electorate against a perceived humiliation would be the net effect of rapid expansion of NATO. The strength of this reaction would probably be commensurate with the extent of enlargement: Prague or Vienna joining would draw a weaker backlash in Moscow than a similar move in Tallinn or Kiev.
Draw together the possible answers to these questions and four options for NATO enlargement can be presented:
1. the first is to do nothing, meaning no enlargement whatsoever even to new members of the European Union. This would be odd, not least because membership in the European Union allows members to put their candidacy to join the Western European Union (WEU). The W.E.U., in legal and political terms is closely tied to NATO. Full membership of the one has traditionally entailed membership of the other.
2. the second option is to enlarge NATO to all candidates in one fell swoop, including therefore the Baltic states as well as the Central European countries, along with Romania and Bulgaria. This would deal with the downside of leaving certain countries “in the cold”. Conversely, such an expansion would create maximum and long-lasting tension with Russia, with the risk of NATO being challenged without being able to provide a convincing response.
3. the third solution is to admit the Visegrad countries speedily, as is demanded most vocally in Warsaw. But what happens then to the Baltics and Ukraine?
4. the fourth and last option is to gear the pace of NATO enlargement to the process of growth of the European Union. Although imperfect, such a course has advantages. EU enlargement is an organic process, driven by shared economic and political interests, rather that by strategic considerations: thus it is not a “hot button” issue in Russia. Making NATO membership an EU-dependent variable should draw less of a reaction than a stand-alone NATO expansion driven by strategic considerations. By tying NATO expansion to EU enlargement, no pre-set geographical limit is set to the process. In time, the Baltics states for instance could be included.
EU-NATO tie-up buys time. Time not only for the potential NATO members to think through their security policy, deciding whether they will find themselves better off as EU members in WEU and NATO or whether EU membership without a NATO-tag will serve them more effectively (the Finnish or Swedish choice.) But time also to establish a modus vivendi with Russia. Russia is not a potential member of the European Union nor would it make sense for it to be part of NATO (if only because of the conflict of interests that would create vis a vis US commitments with Japan and other East Asia states.) A formal consultative mechanism will have to be set up between the Atlantic Alliance and Russia, possibly in the framework of a NATO Moscow treaty, as has been suggested by the European Union.
No country, including Russia, is entitled to the prerogatives of Empire. NATO enlargement is not for Moscow to veto. But, it is equally unacceptable for any state to act as if the security concerns of countries in its neighborhood are quantite negligeable: Russia’s security concerns definitely do not belong to the negligeable category.

Copyright: Project Syndicate 1995 – NATO Expansion: Too Much, Too Early

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