The Future of NATO

December 13, 1993

Any assessment of NATO's future has to take account of one of the suppressed realities of the old Cold War, namely that two superpowers -- one totally outside Europe and one on its edge -- kept European tribal conflicts at bay through their unspoken military alliance. This is not how the U.S. and the former Soviet Union officially described their ideological rivalry and nuclear duopoly. But their shared interest was genuine and it persists, if for no other reason than their continuing capability to obliterate one another.

Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, NATO has been trying to define a new self-perpetuating mission even though the binding threat of a direct Soviet assault is lacking. Its latest formulation will be the crux of next month's NATO summit.

The key issue is how and to what extent NATO should expand eastward to fill the security vacuum created by the demise of the Warsaw Pact. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, all under nominally democratic government, are eager to join the alliance. Membership is seen as a protection against neo-Nazi or Communist revival.

But what about Russia? How can this be achieved without provoking Russian generals paranoid about the deterioration of their forces? President Boris Yeltsin's first response was that Russia, too, should be allowed to sign up -- an idea that drew too many premature guffaws in the West. So, under pressure from the militarists who saved his skin in last October's crisis, he denounced the idea of NATO enlargement in central Europe, citing his nation's age-old fears of encirclement.

Germany was all for going ahead with NATO enlargement anyway, lest it be seen as the new hegemonic power in central Europe. Luckily, the United States demurred. There was no shouting from the rooftops that Washington has security interests with Russia that transcend intra-European machinations. But, in our view, that was the Clinton administration's correct policy approach.

The result is a NATO scheme innocuously called "Partnership for Progress." It envisages welcoming central European nations to something less than eventual full membership. In the meantime, they would gain access to joint military exercises but would lack the NATO security guarantee that an attack on one member is an attack on all others.

In discussions with NATO this past week, Mr. Yeltsin said he is not mollified, even though Russia would also be eligible for "partnership." He seems to need something more as he struggles to remain in power. Perhaps the NATO summit should emphasize that Russian "partnership" is not just an afterthought but central to the idea of expanding NATO in ways unthreatening to Moscow and helpful in creating a new European security system. Even full membership should be dangled as a future possibility. Such a position would be consistent with the real U.S. position of the past half century.

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