NATO's role in a peaceful Europe

June 13, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Displaying the spirit that was to produce victory at Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson once held a fire poker and said, ''It matters not at all in what way I lay this poker on the floor. But if Bonaparte should say it must be placed in this direction, we must instantly insist on its being laid in some other one.''

Similar reasoning, with Russia playing Bonaparte's role, is one argument for proceeding quickly with NATO enlargement.

Regardless of the outcome of Russia's presidential election, the U.S. should stop trimming foreign policy to accommodate Russian preferences and phobias. Continuing the stall concerning the inclusion in NATO of the new democracies of Eastern Europe sends a dangerous signal to Russia and a demoralizing signal to those democracies.

To Russia's increasingly truculent rulers it signals that NATO's member nations, and especially the United States, can be coerced. To the Russian people, when NATO hesitates to enlarge because enlargement might seem ''provocative,'' that suggests that the lies the Soviet regime told them for 45 years --that NATO is an offensive, not a defensive, alliance -- were true.

If Russia's rulers have no revanchist aspirations, they have no reason to resent NATO's inclusion of the new democracies. However, those democracies have reasons to fear Russian revanchism waged by a diplomacy of intimidation backed by overwhelming military superiority. That could produce

Finlandization, meaning pliant neutrality, from Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic.

Expansionism is in Russia's national DNA. Richard Pipes, the Harvard historian, calculates that from the middle of the 16th century to the end of the 17th, the Muscovite state's territorial acquisitions year by year averaged an area equal in size to modern-day Holland. ''Others have built empires,'' says Mr. Pipes, ''but no country has expanded so relentlessly and held on so tenaciously to its conquests as has Russia.''

Henry Kissinger notes that a nation spanning, as even post-Soviet Russia does, 11 time zones (St. Petersburg is closer to New York than to Vladivostok, which is closer to Seattle than to Moscow) should not feel claustrophobic, yet Russia still manifests ''creeping expansionism,'' exemplified by the two Russian divisions in Georgia.

The right of power

The Brezhnev Doctrine held that wherever socialism had been planted by Soviet power, there the Soviet Union had a right to preserve it. The doctrine of today's Russian rulers may be that wherever Russians are, there Russian power can go.

Partly to propitiate nationalists, Mr. Yeltsin cashiered his ''liberal'' foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, but even Mr. Kozyrev asserted a Russian right of military intervention in all countries containing Russian minorities. Mr. Kissinger says that includes at least 14 states of the former Soviet Union, including the Baltic states.

Given Russia's history and current dynamics, the tardiness of NATO enlargement makes it understandable that Czech President Vaclav Havel says, ''The danger of another Munich is looming over Europe.'' In Prague, ''Munich'' is not a mere metaphor. For Prague, the appeasement policy made at Munich in 1938 was the decisive event of this century.

The word ''Munich,'' says Peter Rodman of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, is shorthand for ''Western abandonment.'' He recalls that when Franco died in 1975, one argument for bringing Spain into NATO was to strengthen Spain's fledgling democracy. Six years later Spain's admission was proclaimed. Seven years have passed since the de-Sovietization of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Spain's traditional isolation from main currents of European history -- ''Africa begins at the Pyrenees'' was a familiar jest -- was deepened by almost 40 years of Franco's rule, but admission to NATO accelerated Spain's entry into modernity. For 40 years Prague, Budapest and Warsaw were isolated from Europe's democratic civilization. Prague is west of Vienna and closer to Dublin than to Moscow.

But NATO, attempting to appease an irritable Russia, has not yet even decided when to decide about admitting the Czech Republic and the other new democracies. This, Mr. Rodman reasons, is one explanation for the demoralization of pro-Western forces and the resuscitation of neo-Communists in central Europe.

NATO has been one of modern history's huge successes. The only invasion of the territory of a member nation by armed forces of another nation occurred in the South Atlantic -- the Falklands. NATO's first actual combat operation occurred in February 1994 -- against Serb planes over Bosnia. What would be enlarged with NATO would be Central Europe's prospects for two fragile things, deterrence and democracy.

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George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/13/96

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