ATLANTA -- In July, NATO will extend membership invitations to Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and perhaps other states of former communist Europe. The eastward expansion is apparently inevitable, but fundamentally foolish.
The existing alliance has been indispensable to Europe's unprecedented peace and stability. But there is no compelling rationale for a larger NATO. On the contrary, for a United States whose military power and will to use it effectively are declining vTC against a backdrop of mounting strategic challenges in East Asia and elsewhere outside Europe, NATO's eastward expansion is an especially ill-considered enterprise.
George F. Kennan, the intellectual engineer of America's post-World War II policy of containing the expansion of Soviet power and influence, has called NATO's eastward march ''the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era,'' because it threatens to provoke a resurrection of the very Russian military threat it is designed to thwart.
Russia is too weak to block NATO's enlargement, as post-World War I Germany was too weak to oppose the punitive Versailles Treaty. But Moscow has not lost its diplomatic freedom of action. In part because of NATO expansion, Russia is moving into an anti-American strategic alignment with China, romancing Iran with transfers of threatening military technologies, and -- worst of all -- reconsidering its participation in post-Cold War nuclear and conventional arms-control regimes that have given Europe a peace it had never known. Such is the price of gratuitously humiliating a defeated great power.
The Clinton administration contends that NATO expansion is directed against no other state in Europe, that, on the contrary, expansion is designed simply to breathe new life into the alliance and to export Western Europe's security and democratic and free-market institutions into Eastern Europe.
These claims are preposterous. Enlargement makes no strategic sense except as a measure to contain a resurgent and hostile Russia, a fact clearly understood by both Russia (where opposition to NATO expansion is the one issue that unites all political opinion) and all those former communist states and Soviet republics clamoring to join the alliance.
For such unreconstructed Cold Warriors as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, Russia is an incorrigibly authoritarian and imperialist state requiring continuing containment. Kicking Russia while it is down is seen as enlightened statecraft.
Nor does NATO need a bold new mission in former communist Europe to justify its existence after the Soviet Union's dissolution. There is no public or parliamentary sentiment within the alliance for dismantling NATO. On the contrary, there is broad recognition of NATO's key functions other than deterring aggression from the East. NATO continues to integrate German military power into a benign supranational framework, and it legitimizes America's reassuring military presence in Europe. Its integrated military command also stands as the world's only effective vehicle for multi-national military, including peace-enforcement, operations.
The proposition that the alliance can export stability and democracy into Eastern Europe and even the former Soviet Union is belied by the fact that the immediate candidates for NATO membership are already stable and democratic; indeed, stability and democracy are prerequisites for membership. NATO thus importing, not exporting, these political goods. Enlargement, far from eliminating Europe's East-West military division, will simply establish a new dividing line between those fortunate enough to be in NATO and those left out.
Expansion also involves formidable budgetary and strategic costs. Estimates range from $10 to $125 billion dollars, depending on how many new states are admitted and the consequent changes required in the military establishments of both old and new members. The lion's share of these costs will have to be taken from a U.S. defense budget that is now in its 12th consecutive year of decline, and appropriated by a Congress that is not likely to embrace the idea that the United States should be assuming additional defense commitments in quiescent Europe at a time of growing operational demands elsewhere on shrinking U.S. military power.
NATO expansion initially attracted the Clinton White House primarily as a vote-getter in key Midwestern cities among Americans of East European and Baltic ancestry. With re-election safely won, it would make sense now only if Russia presented a serious threat to Europe's peace and stability.
But Soviet, and subsequently Russian, conventional military .