LONDON -- Expansion of NATO probably will occur, in part because it would be too awkward to turn back at this point. However, arguments for expansion strike skeptics as proof that NATO is a superannuated institution that has fulfilled its mission and now is implausibly improvising a new one.
At NATO's founding in 1949, it was said to have three purposes: keeping the Americans in Europe, the Russians out and the Germans down. America has now had soldiers on the Rhine for 50 years, an almost Roman engagement, Russia's military is disintegrating and Germany has been in NATO since 1955.
A policy shift
Foreign policy will soon be back near the center of U.S. politics because of two issues -- NATO expansion, which would bring in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and the supposed deadline for removing U.S. troops from Bosnia in June. However, in Britain, and especially at the Ministry of Defense, skepticism about NATO gets short shrift. That is partly because of Bosnia.
In the Ministry of Defense, on a battered table that has seen better days rests a manila folder, from which a bemused George Robertson, the minister of defense, extracts a clipping from a British newspaper. In the clipping, a caption under a photograph from Bosnia identifies some soldiers as serving with United Nations forces there.
But there are no U.N. soldiers there. The soldiers in the picture are with NATO's forces. Bosnia is not just NATO's first ''out of area'' operation, it is, says Mr. Robertson, the first active use of NATO forces.
Mr. Robertson wryly reminds a visitor that ''even in the Labor Party's darkest, daftest days'' it remained committed to NATO, which polls show is an acronym to which people respond very favorably. Today's Labor government has slowed the decline of Britain's defense spending that accelerated in the past five years of Conservative government.
Europeans, Mr. Robertson notes, are bearing two-thirds of the costs of Bosnia, a portion that is apt to increase. And if the attempt to create a unified, multinational state in Bosnia fails, he says the lesson for future ethnic cleansers will be ''move fast, move quickly, move brutally.''
His point is that NATO is alive and well and at work in Bosnia, which is not a minor undertaking. As Margaret Thatcher reminds, Bosnia is the reason why more Europeans have been killed in war in the past five years than elsewhere in the past 50. However, there are other points pertaining to NATO expansion that must be expressed, if at all, more elliptically.
These points bear a striking similarity to the rationale for NATO 49 years ago: The three purposes of NATO expansion are to entice America with an institutional base for continuing involvement in Europe, to remove central Europe as an arena of temptation for a resurgent Russia and to lock Germany into an inhibiting web of associations.
When the question of NATO expansion comes to Congress, Americans will be compelled to consider the implications of extending a U.S. security obligation eastward to the Polish-Ukrainian border. They will also have to consider that the logic of expansion will work against stopping the eastward extension there. Why not include the Ukraine and the Baltic States?
Britain may not be polite if it detects inattention on the far side of the Atlantic to the task of maintaining stability in central Europe, where the destiny of Europe in this century has twice been determined, disastrously. It was a British prime minister (Neville Chamberlain in 1938) who described the crisis about jTC Czechoslovakia as ''a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.'' However, he soon learned a lot. Britain's destiny in this century has been determined by two general European conflagrations, one that erupted in Sarajevo, the second on Poland's borders.
Concerning the latter, consider Lady Cunard's droll remark at one of the first postwar balls in elegant Mayfair in 1945. A man watching the swirling dancers of high society exclaimed, ''This is what we fought the war for.'' To which Lady Cunard replied, ''Oh, do you mean they are all Poles?''
Both sides of the debate about NATO expansion can use that story.
George Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 12/14/97