NATO is Bush's first big foreign challenge

January 04, 2001|By John R. Deni

WASHINGTON -- The most important foreign policy challenge that George W. Bush will have to face at the start of his presidency will center around NATO enlargement.

In 1999, NATO added three new members -- the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Other countries, such as Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Romania, lobbied for NATO membership but were not invited in the first wave of post-Cold War enlargement.

Their candidacies will be taken up again a little more than a year after Mr. Bush's Jan. 20 inauguration, when NATO meets to determine which countries, if any, it will invite to become the next members of the alliance. Vital preparations for that important meeting will likely begin immediately after the new administration takes office. And rightfully so. Inherent in that meeting will be nothing short of the most fundamental issues regarding European security and the U.S. role in safeguarding it.

European security remains at the top of the United States' national interest hierarchy, despite the challenges facing the next administration in securing a Middle East peace, combating global terrorism and managing U.S.-China relations. Choosing whether to further enlarge the Atlantic alliance and, if so, whom to invite, will face Mr. Bush early this year in the run-up to NATO's spring 2002 decision.

Based on campaign statements, it appears that Mr. Bush advocates a continuation of NATO's open invitation policy in which any country interested in membership that meets alliance standards will be given due consideration. But the decision to invite new members into the alliance carries with it implications for NATO's purpose that transcend mere political rhetoric.

Lord Ismay, NATO's first secretary-general, once noted that NATO's purpose was threefold: to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down. Metaphorically, that statement is no less true today than it was 50 years ago.

Keeping the Americans in: From the perspective of the United States and that of most of its allies, one reason why NATO remains vital is that it ensures a U.S. role in European security. Although this component of NATO's purpose has taken on increased importance recently as the European Union moves to develop its own military force -- a move that could decouple European and U.S. security -- the 2002 enlargement debate admittedly will have little impact on this facet of NATO's purpose.

Keeping the Russians out: Just as in Lord Ismay's day, NATO's founding treaty commits alliance members to come to the defense of each other in the event of an attack by an outside power. Are policy-makers in Washington and other NATO capitals seriously concerned about an invasion from Russia as they were 50 years ago? Probably not, but at the same time they're probably searching for ways to avoid angering a large, nuclear-armed country with a history of authoritarianism in the event, for example, any of the Baltic countries, all three of which were in the Soviet bloc, are invited into NATO.

Keeping the Germans down: Are Europeans still worried about a resurgent, reunified Germany as they were after World War II? Perhaps some still are. But far more important that just keeping Germany "down," NATO's third purpose -- and arguably the most important of the three -- has been to de-nationalize Western European defense, including that of Germany.

By collectivizing national security, NATO helped Western Europe overcome centuries of bloody rivalry, allowing the alliance's European allies to focus on economic development. Further enlargement of the alliance should only serve to bring the de-nationalization of defense to Eastern Europe.

Given the importance of de-nationalized defense in Western European history over the last 50 years, the benefits of another round of NATO enlargement seem to outweigh the risks associated with an angry Russia.

History and political science tell us that to maintain peace, an evolving institution like NATO needs to ensure that security becomes ever more inclusive. Enlarging the alliance to include countries such as those in the Balkans or the Baltics is the next logical step for NATO and will allow the alliance to remain true to its most important reason for being.

Given the shortened transition period, the Bush administration will need to hit the ground running as the clock counts down to the alliance's 2002 debate.

John R. Deni, a doctoral candidate in international affairs at George Washington University, is a consultant in international security affairs for the U.S. departments of state, energy and defense.

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