WHAT DOES NATO gain by an expansion deeper into Eastern Europe, perhaps even including one or more of the Baltic republics? Could there conceivably be a more provocative move against Moscow, which governed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania just 11 years ago? And what kind of an alliance would it be with new members that are shaky politically, hard-put economically, and almost indefensible militarily?
Starting today, the NATO countries are holding a summit in Iceland at which nine applicant countries - stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea - will make their pitches for membership before a final decision is reached next November. Expansion would bring with it tremendously knotty problems, and a rethinking of NATO's central role. It would require enormous thought and would fundamentally change the nature of the alliance - but the world is living in fundamentally different times.
The real question is whether NATO can afford not to expand.
The alliance no longer exists to beat back a Soviet invasion. Even the Russians have come to understand this - with the exception of a few generals. It is aimed not so much against Moscow as it is toward an inclusive idea of Europe, linked with North America. NATO once embraced dictatorships in Spain, Greece and Portugal, just so long as they were anticommunist. Today, the alliance insists on a certain level of democracy, human rights and a market economy in all its members.
Does that make it less military and more political? Yes, and that's not unwelcome. In fact, the Baltic countries are probably more likely to gain membership this year than are Bulgaria or Romania, which are far more important strategically but questionable at best on their commitment to stable democracy and building a transparent economy.
The first round of NATO expansion, in the 1990s, was designed to ensure that Germany would be wrapped in a layer of allies on all sides. It was only secondarily about Russia. The coming round poses a more explicit challenge to Moscow. But the NATO countries are working on a new consultative agreement with Russia that has already started to ease tensions.
The Russians are still not overjoyed about it. The British worry about the dilution of NATO's military cohesion. The French worry about an extension of U.S. influence at the expense of the European Union. Theirs are not concerns that can simply be waved aside, and they will require plenty of hard thinking if they are to be addressed successfully.
But the point is this: Leaving small and still wobbly countries from the formerly communist world to try to make it on their own would end up creating more problems than it would avoid. Not to expand, and to leave Eastern Europe in a vacuum, is only asking for trouble.