Expanding to the East: A New NATO : Alliance: Full membership may be the most sought-after ‘good’ now enticing Eastern and Central European states--particularly, Russia.

<i> James A. Baker III was the 61st secretary of state</i>

This week, Russians will go to the polls to elect a new Parliament--their first opportunity to choose new leaders since Russia became an independent state in December, 1991. Next month, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 16 heads of state will hold another “first”--the alliance’s first summit since the demise of the Soviet Union. Like the Russian election, this inaugural “post-Soviet summit” offers an opportunity for a new beginning.

In Brussels, the NATO leaders should draw up a clear road map for expanding the alliance eastward to include the states of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, especially a democratic Russia. Otherwise, the most successful alliance in history is destined to follow the threat that created it into the dustbin of history.

The peoples of Russia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the other emerging democracies will be the summit’s most attentive--and important--audience. They hope that NATO offers them a chance to join the alliance as they consolidate their democratic revolutions. Yet, they fear that NATO will instead continue to muddle along or, even worse, prematurely exclude them from ultimate membership. It would be truly tragic to tear down the concrete wall that divided Europe only to replace it with a “security” wall through exclusion from NATO.


The alliance’s post-Soviet imperative is clear: to extend democratic values to, and protect Western interests in, the East. Those values and interests are best promoted by continued reform. The possibility of full NATO membership may be the most sought-after Western “good” in Eastern Europe--more valuable now than economic support or technical assistance. Thus, the offer of membership should be used to foster reform--much as conditional offers of economic assistance and International Monetary Fund membership promoted democracy and free markets in the past.

NATO membership is not to be given easily. It entails serious responsibilities and real commitments. By offering the possibility of membership, the West creates powerful incentives for democratic reform at home and responsible behavior abroad. The leaders and peoples of these nations know NATO can offer them security assurances and provide an institutional context for preventing conflict. They know the vital role NATO membership played in anchoring West Germany in the West after World War II. They know the alliance can help achieve in the East what it accomplished in postwar Western Europe: security for member states and stability for the region.

Obviously, NATO should not offer membership at one time to all the states of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. While the offer of possible full membership should be made at the summit, actual expansion must be a phased process, with a step-by-step mechanism for full integration.

The alliance needs to adopt criteria for membership, setting clear benchmarks for the emerging democracies. These should include, in addition to strict adherence to the Helsinki principles: institutionalization of democratic practices and values, including protection for minorities and acceptance of borders; adoption of free-market economics, and implementation of responsible security and proliferation policies. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are close to fulfilling these criteria.

While various objections are raised to NATO expansion, take away the clutter, and two arguments emerge. One, by “alliance purists,” contends that NATO expansion equals ineffectiveness and eventual implosion. To these “purists,” 16 is a magic number. Any growth beyond it will render NATO impotent. The other argument, by “Russia-firsters,” worries that NATO expansion equals provocation and an adverse Russian reaction.

The Clinton Administration’s “partnership for peace” seems the creation of a curious coalition of “alliance purists” and “Russia-firsters.” Having punted the criteria and timing issues, these “partnerships” will just confuse the Western Europeans, unsettle the Russians and fail to reassure everyone else. Thus, “partnership” simply augments the North Atlantic Cooperation Council--which Germany and the United States proposed in October, 1991, as a transitional structure to begin the process of alliance transformation and Eastern reassurance. Now, it is time to go beyond NACC.


The “alliance purists” fail to realize the Cold War is over. Without a Soviet threat, NATO has no compelling mission and will eventually fade away. The purists’ strategy--”no expansion”--is likely only to fulfill their greatest fear: an Atlantic-European security structure with no political purpose and little appeal to Americans eager “to bring our boys home.”

And those Europeans--joined by quixotic Americans and Canadians--who count on a common European security policy to replace NATO have missed what’s happened with Europe’s Balkanized policy in the former Yugoslavia.

The purists draw a caricature of any realistic strategy for expansion. They raise the hobgoblin of Uzbek, Tajik or even Serbian membership. For them, any expansion beyond 16 inevitably leads to 53--the number in the unwieldy Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. A step-by-step program avoids this. Criteria need to be strict and understandable. And while Warsaw may meet them, Belgrade, for the foreseeable future, does not.

A road map will create a structure of incentives for the emerging democracies. Were Poland to be granted full membership, the effects would reach far beyond Warsaw. From Bucharest and Sofia to Kiev and Riga, leaders and peoples would be encouraged to push forward with democratic practices, free-market reforms and responsible security policies.

The carrot can also serve as a stick. Ukraine, for example, needs to understand it will never be allowed into NATO as a nuclear state. Indeed, Ukraine should realize its refusal to live up to its agreements with the United States and others to ratify START I and join the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state will also cost it economically and diplomatically with the West.

For the “Russia-firsters,” Moscow’s reaction matters most. With Russia again embroiled in a battle between Slavophiles and Westernizers, the “Russia-firsters” fear NATO expansion will cause an angry response from the still giant bear.

These concerns would have credence if NATO expansion were to include the Central and Eastern European states but exclude the states of the former Soviet Union. Such an ill-advised approach would not only sow the seeds for revanchism and a revived Russian empire, it would also undermine the independence of the 11 non-Russian independent states of the former Soviet Union. Perversely, it could prompt some states of Central Asia and the Caucuses to look south to places like Tehran for security.

This is why Russian eligibility for membership is key to any long-term vision for NATO and should be announced as a goal at the summit. A democratic Russia can play a constructive role in European security and play it best through NATO’s institutional framework.

Clearly, full Russian membership in NATO will not occur overnight. Russian democracy, whatever the outcome of this week’s election, remains precarious and the future of economic reform in doubt. But offering the possibility of NATO membership will signal support for reform and bolster reformers.

Much as the Russian people can choose democracy this week, the Russian leadership in the months ahead should be given the choice of aligning with the West. Ruling Russia out of NATO would only undercut the hopes of Russia’s Westernizers while fueling the fear-mongering neo-fascists.

Some “Russia-firsters,” in a curious case of being more Slavic than the Slavophiles, want to scuttle the whole idea of NATO expansion even if it includes Russia. They believe if NATO expands, Russia must be first in line--and since Russia is not ready, then everyone else should wait.

This illogic plays into the hands of the Slavophiles in Moscow, giving them an effective veto. Undoubtedly, it explains why Yevgeni M. Primakov, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence, recently warned about the dangers of NATO expansion. Lest anyone forget, Primakov’s most famous--or infamous--moment was his “peace” initiative during Desert Storm as he scurried to save Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard from a coalition offensive.

The West should not listen to “out-of-enemies apparatchiks” and should pursue a security policy that encourages Russian democrats but does not give a veto to reactionaries. NATO expansion through a step-by-step process with strict criteria can extend democratic values and protect our interests. It can provide concrete incentives in support of democracy, free markets and responsible security policies.

For our relations with Russia, it can both encourage reform and hedge our bets against a return to authoritarianism and expansionism. If democracy prevails, NATO membership for Russia will mark a milestone on the road to full integration with the West. If reform fails, an expanded NATO will protect democracy where it has taken firm root--in Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest.