The quibbling over whether Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Ukraine should be admitted to NATO masks the real issues in America's post-Cold War European policy--whether NATO's extension into Eastern Europe, or indeed the alliance's continuing existence, serves U.S. interests.
The Clinton Administration has pulled out all the stops to reaffirm NATO's continuing importance. But these arguments are nothing more than a collection of shopworn myths.
* Myth No. 1: European security is crucial because America invariably becomes involved in the Continent's wars. Since America gained independence, Europe has experienced great-power conflicts in 1792, 1801, 1805-1815, 1866, 1870 and 1877--none of which remotely affected U.S. security. American intervention in World War I was driven by ideological concerns, not security threats, and foreclosed the possibility of a compromise peace that might have ended the war before revolutions unhinged Europe. Washington's attempt to impose a Wilsonian peace on post-World War I Europe sowed the seeds both of World War II and of many of today's conflicts.
* Myth No. 2: The United States can unite post-Cold War Europe. In fact, modern Europe has never been united because the East has consistently lagged behind Western Europe in politicaland economic development and has been more prone to domestic political turmoil.
* Myth No. 3: By promoting the spread of democracy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the United States can ensure peace. The notion that democracies do not fight democracies is popular but untrue. Thus even if democracy takes root firmly in Eastern Europe, peace is not guaranteed.
* Myth No. 4: The spread of free markets and economic interdependence to all of Europe will promote peace. The idea that free trade creates a "harmony of interests" and thus leads to peace is another fashionable idea than has been repeatedly disproved. No doubt European turbulence will have some effect on American economic interests. But great powers that depend on distant and unstable regions for their prosperity pay a big price. Far from being a force for peace, today's version of interdependence simply rationalizes the dangerous extension of American security guarantees into an endemically turbulent region.
* Myth No. 5: The United States can bring "stability" to post-Cold War Eastern Europe just as it did to post-World War II Western Europe. Peace and cooperation supplanted war and competition because the Soviet threat forced Western Europe to coalesce and because America protected the West Europeans from themselves. The Soviet presence in Eastern Europe stabilized relations in that region. The "long peace" since 1945 was a product of the Cold War and without bipolarity, Europe inevitably is headed back to its normal patterns featuring war, great-power security and economic competition.
NATO has failed conspicuously to resolve the Bosnian conflict--the archetype of the kind of instability NATO is supposed to deal with--because, at least until now, its members wisely have been reluctant to become involved in such quagmires.
But even more troubling than the prospect of U.S. military involvement in future Bosnias is the certainty that if NATO "moves east," the United States will find itself in the middle of big-power rivalries involving Germany, Russia and Ukraine. The Administration's policy will not prevent European upheaval, but simply ensure that the United States is swept up in the maelstrom. In the final analysis, Eastern Europe's quarrels are between people of whom we know--and should want to know--nothing.