THE WORLD : FOREIGN POLICY : How to Add New Voices to the NATO Debate

Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger writes frequently for The Times

In pursuit of the "contract with America," Congress has put forward the National Security Revitalization Act, which, among other things, prescribes that U.N. decisions be certified as being in the national interest; urges the expansion of NATO to include Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and establishes a bipartisan commission to define a national strategy. The Administration has rejected all these measures as interference with executive prerogative. It would have been better advised to use them--and especially the commission--to try to achieve a new bipartisan consensus on the nature of post-Cold War foreign policy.

The Clinton Administration's efforts to devise a new approach have proved at variance with the new reality. Though it has muted some of its sweeping claims, the resulting vacuum calls for a dialogue between Congress and the Administration. Whatever one's views on each proposed remedy, the congressional backlash cannot be swept under the rug.

Congressional concerns stem from the Administration's insistence that traditional U.S. postwar leadership be replaced by an international consensus that U.S. policy registers rather than shapes. So passive a view of foreign policy has tended to produce stagnation, because multilateral diplomacy is proving starkly at variance with the realities of ethnic conflict, nationalism and the emergence of multiple centers of power. In such a world, multilateralism leads either to abdication (as in Bosnia) or to sacrifices not tolerated by the American public because they are not perceived to reflect basic U.S. interests (as in Somalia).

To be sure, only an extreme isolationism could pit the national interest against an international consensus. In the real world, the difference is one of nuance: whether to start with the national interest and exercise U.S. leadership to shape multilateral views; or whether the definition of the national interest should be made dependent on the acceptance of a multilateral consensus. Yet, on this nuance depends the possibility of a dynamic U.S. foreign policy.

For most of the Cold War period, U.S. leadership bridged the gap between the national interest and the general interest. For example, the knowledge that the United States was prepared to act alone in the Persian Gulf proved decisive in mobilizing international support; for U.N. members, participation became the principal method for gaining a voice in essentially U.S. actions.

The Clinton Administration has adopted a more passive stance at the precise moment that it expanded the military role of the United Nations. What produced the accompanying congressional backlash was the shift from "peacekeeping" to "peacemaking"; that is, from protecting an already achieved agreement to using international forces to bring one about.

Not to put too fine a point on it, peacemaking spells war. And when Americans get killed, the Administration in office must be able to explain what U.S. interests and values are at stake. From this vantage point, Administration spokesmen more likely inflamed than consoled when they told the families of the 15 Americans shot down by friendly fire while patrolling Kurdish territory that they had died in the service of the United Nations.

The United Nations has thus become the focal point of frustrations caused by assignments beyond its capacity and compounded by being turned into an alibi for essentially domestic decisions in Washington. For example, the invasion of Haiti, largely propelled by U.S. domestic considerations, was justified as being required by a U.N. mandate. Absurdly, U.N. approval was sought for a U.S. operation on which Congress was not asked to express itself.

The bipartisan commission proposed by the National Security Revitalization Act could be one forum for debating these problems. The Administration must not confuse the technical task of preparing the defense budget with the concepts that underlie the level of defense spending. These depend on an assessment of what challenges must be resisted and by what means; what purposes are to be achieved and at what cost.

The act's proposal for expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization can make a contribution in this regard. The Administration has dragged its feet on this question, offering instead a vague Partnership for Peace, which embraces all the nations of the former satellite orbit in Eastern Europe as well as all the 15 republics emerging from the breakup of the Soviet Union. But this raises the same issue as the debate over multilateralism, though in different guise: whether the United States should pursue its security via alliance based on national interest or by means of collective security.

The difference between the two is crucial. An alliance defines a common purpose in the face of specific contingencies. A system of collective security organizes nations that undertake to protect themselves, against each other if necessary. An aggressor against NATO faces a clearly established dividing line, prepositioned forces, an elaborate command system and an agreed strategy. None of these conditions exists in the Partnership for Peace. The only clear-cut obligation is to consult. The forces must be found, the strategy agreed on. Thus, when the Administration says it favors NATO expansion but opposes the creation of dividing lines, it is evading the issue.

What is needed is leadership--this is how all the advances of the Atlantic Alliance were brought about.

The Atlantic Alliance has clearly not had the emotional resonance within this Administration that it had in its predecessors. This explains why much higher priority is given to placating Russia than to restoring vitality to what has been the bedrock of U.S. postwar foreign policy, and why the issue has been held in abeyance, presumably to gain Russian acquiescence.

But Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary cannot be added to NATO by stealth. Moscow will agree only on terms that will drain their membership of meaning, which is why the goal of reassuring Russia should be sought in a different context. If the Administration truly favors NATO expansion, as it claims, it should welcome the revitalization act as a means by which to escape from carrying water on both shoulders.

A bipartisan approach is also needed to come to grips with the nature of nuclear strategy in the post-Cold War period. The end of bipolarity has sounded the death knell of mutual-assured destruction. The doctrine makes no sense in a multipolar world of proliferating nuclear powers. Mutual destruction is unlikely to work against religious fanatics: desperate leaders may blackmail with nuclear weapons; blackmail or accident could run out of control. When these dangers materialize, refusal to have made provision will shake confidence in all institutions of government. At a minimum, the rudiments of a defense system capable of rapid expansion should be put into place.

Congressional consideration of the National Security Revitalization Act should thus be treated by the Administration not as an intrusion but as an occasion for forming a consensus around the future of U.S. foreign policy.*

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