NATO's Eastern Growth a Giant Step or Stumble?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One day it could be hailed as a giant step toward uniting Europe as a community of like-minded democracies, a means of stabilizing a part of the world where wars have claimed well in excess of 50 million lives this century.

Or it could turn out to be a horrific blunder that merely divided Europe along new lines and needlessly turned Russia and its decaying nuclear arsenal once again against the West.

Expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization deep into Central and Eastern Europe, as President Clinton proposes, is arguably the most far-reaching U.S. foreign policy initiative since the end of the Cold War.

It is a huge gamble--a gamble for America's own security and for the peace of Europe, one that commits the United States to defend new lands right up to Russia's border.

And it got its most important nudge in the confusion that briefly overwhelmed official Washington during an unexpected April rainstorm four years ago.

A dozen European leaders were in Washington for the 1993 dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the rain was playing hob with the schedule. The fledgling White House staff--Bill Clinton had been president for only three months--was reduced to chaos.

"Signals got crossed; presidents were turned away," recalled one staffer. "It was awful."

In the confusion, Czech President Vaclav Havel found himself with unscheduled time with Clinton. The intellectual Havel, a playwright, used those precious minutes well, urging the American leader to move the Atlantic community of shared values and common defense eastward to include the new democracies of Central Europe.

On the same occasion, in the gruffer style of a onetime shipyard electrician, then-President Lech Walesa of Poland delivered a similar message. The U.S. note-taker emerged from the meeting shaking her head and muttering, "Boy, did he give it to the president."

Before the day was out, the seed of a blockbuster idea that had floated in the political winds since the Soviet empire began collapsing in 1989 had settled on fertile ground. The new U.S. president accepted the logic of extending America's security guarantees, including its nuclear umbrella, farther than ever into Central Europe. He would expand the Atlantic alliance.

It would transform NATO, the collective defense alliance formed 48 years ago to protect the U.S., Canada and Western European democracies from what they regarded as the menace of communism.

First Invitations Expected in July

Meeting in Madrid in July, Clinton and other leaders of the 16-member alliance are expected to formally extend invitations for the first round of new membership. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are virtually certain to be allowed into the club.

Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia are long shots for now. The remaining six applicants--Bulgaria, Albania, Macedonia and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania--will be told to wait indefinitely. The admission of any new countries into the alliance must be ratified by the U.S. Senate and the parliaments of other NATO members.

In a parallel--and highly contentious--move, NATO is negotiating a special relationship with Russia that will give Moscow the right to be consulted on NATO business but allow it only marginal decision-making power within the alliance.

And the stakes extend well beyond changing the alliance itself. Enlargement will also define the U.S. role in Europe and the extent to which its rich Atlantic allies can and should continue to depend on Washington for their security on the verge of what many see as America's Pacific century.

For an initiative that is supposed to be unifying and inclusive, the early reactions in Europe are divided.

In Warsaw, the chairman of Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Bronislaw Geremek, is certain he is about to realize his dream of having Poland at last protected by American military might.

In Tallinn, Estonian President Lennart Meri frets that history and bigger nations will once again betray his tiny country.

In Moscow, the whiff of humiliation and anger is tangible about a new and fast-unfolding security order that would effectively leave Russia with less decision-making power over European security than tiny Luxembourg.

Kissinger, Brzezinski Among Proponents

And in the United States, where the debate has hardly begun, all these crosscurrents are buffeting those few who already care.

To top foreign-policy makers in Clinton's administration--and to such predecessors as Henry A. Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski--denying the aspirations of Europe's new democracies for the same security guarantees enjoyed by its old democracies would be morally indefensible, politically unsustainable and militarily dangerous.

"This is one of those times in history where the world's leading nation has to determine the rules for the future," said Robert Zoellick, former undersecretary of state in the George Bush administration.

For Zoellick and other proponents of enlargement, America's withdrawal from Europe after World War I and, more recently, its reluctance to enter the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina only prove that, when the United States tries to abandon Europe, it gets dragged back under worse circumstances. And with an estimated 20 million U.S. voters claiming Central European roots, enlargement is good politics for an American president.

Just because Poland and other candidate countries are probably more secure than at any time in this century is no reason not to take them into the alliance, proponents insist. "You don't dissolve the fire department just because there was no fire last year," said NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana. "We've got to be vigilant."

Besides, membership for the Central European nations would help ensure civilian control over their military forces and dampen the potential for regional disputes. Indeed, advocates point out that Hungary settled troublesome differences with Slovakia and Romania over boundaries and the treatment of minorities to make itself a more attractive candidate for NATO.

"Just the prospect of NATO enlargement has given Central and Eastern Europe greater stability than it has seen this century," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said. "This is the productive paradox at NATO's heart: By extending solemn security guarantees, we actually reduce the chance that our troops will again be called to fight in Europe."

Not so, say worried opponents.

They paint enlargement as an ill-considered, half-baked idea that will draw new lines through Europe, alienate Russia and weaken the alliance by bringing a greater diversity of views and interests into an organization that can only act by consensus. They also fear that a divisive ratification debate in the U.S. Senate and the parliaments of NATO member countries could erode the unchallenged political consensus the alliance enjoys.

The result of all this, they argue, could be the worst of all worlds: a weakened NATO and an unstable, aggressive Russia.

The credentials of those opposed to expanding NATO are impressive.

"Something of the highest importance is at stake here . . . ," George F. Kennan, former ambassador to the Soviet Union and one of the most influential U.S. diplomats of this century, wrote in the New York Times. "Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era."

Former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a respected voice in Congress on security matters, says the Clinton administration has not fully considered enlargement's implications, including the likelihood that it would leave Russia less willing to reduce its nuclear arsenal.

"Political leaders are using a military tool to resolve a problem that is part psychological and part political," he said. "They are not thinking through the military consequences of this over the long term."

Michael Mandelbaum, a prominent American academic voice on European security issues and an outspoken critic of enlargement, says he has combed the literature for a good argument on the other side, with no success.

"I'm thinking of offering a $1,000 reward to anybody who can actually come up with a good reason to expand NATO," he said.

At first, Clinton's foreign policy team apparently showed little enthusiasm either. According to officials serving in the National Security Council at the time, only Clinton and Anthony Lake, his national security advisor, eagerly supported the idea.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, adamant that NATO's eastern frontier should extend beyond Germany, also lobbied Clinton hard.

Enlargement gained broader support within the administration only as it took on a more sweeping vision than merely defending new countries against the ghosts of the past. It would help strengthen and guarantee Europe's spreading system of democratic values.

In January 1994, on the first stop of the first European trip of his presidency, Clinton and other NATO leaders met in Brussels to reaffirm that the alliance remained open to new members. The following day in Prague, Clinton told an excited audience that Czech membership in NATO was no longer a question of "if" but "when."

But it was only after the arrival of Richard Holbrooke as assistant secretary of state for European affairs in August 1994 that enlargement became a real priority. "He really pushed it," recalled a senior diplomat at NATO headquarters in Brussels. "He wanted to go faster, to take the issue away from the Republicans," who had added NATO enlargement to their "contract with America" congressional campaign platform.

Within three months, a comprehensive, detailed timetable for enlargement had been adopted.

But as the United States quickened the pace, two things happened: Russia's opposition stiffened, and tensions developed with European allies.

From its inception, NSC officials insist, NATO enlargement was never perceived as anti-Russian. "We always saw this as fundamentally integrating," one NSC official said. "The goal was to strengthen democracy, not to cut Russia out."

While the first formal analyses of enlargement also included ideas for developing a parallel NATO-Russian relationship, planners quickly bumped into the limits of any such link.

NATO operates by consensus--in effect, any member can block any proposal--but it was unthinkable to expose NATO business to a Russian veto. Russia would be allowed to sit at the tables of alliance diplomacy--to listen, watch, suggest and be consulted--but only rarely to decide.

For Moscow, such conditions were tantamount to a door being slammed in its face, a humiliating reminder of Russia's impotence and the end of a dream of one day joining with the West in "a common European home," as former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev first spoke of it in 1989.

U.S. and NATO planners made special efforts to ease Moscow's opposition. They offered Russia a special relationship with the alliance and a NATO-Russia Council for closer talks and consultation. In Moscow in February, Albright even suggested a joint NATO-Russian military brigade.

Negotiating to Lessen Moscow's Anxieties

To lessen Moscow's anxieties about an increased military threat, NATO said last month that it had no plans to station "substantial combat forces" in new member countries and offered to make unilateral cuts in the level of arms permitted under a 1990 treaty governing conventional weapons in Europe. While Moscow has taken up these offers, it has not visibly altered either its resistance to enlargement or its conviction that the initiative is aimed against Russia.

For Americans, Moscow's opposition raises a series of troubling questions. Will the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, now be less willing to ratify START II, a treaty that would greatly reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear missiles? What will be the impact on Russia's beleaguered advocates of democracy, who have staked their legitimacy in part on positive relations with the West?

In the United States and an already skittish Western Europe, the Russian question is seen by some as cause at least to slow the pace of expansion.

"I'm not opposed to enlargement, but I am opposed to this steamroller," said Rodric Braithwaite, British ambassador to Moscow in the crucial 1988-92 period. "We've stumbled into a policy that will take in three countries but create a lot of other problems for which we have no answers. At the same time, we are excluding Russia from decisions."

Jack Matlock, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, says he is upset about NATO's self-imposed deadline of July for extending invitations to new members, the end of 1997 for negotiating terms of entry and April 1999 for completing ratification by NATO members. "These artificial deadlines are harebrained," he said.

Western Europeans are especially unsettled. What they see as the unnecessary speed of enlargement has little to do, they believe, with security concerns in Europe and everything to do with American electoral politics and the rush to please the many American voters of Central European heritage.

Hermann von Richthofen, Germany's NATO ambassador and grandson of the World War I flying ace known as the Red Baron, complained as early as November 1994 in a telegram to Bonn that Washington was moving forward "without consulting on fundamental questions tied to the policy."

Opposition Threatens U.S. Security Umbrella

But, in a way, America's rich European allies are trapped. For them, expanding NATO may not be a good idea, but it would ease pressure on them to take the new Central European democracies into yet another important organization--the European Union. That step would require considerable financial sacrifice. The wealthy European nations also know that, if they want to keep their American security umbrella, they cannot oppose such a premier U.S. initiative.

"There's the feeling it is inevitable so there's no point to try to stop it, but deep down, the feeling is that this is a great mistake," said Francois Heisbourg, a French defense expert. "If the Americans decided that conditions in Russia were too volatile and they decided to [delay], we'd hear a collective sigh of relief."

An exasperated senior German official added: "Give the Russians some time to realize that NATO is good for them, that it's a stabilizer. They'll learn this over time, but not in five years"--the period from the first formal announcement of enlargement in January 1994 to actual entry of new members in early 1999.

This sense of disquiet in Western Europe has unsettling implications for NATO enlargement, especially when coupled with a recent Clinton administration study suggesting that the Western Europeans, not the Americans, should shoulder the lion's share of the estimated $1 billion to $2 billion per year that will have to be spent over 12 years to defend an expanded territory.

Although far from staggering, the additional burden would come as key West European governments, including Germany and France, are under enormous pressure to slash their budget deficits, a prerequisite for joining the roster of nations discarding their national currencies in favor of a common European one.

"Tell the German taxpayer whose wife's lost her job and {who} just had his local kindergarten closed that he's got to cough up money to improve airport runways in Poland, and you'll ignite a revolt," said a Bonn government official.

According to the administration's study, American taxpayers would pay less than $200 million per year, although some defense specialists contend that the U.S. share could be up to five times that.

Philip Taylor, a resident fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, predicted that finding the money needed to finance enlargement over the coming years could eventually be the initiative's undoing, especially if the United States tries to push the burden onto Western Europe.

"We could end up with a non-funded enlargement, and that's not a joke," he said. "I believe it's the most probable outcome."

Whether Taylor is right or wrong, NATO enlargement looms as a defining issue in U.S. foreign policy, the latest in a series that includes America's decision early in this century to stay out of the League of Nations and, later, to join the United Nations.

"Once in a while in American history, there are big issues that strongly shape--almost define-- our domestic politics of foreign policy for years afterward," said Jeremy Rosner, recently appointed presidential and State Department advisor on NATO expansion.

"The end of the Cold War had some influence, and so did the Gulf War, but there hasn't been the big shaping event of this era. Enlargement could be that event."

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BACKGROUND

* At a July summit in Madrid, leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will decide how far east to expand their alliance. This decision will have huge practical and strategic importance. It would, for example, ensure an American role in Europe, committing the United States and its allies to defend a new set of nations, many of them former satellites of the former Soviet Union. President Clinton and other advocates insist that this is good. But opponents say NATO expansion would needlessly alarm Russia. Because of historical and geographical reasons, Moscow views the presence of alliance forces at Russia's borders as a grave threat. The expansion, critics say, also could prove costly and would divide Europe along new lines; besides, they charge, it has not been well thought out.

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What's at Stake

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization in July will make a complicated, crucial decision whether to expand. The arguments include:

PRO

* Keeps U.S. engaged in Europe

* Extends military shield of U.S., its allies to strategic areas

* Builds up emerging democracies in Eastern, Central Europe

* Fosters civilian control over military forces

* Averts regional disputes

CON

* Angers, threatens Russia

* Could prove costly

* Lacks careful consideration

* May send wrong signals about alliance intentions

* Undermines NATO's political support in U.S.

How Balance of Power Would Change

Impact of NATO growth on the alliance's military might:

* Number of troops (in thousands)

Current NATO: 4,059

With new members*: 4,542

Russia: 1,520

* Annual defense spending (in billions)

Current NATO: $474

With new members*: $480

Russia: $82

* Current share of troops

United States: 38%

France: 10%

Germany: 10%

Italy: 8%

Britain: 6%

11 other NATO nations: 28%

* Current share of spending

United States: 58%

France: 10%

Germany: 9%

Italy: 4%

Britain: 7%

11 other NATO nations: 12%

* based on addition of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia

Source: International Institute for Strategic Studies (London)

A New Alliance

If the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expands, as most analysts expect, the 16-country alliance (whose members are shown in pink) immediately would add at least three nations to its roster, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Slovenia, Romania and Slovakia are long shots for now. Six nations in Eastern and Central Europe--Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria (shown in green)--are likely to be disappointed in their bid for membership. Because of history and geography, the eastward expansion of NATO upsets Russia, which views the alliance's spread to its very borders as a strategic threat.

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