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Add Poland, and NATO Is No More

Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington

An aura of inevitability has descended over the decision to expand NATO to include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger and of course Zbigniew Brzezinski all have declared it a wonderful idea.

The three countries are “insecure,” right? NATO has always successfully guaranteed the security of all its members, right? NATO membership is therefore the logical solution, right?

Wrong, say the vast majority of U.S. government officials and independent experts. Many of them are convinced that NATO’s expansion is not just a wrong move but an act of bestial stupidity, even if a Russian government too weak to resist goes along. The fact is that Poland can never actually join NATO, no matter what Clinton or anyone else decides--simply because once it joins, NATO will cease to be what it is, a truly effective security organization. Instead, it will become one more talking shop like the United Nations, the Western European Union and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Today’s not-yet-degraded NATO is not merely an alliance, as Clinton seems to think; it is an armed force temporarily at peace, complete with supreme allied headquarters for the Atlantic and for Europe, a hierarchy of subordinate regional commands, intelligence staffs in each headquarters, a joint surveillance force of AWACS aircraft, an air defense network from Norway to Turkey and an elaborate logistic infrastructure. Member countries--not merely their military units--function, in effect, as subordinate combat formations.

Just as any military headquarters supports the forces under its command, so too NATO always has acted to reinforce member countries under pressure. When Germany was especially insecure during the Cold War, “Reforger” exercises periodically would fly in strong U.S. Army and other forces. Likewise Norway, highly exposed on NATO’s northern flank, was annually reinforced by British and Dutch marines in the far north and by U.S. Marines halfway down. Both exercises demonstrated NATO’s readiness to react promptly to any Soviet threat. Speed rather than mass firepower was the idea, because NATO’s ultimate guarantee was American nuclear deterrence.

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What mattered was that NATO would react with deeds rather than just words, and that was the secret of its success as the most enduring multilateral military alliance in history. In other words, the willingness to send reinforcements to assist insecure member countries was not merely one NATO procedure among many, but rather its essential engine, the thing that made it work.

Poland still shares a border with Russia, facing the Kaliningrad enclave, and a much longer border with Belarus, Russia’s close ally. What happens if there are border incidents? Given the long history of Russo-Polish hostility and the distinct possibility that NATO membership will embolden the Poles to act less cautiously than they might otherwise, that is not an unlikely prospect. At that point, if Poland is by then a NATO member, reinforcements are supposed to be sent. But which country in Europe would allow its troops to go to Poland’s eastern extremities to face down the Russians? Germany and Italy can be ruled out; they have been there, done that. Will France, traditionally Russia’s ally? Hardly. Will the United States, thereby automatically escalating the crisis? U.S. military chiefs certainly would oppose any such move, because American troops would be highly exposed very far from their bases, themselves indefensible without a further escalation. In practice, Poland would not be reinforced, and NATO would cease to be an effective security system.

To decide an essentially military matter by stressing the political, economic and “psychological” benefits of membership without reference to military considerations would be folly. But then, of course, ours has been a century of such follies. Characteristically, it was the German government that came up with the idea (as a low-cost substitute for the expansion of the European Union), and the historical record of the Germans for truly bad strategic decisions is unblemished. Likewise, Poland’s strategic record is another 10 out of 10: Poland never joined an alliance that didn’t collapse.

Besides all that, and no matter how many times Boris Yeltsin repeats the reluctant assent he gave to Clinton in Helsinki, the good old Anglo-Saxon principle that one should not kick a man when he is down applies with special potency when the man in question can blow up the world.

Fortunately, NATO’s expansion is not yet inevitable. It requires the unanimous consent of the existing members’ legislatures. Surely the U.S. Senate will not sanction what probably will be the last great strategic act of this most bloody century without exhaustive hearings and a full debate. The parliaments of other NATO member countries should do likewise. Some in the Turkish parliament have threatened to veto the new applicants if Turkey’s own application for membership in the European Union continues to be denied. That has been denounced as an outrage by Turkey’s enemies and as a tactical error by some of its friends. But it may yet save NATO from becoming another useless international organization.


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