NATO Expansion Would Be an Epic ‘Fateful Error’

Eugene J. Carroll Jr., a retired Navy rear admiral, is deputy director of the Center for Defense Information, a defense watchdog group based in Washington

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first NATO supreme veallied commander. Shortly after assuming that post, he wrote these words in February 1951:

“If in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project [NATO] will have failed.”

One can only wonder at his reaction today if he learned that 46 years later, the United States was the dominant force in a plan not just to continue our powerful military presence there but to enlarge NATO’s responsibilities and increase U.S. costs and risks in Europe. If his granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, is any guide to his reaction, he would not be pleased. She gathered an impressive group of 49 military, political and academic leaders who joined her in signing an open letter to President Clinton on June 26 that terms the plan to expand NATO “a policy error of historic proportions.”


Why have so many knowledgeable and responsible authorities, in addition to the letter’s signatories, raised powerful objections to NATO expansion? Diplomat-historian George F. Kennan perhaps said it most clearly when he wrote earlier this year in a newspaper commentary: “Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the post cold-war era. Such a decision may be expected . . . to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

Aye, there’s the rub. The long-term interests of the United States in Europe can best be served by actions that promote enduring peace in Europe through security arrangements that include Russia as a cooperative participant. The expansion of NATO, however, excludes Russia at the same time it moves NATO borders 300 miles eastward--the recent pact providing for regular NATO-Russia consultation notwithstanding.

President Clinton and his counselors deny that expansion threatens Russia. He told the graduating class at West Point in May that the objective was “to build and secure a New Europe, peaceful, democratic and undivided at last.”

It is delusory, deliberately so, to argue that expanding NATO is a way to unite Europe. Certainly Henry Kissinger, a strong proponent of NATO expansion, was more candid and accurate when he wrote in The Times recently that “the new members are seeking to participate in NATO . . . not to erase dividing lines but to position themselves inside a guaranteed territory by shifting existing NATO boundaries 300 miles to the east.” In stating that the real purpose of expansion is to create new dividing lines, he also provided a clear picture of Moscow’s perception of a new NATO threat moved closer to its borders.

This picture also reveals that, at its heart, NATO expansion is aimed at Russia. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright confirmed this in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 23: “On the off-chance that in fact Russia doesn’t work out the way that we are hoping it will . . . NATO is there.”

NATO expansion is an attempt to extend Cold War divisions and strengthen the alliance against the chimera of a resurgent Russia bent upon imposing its hegemony in Eastern Europe. It may be safe to treat Russia as a prospective enemy today when it is helpless to prevent NATO expansion but there is the longer-term danger. A hard-line, anti-Western coalition will be strengthened in Moscow and give priority to anti-NATO measures in the future.


Even in the short-term there may well be nuclear dangers. The greatest U.S. security concern today is “loose nukes” in Russia. Our arbitrary and threatening actions may convince the hard-liners that nuclear weapons remain the only vestige of Russian military and political leverage. Efforts to reduce numbers, lower the alert status of long-range missiles and improve internal security for both weapons and missile material could easily be thwarted by the Russian Duma. This prospect represents a far greater threat to U.S. security than the improbable emergence of a Russian conventional threat at a distant date.

Overbearing U.S. insistence on expanding NATO strictly on our terms also could weaken unity within the alliance. Serious complaints are being leveled by some members concerning the autocratic tactics we have employed to control the expansion program. It will be ironic if our attempts to strengthen U.S. military leadership in Europe result in weakening U.S. political influence there.

Fortunately, it is not too late to halt the precipitous commitment to NATO expansion at the Madrid summit this week and consider alternatives that could produce a much more stable, peaceful Europe. Rushing into an unwise decision now to expand NATO in the face of real risks and great costs would be an action that fully merits the thoughtful warnings that it would be a “fateful error” of “historic proportions.”