Senate Has a Job to Do on NATO Expansion

Gregory D. Foster is the George C. Marshall Professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, Washington. The views expressed here are his own

By design, treaty making was intended to be a fully shared power in which the Senate and the president check each other and strike a harmonious balance between legislative deliberation and executive action, in which each counteracts the abuses and compensates for the weaknesses of the other. It is in this latter respect that the Senate assumes a special burden of responsibility in handling the NATO enlargement question, for it is President Clinton’s particular weakness that creates the need for compensatory Senate assertiveness.

Clinton’s weakness is due not so much to his massive character flaws or the tenuous electoral foundation underlying his hold on the White House--though both considerations loom large in his conduct of office. His most telling weakness in the realm of statecraft has been his failure to provide strategic vision--to articulate a coherent sense of purpose and direction for the country. Instead, we suffer a piecemeal, ad hoc, reactive pastiche of opportunistic rhetoric and expedient motion. The president’s request that the Senate take speedy action on amending the NATO treaty to admit Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic is a case in point.

NATO expansion cannot be said to be part of any grander foreign policy design. Insiders tell us that the idea came to Clinton and his advisors for all the wrong (that is, nonstrategic) reasons: celebrity appeals by Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa; the personal ambitions of advocates within the administration; lobbying by U.S. arms manufacturers (who just happen to be big campaign contributors) and ethnic East Europeans in the United States (who just might vote); the desire to rob Republicans, who endorsed NATO enlargement in the “contract with America,” of a campaign issue; polling results, which showed that foreign policy successes (real or contrived) would improve the president’s reelection prospects; and the seductive allure of historical legacy that leads presidents to conflate statecraft and grandstanding.

The challenge before the Senate, then--if the American people are to be reassured and better informed, if Congress’ position as the first branch of republican government is to be reaffirmed, if presidentially engendered strategic aimlessness is to be redressed, if America’s place in the world is to be defined by other than ideological sloganeering, political gamesmanship and budgetary bean-counting--is to do something intellectually more respectable than giving a perfunctory wink to NATO enlargement. It is to elevate consideration of the matter to the level of true strategic deliberation, to acknowledge that the best option may not be mere approval or disapproval.


Such uncharacteristic strategic deliberation would require that the Senate deal with NATO enlargement not simply as a regional issue but as a global one, and that it focus on transcendent aims in the grandest historical context. This means addressing a far-reaching range of questions that will not allow for quick or easy resolution:

* What does multilateralism offer for the future that continued reliance on unilateralism does not?

* Is NATO forever destined to be an exclusive military mutual-defense alliance, or does it have the capacity to transform itself into a collective security regime that would give the U.N. Charter new life?

* Would expansion facilitate the attainment of larger ends, such as global demilitarization and democratization, that might reasonably be expected to produce lasting universal peace and security?


* Would a truly inclusive collective security arrangement that makes Russia an official partner rather than an enduring unofficial adversary provide the basis for progressive demilitarization, and thereby satisfy the Senate on costs?

* If we are experiencing a grand historical evolution, one that has run from a prolonged period of hot war, to a relatively compressed period of cold war, to the present period of new war, to an eventual end-state of no war, how might the extent and rate of NATO expansion contribute to realization of the ultimate goal?

Grandiose though these questions seem, they are precisely the type that the Senate owes it to us all to ask.