Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held more hearings on the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, specifically the requests of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join the alliance. They seem a shoo-in. The question is, why?
NATO is a military alliance, but, so far, there has not been one military purpose put forward to warrant its expansion. Is there a potential enemy out there so powerful that NATO cannot handle it without the aid of Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic?
From the secretary-general of NATO to the secretary of state of the United States, assurances have been made of the great friendship between NATO and the former republics of the Soviet Union, so presumably the expansion eastward offers no strategic advantage.
In the lead-up to the July 1997, NATO summit in Spain, President Bill Clinton summarized the benefits of NATO enlargement, saying it brought together countries with "shared values." One was left to wonder what these values are, though you could speculate they might include democracy, free-market economic policies, the rule of law and a desire for peace. If that is the case, and the only litmus test for NATO admission, then other countries should be admitted--for example, Russia. Why stop there? Brazil, India and South Africa share those values and would make worthwhile members.
The rhetoric seems to run along the lines that enlargement is sound because it will allow NATO to transform itself from a defensive armed alliance into a politically pro-active alliance with no firm agenda but stable partners. Why not ask the World Bank to trade in its pinstripe suits for blue helmets and become a peacekeeping force? With the addition of sports powerhouse Russia, why not transform the G-7 into an ice-hockey federation?
The problem is, NATO is being confused with the Marshall Plan, or the Mickey Mouse Club. In the post-Cold War vacuum, NATO has allowed itself to become a sort of wandering group of Christian knights, left over from the Crusades, victorious but without a purpose. An illusion has sprung up, not yet knocked back down: NATO is a club that issues money, advice, democracy and capitalism on behalf of a Higher Order of Civilizations.
Without a clear set of military aims, NATO faces extinction, and should be dismantled. With a reduced threat from the east and a weakened Russia, NATO has no business being so big if its only mission is European defense. That mission can be handled by European states themselves, the majority of which already belong to an organization that increasingly looks after every other aspect of their public life--the European Union. Even if most European countries don't like each other much, they are irreversibly on the road to some form of political and economic union; by the year 2000, this could include a single voice on defense and foreign-policy matters.
Like filing multiple college applications to be on the safe side, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have asked to join both NATO and the EU. By comparison, Western Europeans are tired PhD students, thinking of NATO less and less and the EU only when it is time to apply for a grant or scholarship.
Were NATO to break up, the remaining states in Europe would be a military superpower, second only to the United States in modern, well-equipped forces and the proficiency of its professional arms. NATO's demise would create essentially "continental" blocs of power.
But if we assume that NATO has some military role to play as a sort of world police force--and Clinton's urgency in calling NATO members first over the current Iraq confrontation would seem to indicate this is the case if not under any formal charter--then NATO should divide up responsibilities. To use a corporation metaphor, NATO should become a holding company, overseeing two specialized subsidiary divisions: NATO West and NATO East.
NATO West would devote itself to power projection, especially by sea and air. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. forces have been increasingly tailored toward expeditionary, blue-water operations anyway. Isolated Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic do not fit. They have insignificant air and naval capabilities and hardly any coastline to speak of; they might as well be Nebraska.
The linchpin of NATO in any incarnation is the United States, the only state with sufficient sea lift and air lift to stage medium-to-large-sized, out-of-area operations. In short, if the U.S. doesn't give everyone a lift to the party, the party's off. If the three central European states vying for membership were already in the alliance, what contribution could they make to a showdown with Iraq? Poland has lots of tanks--how would they get there? Drive the overland spice routes?
Splitting NATO into two divisions would allow the United States to withdraw troops, heavy support and resources from Europe, and redirect the last to enhance power projection. This makes sense, as NATO becomes increasingly land based, stretching from Lisbon to near Latvia, a Maginot Line not sure which direction it should be facing. To touchy, volatile eastern states, such as Belarus and Russia, the presence of U.S. ground troops or aircraft in numbers in Eastern Europe will inevitably be a cause for internal rancor, especially in the hands of domestic political provocateurs, and serve as a bargaining chip to be used against NATO and the U.S. at the negotiating table.
The United States, Britain and Canada would form NATO West. The two non-European members of NATO are the U.S. and Canada, and the argument can be made that a third non-Euro state is Britain, a country drawn by ties of shared language, traditions, government and culture to the New World as much as the Old. These three states are, in a sense, the "islands" of NATO, the three maritime nations whose economies are heavily committed to overseas trade.
NATO East would be responsible for the hemispheric defense of Europe. This plays to the strength of the soon-to-be-accepted members, who possess large numbers of infantry and armor. Poland alone has the same number of main battle tanks as the U.S. Army in Europe--though of lesser quality. Together with Germany, it forms a natural defensive axis through the continent. NATO East could also serve as a heavy ground support reserve for NATO West, should the latter encounter a particularly intractable opponent.
The truth is, the new members invited to join NATO are poor and are ill-equipped militarily--illustrated by the fact that it will take anywhere from $30 billion to $100 billion to make them fit. The one advantage they have is that they're keen on democracy and NATO membership for a variety of reasons that are not always disinterested. In their baggage, they bring increased proximity to potentially unstable states who already feel left out of the post-Cold War, feel-good era that has enveloped their neighbors.
During the recession of the early 1990s, many corporations were forced into bankruptcy after diversifying so much they forgot what they did best. For some, disaster came as the result of land grabs into commercial real estate, just as the bottom of that market fell out. Real estate for real estate's sake didn't make money and didn't make sense. NATO is faced with just such a dilemma at the moment: A successful blue-chip organization, it can pick up some new real estate at an apparently low price. The question is, is that the business of NATO?