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N.A.T.O.: A COLD WAR RELIC
The John Galt Press

Since times immemorial, the history of Central and Eastern Europe has been plagued by violence, instability and ethnic rivalries. After a period of relative calm under Soviet control, the region is finally free to pursue new security arrangements in an effort to solve its age-old problems.

After a cautious rapprochement during the Agony of the USSR (1990-1991), NATO and selected East European countries became increasingly integrated. This culminated with the formal accession of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary on January 1, 1999. The 2002 Prague summit is expected to produce negotiation invitations for the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, and possibly Macedonia and Albania. 

Still, the desirability and feasibility of East European countries joining the only surviving cold-war military alliance, NATO, is a topic of ardent debate in political and intellectual circles on both continents. The end of the Cold War caused many analysts to conclude that future security threats for Eastern Europe will not arise from superpower rivalry but rather from internal and regional ethnic or economic conflicts. This seems to raise questions about the compatibility of Cold-War style military blocks with today’s national security concerns. On the other hand, the Russian threat is still clear and present in the minds of many East European leaders, while the role of the international community in placating internal strife is becoming increasingly well established, though by no means uncontroversial. 

This article will focus on the reasons expansion would benefit both the candidate countries and NATO’s current members. I will start off by looking at the perceived Russian threat. I will then turn my attention to the stability considerations attached to NATO expansion. Finally, I will explore the ways in which expansion can strengthen the North Atlantic military alliance. 

Perhaps the most important reason why East European candidates want to join NATO is to get out of the Russian sphere of influence once and for all. Although today’s Russia appears more benign than Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, there are sufficient reasons of alarm for East Europeans, and especially for the Baltic States. One cannot forget the 1991 Russian occupation of Vilnius, the capital of newly independent Lithuania, which resulted in several deaths and massive property destruction. Ever since, successive Russian administrations made no secret of their intention to re-establish Moscow’s influence over the “near abroad” (read the ex-Soviet republics). This drive has materialized in a formal union between Russia and Belarus (1995) and a lot of noise about the fate of Russian minorities in the Baltics and Central Asia. 

Indeed, nationalism and imperial nostalgia remain constant features of Russian political discourse. They are embraced not only by fringe elements like Vladimir Zhirinovski, but also by president Putin himself, whose involvement in and public support of the massacres perpetrated in Chechnya since 1994 can only reinforce East European suspicions. 

Opponents of further NATO expansion argue that such a move, particularly if it includes the Baltics, will only serve to antagonize Russia and cause it to beef up its military. However, Moscow’s reaction to the 1999 wave of accession was tepid to say the least, despite Yeltsin’s sabor-rattling before it happened. Given the present state of the Russian economy and its dependence on vital Western aid, it is hard to imagine that President Putin will act differently. Furthermore, the severe crisis that confronts the Russian military (illustrated by the recent Kursk incident as well as by the Chechen entanglement) makes it unlikely that Moscow will take an aggressive stance towards NATO. 

A second argument for continuing NATO expansion has to do with promoting stability in Eastern Europe. The potential for ethnic conflicts in a region that used to be home to four multinational empires (Russia, Germany, Austria and Turkey) should never be underestimated. The cross-border character of most East European minority issues can cause internal strife to spill over into neighboring countries and threaten regional security. A case in point - the recent ethnic conflict in Macedonia, a direct follow-up of the Kosovo war. Can NATO solve these serious stability problems? By calling for harmonious relationships with neighbors, a well-functioning democracy (including, of course, respect for individual and minority rights) and a sound economy as prerequisites for accession, the Alliance offers strong incentives for East European countries to engage in peaceful conflict resolution and thus promotes both internal and regional stability. Furthermore, selection criteria such as civilian control of the military can strengthen emerging democracies by diminishing the threat of an authoritarian takeover. Finally, extending the North Atlantic security umbrella over the countries of Eastern Europe may constitute a favorable signal for foreign investors and safeguard stability through prosperity. 

A counter-argument to the stability benefits of NATO membership points to the potential entanglement of the Alliance in rabid ethnic conflicts with no clear solution in sight. Furthermore, non-NATO members in Eastern Europe might grow suspicious of their NATO neighbors, which would increase existing regional tensions. The first part of this argument can be rebutted by re-emphasizing the preemptive consequences of prospective NATO membership. As far as the second part of the objection goes, the solution is quite straightforward: to avoid the feeling that new fault lines are developing in Eastern Europe, NATO should start negotiations with all candidates and decide on individual accession dates based on their respective preparedness. This so-called “Big-Bang” approach is in fact expected to be formally announced in 2002. 

A third main argument for NATO expansion is the positive effect that the process would have on the military and political clout of the Alliance. As it is the case with most defense issues, the principle of “power in numbers” applies. New members such as Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia would reinforce NATO’s Southern flank, currently the most sensitive area for European security. At the same time, the Baltic countries would provide a North-Eastern base of operations that would take pressure off Germany and Poland. 

Expansion can also increase the political cohesion of the Alliance by moderating the bi-polar tendencies that have recently pitted the US against the European Union. The common goal of expansion will require consensus and will therefore give present members an opportunity to work out their differences in a constructive way. Furthermore, new members might bring some non-partisan input in decision-making once they are admitted. Granted, the contribution of enlargement to political cohesion remains controversial. 

Some analysts point out that opinion differences regarding expansion may divide NATO members rather than bring them together. However, when balancing out the two sides of the argument one should keep in mind that most European countries (including the UK, France, Italy and Germany) now appear to agree with the US on the “Big Bang” strategy and that all of them signed on to the 1997 Madrid declaration that confirmed the desirability of further expansion.

To sum up, the main arguments for continuing NATO expansion in Eastern Europe appear well-grounded and outweigh the potential problems that this process might engender. Joining the North Atlantic Alliance will come as the natural conclusion of Eastern Europe’s shift away from its forced integration within the Soviet security sphere. For the first time in centuries, Russian aggression will cease to be a concern for East European states, as they will enjoy the protection of a mighty military block that Moscow is bound to respect. This decisive break with the past as well as the high standards for democratic, economic and foreign-policy performance that NATO sets as accession criteria are likely to stimulate stability and prosperity in the area. Last but not least, a wider NATO will be a stronger NATO, due to strategic clout as well as to the nature of the Alliance’s internal politics. NATO expansion thus appears to provide a historical chance for Eastern Europe to develop in safety. Given the area’s importance in international relations, expansion can only be regarded as a positive accomplishment for the international community as a whole.

Since times immemorial, the history of Central and Eastern Europe has been plagued by violence, instability and ethnic rivalries. After a period of relative calm under Soviet control, the region is finally free to pursue new security arrangements in an effort to solve its age-old problems. After a cautious rapprochement during the Agony of the USSR (1990-1991), NATO and selected East European countries became increasingly integrated. This culminated with the formal accession of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary on January 1, 1999. The 2002 Prague summit is expected to produce negotiation invitations for the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, and possibly Macedonia and Albania. 

Still, the desirability and feasibility of East European countries joining the only surviving cold-war military alliance, NATO, is a topic of ardent debate in political and intellectual circles on both continents. The end of the Cold War caused many analysts to conclude that future security threats for Eastern Europe will not arise from superpower rivalry but rather from internal and regional ethnic or economic conflicts. This seems to raise questions about the compatibility of Cold-War style military blocks with today’s national security concerns. On the other hand, the Russian threat is still clear and present in the minds of many East European leaders, while the role of the international community in placating internal strife is becoming increasingly well established, though by no means uncontroversial. 

This article will focus on the reasons expansion would benefit both the candidate countries and NATO’s current members. I will start off by looking at the perceived Russian threat. I will then turn my attention to the stability considerations attached to NATO expansion. Finally, I will explore the ways in which expansion can strengthen the North Atlantic military alliance. Perhaps the most important reason why East European candidates want to join NATO is to get out of the Russian sphere of influence once and for all. 

Although today’s Russia appears more benign than Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, there are sufficient reasons of alarm for East Europeans, and especially for the Baltic States. One cannot forget the 1991 Russian occupation of Vilnius, the capital of newly independent Lithuania, which resulted in several deaths and massive property destruction. Ever since, successive Russian administrations made no secret of their intention to re-establish Moscow’s influence over the “near abroad” (read the ex-Soviet republics). This drive has materialized in a formal union between Russia and Belarus (1995) and a lot of noise about the fate of Russian minorities in the Baltics and Central Asia. 

Indeed, nationalism and imperial nostalgia remain constant features of Russian political discourse. They are embraced not only by fringe elements like Vladimir Zhirinovski, but also by president Putin himself, whose involvement in and public support of the massacres perpetrated in Chechnya since 1994 can only reinforce East European suspicions. 

Opponents of further NATO expansion argue that such a move, particularly if it includes the Baltics, will only serve to antagonize Russia and cause it to beef up its military. However, Moscow’s reaction to the 1999 wave of accession was tepid to say the least, despite Yeltsin’s sabor-rattling before it happened. Given the present state of the Russian economy and its dependence on vital Western aid, it is hard to imagine that President Putin will act differently. Furthermore, the severe crisis that confronts the Russian military (illustrated by the recent Kursk incident as well as by the Chechen entanglement) makes it unlikely that Moscow will take an aggressive stance towards NATO. 

A second argument for continuing NATO expansion has to do with promoting stability in Eastern Europe. The potential for ethnic conflicts in a region that used to be home to four multinational empires (Russia, Germany, Austria and Turkey) should never be underestimated. The cross-border character of most East European minority issues can cause internal strife to spill over into neighboring countries and threaten regional security. A case in point - the recent ethnic conflict in Macedonia, a direct follow-up of the Kosovo war. 

Can NATO solve these serious stability problems? By calling for harmonious relationships with neighbors, a well-functioning democracy (including, of course, respect for individual and minority rights) and a sound economy as prerequisites for accession, the Alliance offers strong incentives for East European countries to engage in peaceful conflict resolution and thus promotes both internal and regional stability. Furthermore, selection criteria such as civilian control of the military can strengthen emerging democracies by diminishing the threat of an authoritarian takeover. Finally, extending the North Atlantic security umbrella over the countries of Eastern Europe may constitute a favorable signal for foreign investors and safeguard stability through prosperity. 

A counter-argument to the stability benefits of NATO membership points to the potential entanglement of the Alliance in rabid ethnic conflicts with no clear solution in sight. Furthermore, non-NATO members in Eastern Europe might grow suspicious of their NATO neighbors, which would increase existing regional tensions. The first part of this argument can be rebutted by re-emphasizing the preemptive consequences of prospective NATO membership. As far as the second part of the objection goes, the solution is quite straightforward: to avoid the feeling that new fault lines are developing in Eastern Europe, NATO should start negotiations with all candidates and decide on individual accession dates based on their respective preparedness. This so-called “Big-Bang” approach is in fact expected to be formally announced in 2002. 

A third main argument for NATO expansion is the positive effect that the process would have on the military and political clout of the Alliance. As it is the case with most defense issues, the principle of “power in numbers” applies. New members such as Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia would reinforce NATO’s Southern flank, currently the most sensitive area for European security. At the same time, the Baltic countries would provide a North-Eastern base of operations that would take pressure off Germany and Poland. 

Expansion can also increase the political cohesion of the Alliance by moderating the bi-polar tendencies that have recently pitted the US against the European Union. The common goal of expansion will require consensus and will therefore give present members an opportunity to work out their differences in a constructive way. Furthermore, new members might bring some non-partisan input in decision-making once they are admitted. Granted, the contribution of enlargement to political cohesion remains controversial. 

Some analysts point out that opinion differences regarding expansion may divide NATO members rather than bring them together. However, when balancing out the two sides of the argument one should keep in mind that most European countries (including the UK, France, Italy and Germany) now appear to agree with the US on the “Big Bang” strategy and that all of them signed on to the 1997 Madrid declaration that confirmed the desirability of further expansion. 

To sum up, the main arguments for continuing NATO expansion in Eastern Europe appear well-grounded and outweigh the potential problems that this process might engender. Joining the North Atlantic Alliance will come as the natural conclusion of Eastern Europe’s shift away from its forced integration within the Soviet security sphere. For the first time in centuries, Russian aggression will cease to be a concern for East European states, as they will enjoy the protection of a mighty military block that Moscow is bound to respect. This decisive break with the past as well as the high standards for democratic, economic and foreign-policy performance that NATO sets as accession criteria are likely to stimulate stability and prosperity in the area. Last but not least, a wider NATO will be a stronger NATO, due to strategic clout as well as to the nature of the Alliance’s internal politics. NATO expansion thus appears to provide a historical chance for Eastern Europe to develop in safety. Given the area’s importance in international relations, expansion can only be regarded as a positive accomplishment for the international community as a whole. 

© 2001, The John Galt Press.
Last updated: 7/24/2001 by tins