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January 30, 2003

The Big Bang of NATO Enlargement

NATO is getting bigger—and a good thing, too. By Hoover visiting fellow Donald Abenheim.


How can an organization that many claim to be a Cold War relic unleash such energy as the Prague summit? In the view of many in Washington, the Prague summit must have made no sense whatsoever. To them, U.S. national interests cannot tolerate limitations from the U.N. Security Council, NATO’s North Atlantic Council, or any other assemblage of strategic dwarfs. They ask what force allows this fossil of a collective defense organization to grow in membership (and to plan further expansion) and to assume such missions as rapid-reaction, counterterrorism forays against invaders with weapons of mass destruction, and peace support operations? Surely this frenzy reflects a self-defeating attempt to justify its existence in a dangerous world that no longer needs this relic.

Common Values

The ardent skeptics of NATO dismiss the key passages of the seminal Washington Treaty of 1949, the document that forms the bedrock of the alliance. The authors of the treaty, who took a page from the Atlantic Charter of 1941, wrote of common Atlantic democratic values as the foundation of the alliance. To be sure, the success of NATO since 1949—along with the economic integration that has reached a milestone with the common currency of the European Union—rests to a large degree on this ideal of shared values and measures of mutual aid and self-help to promote security, peace, and prosperity among the Atlantic democracies.

Too many skeptics on this side of the Atlantic—who glibly write off Europe as the breeding ground or graveyard of erroneous political ideals and perpetual blood feuds—wrongly dismiss the powerful appeal of Article II (which deals with common values and democracy) and Article X (the clause on further membership in the alliance). The NATO critics want to push shut the open door to new democracies and scoff at the organization’s success in helping to eradicate—or at least to lessen and neutralize—former sources of tension and conflict in Central and Eastern Europe.

Articles II and X have played a leading role in the enlargement of NATO since 1991. These two clauses formed a beacon of hope to hearts and minds in Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest—and more recently to those in Bratislava, Tallinn, Llubjana, and Bucharest. Most citizens of these capitals and beyond had experienced firsthand how the era of total war and totalitarian politics wrongly excluded them from the common values, security, and prosperity celebrated in Article II. They also saw that no prosperity can exist without security and that membership in the European Union alone would not suffice. They could still find the enduring scars of German and Soviet hobnails, tank treads, or secret police truncheons on Prague, Budapest, and Krakow pavements and landmarks, despite all the sparkle and glitter that now radiate there. These Central and Eastern Europeans knew that, in the face of a renewed threat to peace, they wanted real protection, not parasitic security and defense relationships such as those that left them in a strategic no-man’s-land in 1919–39 and 1944–46. NATO membership will finally banish the enduring ill effects of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact (1939) and the Yalta agreement (1945) that divided Europe and prefigured the outbreak of the Cold War in Central and Eastern Europe.

However, in the twilight struggle of bin Ladenism versus U.S. global power, many in Washington embrace the post-Kosovo strategic dogma that stipulates that “the mission defines the coalition.” This pithy maxim draws, in part, on a vein of anti-European sentiment in the U.S. military that reaches directly back to 1917, if not before. In this view there can be little talk of common values when diverging national interests between the United States and the European NATO nations conflict in an arena of terror and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The hand-wringing Europeans are always wrong about statecraft and public policy—from genetically altered food to ownership of handguns to the death penalty—and preemptive war is no exception. The shout of “the mission defines the coalition” not only bellows out the scorn in certain parts of U.S. strategic culture toward entangling alliances but also betrays a grand strategic over-optimism that the experiences of the Gulf War in 1990–91 and the punitive expedition to Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 can be extrapolated into the foreseeable future.

Then again, perhaps the smoke of this invective obscures what actually goes on with the extension eastward of Euro-Atlantic security and defense institutions and the common effort of the new European democracies for collective security and collective defense. This process began in the early 1990s with the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (the first mechanism of outreach to Central and Eastern Europe of late 1991) and moved forward with the so-called Partnership for Peace of early 1994 (which became the stage prior to formal NATO membership), then on to all-out enlargement in 1995–99. The current Bush administration has adhered to the policy of enlargement begun by the Bush administration of 1991. In fact, the latter has sped it up because Europe is not a junk heap nor is NATO irrelevant. Statecraft of a “whole and free Europe” makes even more sense for the American national interest in the troubled world after September 11, 2001, than it did in 1990.

Some Virtues of NATO Enlargement

In the first instance, the questions of who should join NATO, and why, have caused episodes of controversy that reach back to 1948. The recent extension of membership to the seven new nations has actually been far less controversial than those phases of growth that preceded it. Consider the U.S. insistence in 1948–49 that peripheral Portugal and yet more distant Iceland be included (because of strategic geography) and that Italy, so recently an Axis aggressor, be included (to defeat a communist fifth column there)—despite objections of the continental Europeans. They wanted membership restricted to Western Europe in the narrowest sense. Expansion led eastward in 1952 to include Greece and Turkey. Profound conflict accompanied the next enlargement: West Germany’s accession to NATO in 1951–55. Widespread fears loomed about the efficacy of the young democracy and the dangers of rearming a recently created German state. And all too easily forgotten is the domestic controversy of 1981–86 that surrounded Spain’s accession to the Washington Treaty in the midst of the Reagan-era crisis of intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

How quickly vanished, too, were the doubts and conflicts of 1995–99 about Polish, Czech, and Hungarian accession to the Washington Treaty. Critics asserted before 1999 that such enlargement would cripple decision making for collective defense, bankrupt national treasuries with the costs of defending the meadows and forests of Moravia and the plains of the Hungarian Pusta, and needlessly provoke the Russians into a new confrontation that would resemble the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. In the event, none of these fears became a reality. The technocratic reservations about Central European domestic politics and defense burden sharing, which seemed so persuasive to fussy alliance savants in 1998, have been rendered a dead letter by the Al Qaeda offensive and the call to arms in the West (and beyond) that have followed since the close of 2001.

Indeed, in the second instance, when seen over a longer span of time—the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries—the enlargement of NATO since 1989 represents a noteworthy reform of political culture, diplomacy, security policy, defense institutions, and military strategy in Central and Eastern Europe. This process has received far too little sympathetic attention in the United States beyond a handful of policy experts and some legislators. Central and Eastern Europe in the modern era has been a place where, sadly enough, insecurities arising out of the great power system and the arena of domestic politics have burst out of control and caused little wars that led to world wars. This phenomenon has been made worse by local problems of democratic civil-military relations and military professionalism gone wrong because of an aggressive, paranoid style of nationalism, total war, and totalitarian ideology. This has been compounded by an enduring ignorance of, and prejudice against, this part of Europe among many in the West. In other words, the problems of statecraft and democratic civil-military relations that NATO enlargement seeks to remedy in the widest sense can be said to have existed long before Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary became Soviet vassal states in 1944–46 or surely before Slobodan Milosevic unleashed war in Serbia in 1989–90.

Membership in NATO has helped correct these defects of statecraft and government, although much work remains once a nation is included in the alliance. Anyone who thinks seriously about this part of the world, with a nod to its past from 1848 until 1989, should be all the more thankful that the German/Czech border and the Hungarian/Romanian border are free of trenches, pillboxes, and the kind of random irredentist violence that poisons the Israeli and Palestinian lands. What if fighting such as that in the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland, to say nothing of the Gaza strip, had broken out in 1991 not only in southeastern Europe but also on the Oder/Neisse, in the Bohemian Forest, along the Danube, and in the Carpathians? What if low-intensity irredentist conflict still festered and smoldered in Usti nad Labem (Czechs vs. Germans), Gyoer (Hungarians vs. Slovaks), and Timisora (Hungarians versus Romanians) at the time of the Al Qaeda first strike against New York and Washington? The frictions between the United States and the NATO European powers would likely be considerably sharper and more problematic than the transatlantic contentiousness of 2001–2002.

The Way Forward

In the months to come before the seven nations formally join NATO, they must accelerate their security, defense, and military reforms, while discussing these measures formally with NATO representatives. These negotiations must confirm the interest of the aspirant governments, as well as their willingness and ability to fulfill all the political, legal, and military obligations of NATO membership. The aspirants must respond to the crisis caused by September 11, 2001, and the subsequent U.S. call to raise a NATO anti-terrorism rapid-reaction force.

Such a transformation realigns governments, legislatures, and armed forces to multinational collective security and collective defense. This process actually began in the early 1990s, long before the 1999 enlargement, and it has picked up speed since then. The proving ground for this practice began with “Partnership for Peace” national contributions to peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia and has led to expanded capabilities in the International Security Assistance Force deployment to Afghanistan. The goal has not been to create little Central European clones of the U.S. Army or the Royal Air Force but rather for each of the seven to make a sensible contribution based on actual requirements and realistic means, which in nearly all cases means greater national commitment to collective defense on a rapid-reaction-force structure kitted out with the latest in high-tech command and control.

NATO representatives and national delegations will also agree on a specific set of security and defense reforms for each country; that is, Slovenia will have somewhat different tasks than, say, Slovakia. The result of this negotiation will be a timetable, which in most cases will require labor and feedback between Brussels and the seven capitals. Thereafter, the NATO staff will prepare the protocols of accession, which will require approval by each nation by May 2004, at the latest.

The task of the moment rests in increasing the European commitment to defense and to securing greater combat power—but to continue to do so on the basis of principles of statecraft and strategy that have worked more effectively than many skeptics will allow. The key issue, by far, is the U.S. link to Europe. Whatever the many faults, frictions, and fatigue of keeping the United States “in” Europe, the alternative of a United States disengaged from Europe looms as far more dangerous. The efficacy of a new isolationism and unilateralism on the model of Charles Lindbergh’s “America First” of 1940 and a postmodern reinterpretation of George Washington’s 1796 farewell address may seem alluring to many, but such a policy would cause a world diplomatic earthquake of unparalleled dimensions and surely have fatal consequences, despite all claims to the contrary.

If this country is to prevail in the war against Al Qaeda and bin Ladenism, then it will have to summon huge resources of strength within itself—and within its friends and allies—in order to secure victory. Article II of the Washington Treaty may be more decisive in this connection than the forward air controller Green Beret on his pony with a laptop, beaming coordinates up to a B-52.

The struggle against Al Qaeda and its terrorism is liable to last as long as, if not longer than, the Cold War. The endurance of human dignity that Central and Eastern Europe displayed in the face of decades of arbitrary power—and the region’s resistance to totalitarian ideology—can only serve to strengthen our cause in this new kind of thirty years’ war.


Donald Abenheim was a research fellow at the Hoover Institution until August 31, 2012 and an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.


Special to the Hoover Digest.

Available from the Hoover Press is NATO: Its Past, Present, and Future, by Peter Duignan. Also available is The New Terror: Facing the Threat of Biological and Chemical Weapons, edited by Sidney D. Drell, Abraham D. Sofaer, and George D. Wilson. To order these titles, call 800-935-2882.