NATO Expansion? It’s Just Welfare for Europe

Thursday, July 30, 1998

Advocates of expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization argued that inviting the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland to join the alliance would enhance the collective security of Western democracies. But Americans have every right to be wary of the collective security concept. The history of NATO has been one of Americans doing the securing and Europeans doing the collecting. In the post–World War II period, for example, the Western Europeans constructed the most elaborate welfare states known to man with the resources they would otherwise have had to spend on their own defense had the United States not done the defense spending for them. (The positive side of the coin is that the U.S. welfare state was reduced as a result of U.S. spending on NATO.)


Thanks to NATO, the Western Europeans have constructed the most elaborate welfare states known to man with resources they would otherwise have had to spend on their own defense.


Like the alliance itself, NATO expansion also involves implicit income transfer from the United States to Europe. Securing Eastern Europe is essentially (though not exclusively) a European problem. But the Western Europeans would be able to transfer a disproportionate share of the cost to the United States by making the protection of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland a NATO responsibility. Ironically, the Europeans have an enthusiastic ally in Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Secretary Albright is eager to create the impression of U.S. activity and leadership in world affairs—which she mistakenly associates with supporting NATO expansion. Western Europeans are always willing to follow Washington’s lead when Uncle Sam pays their defense bills.

Not only does NATO expansion involve implicit income transfer from the United States to Western Europe, but it takes the heat off the Western Europeans for delaying the Eastern European countries’ membership in the European Union. The West, after all, is under a strong moral obligation to do something for the Eastern European countries. Excluding them from the EU has increased pressure for NATO expansion.

The reason the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland are being kept out of the European Union is Western European protectionism. Inclusion of Eastern European farmers in the highly protectionist EU Common Agricultural Policy would be an expensive proposition for Brussels. Western European manufacturers fear price competition from their Eastern European counterparts who pay lower wages. And Western European trade unions fear wage competition from their Eastern European neighbors.

The drive for a common currency in the EU—the so-called euro—is also being used as an excuse to keep the Eastern Europeans out.

“A new Iron Curtain has descended upon the middle of Europe, dividing Western capitalist countries from their poor ex-communist cousins in the East,” writes Lionel Barber in International Economy magazine. “Whether by accident or design, the EU finds itself retreating behind a Fortress Europe, restricting the flow of people, goods, services, and capital between East and West.”


Economic prosperity is the sine qua non of national security. Membership in the European Union would be much more beneficial for the Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles than would membership in NATO.


Must U.S. taxpayers pay for NATO expansion because Western Europeans won’t let Hungarian tomatoes and Polish sausages into their exclusive club?

Eastern Europeans want in on both NATO and the EU. They see membership in both organizations as crucial to their long-term economic and military security. But what kind of security can NATO offer Eastern Europe if exclusion from the EU—or, at least, from important EU programs like the Common Agricultural Policy—keeps the Eastern Europeans poorer, and thus more vulnerable than need be? Economic prosperity is the sine qua non of national security. By taking the pressure off the Western Europeans to do the right thing, NATO expansion defeats its own goals.

Moreover, even from a narrow military perspective, NATO membership probably is not necessary for Eastern European countries once they become EU members. As my Hoover Institution colleague Henry S. Rowen points out, it is hardly likely that a member of the EU would be attacked militarily without other EU members coming to its aid. In the post–Cold War world, NATO has lost its unique purpose—other than to serve as a mechanism for America paying Europe’s defense bills. Full membership in the EU would be both necessary and sufficient for Czech, Hungarian, and Polish economic and military stability.

Secretary Albright needs to be reminded that true U.S. leadership consists of manipulating the Western Europeans to take the Eastern European countries into the EU as full members—not having the Europeans manipulate us to expand NATO.

Finally, there is the issue of NATO expansion and Russia. The conventional argument against NATO expansion is that it will offend Russia, encourage its darker elements, and generally damage U.S.-Russian relations. The correct argument is that NATO expansion will lead to needless transfers of wealth to Russia to compensate for the supposed damage it inflicts on our former enemy.

Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s “toleration” of NATO expansion has led Washington to reciprocate not only by sending him billions of dollars in aid but also by being tolerant of Yeltsin’s intolerable interventions in places like Iraq. The Clinton administration has been altogether too solicitous of Yeltsin and his problems. NATO expansion must be considered—and should be rejected—on its own merits, not on whether it offends Russia and its current leaders.