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The Newer, Bigger NATO: Fears v. Facts

Sunday, April 1, 2001

The world did not come to an end in 1999. That it didn’t was not a surprise to most of us, the year 2000 being a more likely candidate for Apocalypse. Nevertheless, there were some who expected that the year NATO accepted new members from the former Warsaw Pact, a contemporary equivalent of the 10 plagues of Egypt would be visited on the transatlantic military alliance.

The threats came fast and furious from Russian government officials and nationalist politicians. Former general and governor of Siberia Alexander Lebed warned of Russia’s intention to create a military counterbalance to a NATO that included Poland. “A similar precedent was created in Poland in 1939,” he said, implying that NATO enlargement was the equivalent of Hitler’s invasion of Poland. “The price of that precedent was 50 million lives. We won’t get away with only 50 million lives today.” Subtlety has never been a Russian forte. Gen. Lebed was just one of many Russian officials to bluster. The buffoonish and insufferable Vladimir Zhirinovsky received a great deal of attention in the early days of the NATO expansion debate until it was discovered in the West that the Russians considered him a joke. Zhirinovsky charmingly threatened to take back the Baltic countries, blustering, “They are standing in the way of our seaports.” President Boris Yeltsin, in the days after the fall of the Soviet Union when he was courting Western support, had confirmed “the sovereign right of each state to choose its own method for guaranteeing its security.” However, once the countries of the former Warsaw Pact made clear that their preferred method was NATO membership, the Russian changed his tune. In 1995, Yeltsin blamed the Bosnia debacle on NATO enlargement plans in blunt words: “This is the first sign of what can happen. The first sign. When NATO approaches the borders of the Russian Federation, you can say there will be two military blocs. This is the restoration of what we already had. . . . In that case, we will immediately establish constructive ties with all ex-Soviet republics and form a bloc.”

While Russian anger and frustration at seeing former vassal states voluntarily choose a former enemy alliance are understandable, it is harder to grasp the motivations of those who repeated the Russians’ bluster here in the West (although history teaches us that there will always be some who favor the appeasement of bullying, sad lot that they are). One vociferous critic of NATO enlargement was Michael Mandelbaum, a former Clinton advisor now at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “NATO expansion is the Titanic of American foreign policy, and the iceberg on which it will founder is Baltic membership,” he said. Likewise George F. Kennan, the famous architect of U.S. containment policy towards the Soviet Union — and, one would have thought, an unlikely source for such sentiments — condemned NATO enlargement as “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era.” Jack Matlock, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, told a Cato Institute conference in May 1997, “If this process is not stopped, we’re going to see a NATO that is no longer capable of pursuing the purposes for which it was created because it will be preoccupied watching its own navel and its expanding waistline.”

The fact is, however, that the Russian government eventually did manage to reconcile itself to the first post-Cold War round of NATO enlargement. To some degree, it had been placated by the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1994, which gave Russia certain consultative rights vis-à-vis NATO. In any case, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, the first three new members since the admission of Spain in 1982, were inducted with due ceremony and without protest at the fiftieth anniversary NATO summit in Washington in 1999. Then Russia turned its attention to preventing a second round of enlargement and to undermining American plans to build a national missile defense. During the second Clinton term, the latter of these two objectives was successfully achieved by President Vladimir Putin. While it is probable that Russia will not have similar success with the administration of George W. Bush, there is no doubt that Russia still aims to establish a linkage between NATO enlargement and missile defense, perhaps in the shape of a trade-off. Short of stopping enlargement permanently, Moscow hopes at least to delay a second round of enlargement for several years, until Russia might be in a stronger position itself, perhaps by then having recreated a federation with former republics like Moldova and Belarus.

Now, in the spring of 2001, the debate over the next enlargement round is intensifying. President Bush’s anticipated June visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels and to Stockholm for the meeting of the European Union has focused the attention of the nine countries currently aspiring to membership in the alliance: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania. They need to make their case. If another round of admissions is to happen in 2002, as they passionately hope, a decision must be made well before the NATO ministerial meeting in December. As a delaying tactic, Russian President Putin in March announced a $50 million investment in a Western media propaganda campaign to instill doubts and confusion in the ranks of NATO member countries. As Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe expert Paul Goble puts it, “subversion is the weapon of the weak, just as it was for the Soviet Union in the 1930s.” Vladimir Putin’s KGB experience will indeed come in handy. The Russian counteroffensive could well be more insidious and better orchestrated than anything the bumbling and erratic Boris Yeltsin could muster. It may be instructive, therefore, to look back over some of the cataclysmic predictions that fizzled and foundered as the first enlargement round moved forward.


Russian democratic development will be undermined by NATO enlargement. With the benefit of hindsight, this argument almost seems quaint. Nonetheless, the argument was often made that enlarging NATO would create with Russia a tragic repetition of the unconditional surrender imposed on Germany in 1919 at Versailles. Russia would find itself isolated and nurture a sense of deep resentment that could only be alleviated by revenge — much as Adolf Hitler saw it as his mission to avenge the Treaty of Versailles.

Well, resentment has indeed festered, but here the basis for the comparison ends. Whereas the Allies imposed unconditional surrender and impoverished Germany further with war reparations (justified though they were), the West continued to accord Russia near-superpower prestige, for example broadening the Group of Seven industrialized nations to the G-8 to include Moscow. Money and aid flowed to Russia from abroad all through the 1990s. Total aid from the United States alone was more than $5 billion. Assistance from multilateral institutions amounts to $9 billion. Rather than seeking to bankrupt Russia, the West has helped stabilize the postcommunist governments and enabled Russia to keep its economy afloat without a full measure of necessary reform and with substantial corruption, as much of the aid money made its way into the Swiss bank accounts of the “oligarchs.” In sum, there was no intention by the victors in the Cold War to punish the loser. (In any event, Russians, who do not like to be compared to imperial Germans, adamantly deny they lost the Cold War. In their view, they ended it.) Western largess meant the Russian government simply could not afford to cut ties with the West or take too belligerent a posture as long as it depended on the flow of cash from the International Monetary Fund. The current Russian leadership also understands this fact.

By now, it would be ludicrous to deny that Russian progress toward a stable democracy has slowed to a halt. Putin, elected president in March 2000 in an election that certainly did not qualify as free or fair, is a former KGB officer and has behaved like one since he first took the reins of power as prime minister in autumn 1999. One has only to look at the revitalized Russian military campaign in Chechnya in the summer and fall of 1999 under Putin’s direction, or the horrible loss of the Kursk nuclear submarine in August 2000, or the campaign to shut down Russia’s free media, to see that a return to autocratic ways has taken place. Russia expert Richard F. Staar of the Hoover Institution believes Putin’s intentions can be gleaned from the document “Reform of the Presidential Administration,” written by three of his closest advisers. “All three principal contributors agreed that it would not be necessary to develop democratic institutions but rather return to the use of force,” Staar writes. “The latter is to be implemented by the presidential administration, which itself will be transformed into an organ of control over society. The government (Council of Ministers) will decide economic issues, without deviation from the political line. In practice, this would mean total control over society by the Kremlin.”

Did the West provoke this relapse into authoritarianism? This much has been suggested by several analysts, among them Stanley Kober, a research fellow at the Cato Institute and author of the paper “NATO Expansion and the Danger of a Second Cold War.” But Russian nationalism and communist revanchism have been factors in Russia’s political life almost from the beginning of the 1990s, whereas NATO enlargement did not take place until 1999. Irrespective of what happened in the countries of the former Warsaw Pact in terms of military alliances, Russia in the early 1990s immediately began a steep decline from which it shows few signs of recovery. It did not take very long for the great hopes (in Russia and the West as well) about the postcommunist era to be sorely disappointed. Shattered expectations, not NATO enlargement, are therefore to blame. As Kober himself points out, as early as 1993 Yegor Gaider’s reform party finished second in the parliamentary elections, and in 1995 it failed even to win representation in the new Duma, which was dominated by communists and ultranationalists. All this transpired while the man at the helm of the ship of state identified himself as “Russia’s chief economic reformer.” By 1996, Sergei Kovalev, head of the Russian Human Rights Commission, warned, “the danger that Russia will become a police state has become very real.”

NATO did all this? The truth is that during those years, the U.S. government was hedging on the question of enlargement, holding off precisely for the reason that it did not wish to cause trouble with the Russians.

Much has been made of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s contention that he was promised by a number of people — from President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher — that NATO would not expand to include the former East Germany. Russian revanchism, some argue, is therefore perfectly justified, because the United States and NATO provoked the Russians by failing to keep that promise. However, versions of the events of 1990 differ greatly. No promise was ever made in writing, nor could it have been. With the exception of East Germany, which ceased to exist, the countries of the Warsaw Pact were sovereign nations. And they desperately wanted into NATO. It was in fact Gorbachev himself who allowed them to decide their own fates, both in terms of political systems and alliances. Rightfully, it is one of the decisions on which Gorbachev prides himself today.


Moving the borders of NATO to the east will provoke the Russian military. This is a version of the argument above. Russian rhetoric has certainly been red hot. Former Russian Defense Secretary Igor Rodinov in 1996 warned of dire consequences, in particular the remilitarization of Belarus and the possibility of armed confrontation over Russian access to the enclave of Kaliningrad, the former East Prussia, which is located between Lithuania and Poland. With either one or both of those countries in NATO, the Russian defense minister threatened armed confrontation. Russia in the spring of 2001 is now resorting to the very same threats, should Lithuania be granted membership in a second round of enlargement. This time, however, Russia is turning up the pressure a notch, promising to arm Kaliningrad with nuclear weapons.

With Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in NATO, Rodinov complained to the Moscow News in 1996, NATO would grow eastwards by almost 500 miles. “This would significantly reduce the early warning time available to Russia’s antimissile systems.” (Wait a minute: They weren’t supposed to have any of those, were they?) NATO forces would grow from 47 divisions to 60, from 101 brigades to 130. NATO would increase its number of battle tanks by 24 percent, armored cars by 22 percent, artillery by 18 percent. NATO would acquire 280 military air bases and increase its number of aircraft by 15 percent, combat helicopters by 13 percent. NATO warships would increase by 17 percent and with the addition of Poland’s Baltic Sea ports, the Russian Baltic fleet would be hemmed in. As awful as all of this sounds, the Russian military has not been provoked to take any action in the two years following NATO expansion — except to beat up the small hapless nation of Chechens who would undoubtedly apply for NATO membership if they could.


NATO enlargement will create a new division of Europe. An honest admission might be that any new division of Europe that moved the border of freedom to the east surely would be beneficial from the point of view of the United States and the West, no less so than for the countries involved. As former Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek stated at a summit of the foreign ministers of nine aspiring NATO members in Vilnius, Lithuania, in May 2000, “The day Poland joined NATO was the happiest day of my life.” Still, we need not grant that any new division of Europe has resulted from NATO expansion, nor that any such division would follow from a second round of enlargement. If we look at both new and aspiring members, we can see that no dramatic fault lines have emerged within the family of European nations.

In fact, expanding NATO (and the European Union as well) is already resulting in a more unified continent than at any time since the nineteenth century (when, one might add, the nations of Europe were still prone to fighting wars among themselves, something nearly unthinkable between the stable, democratic, prosperous nations of the EU today). Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic now serve as advocates for aspiring members to their north, south, and east, and a new level of cooperation has sprung up between them. Today, Poland and Lithuania, former enemies, are cooperating militarily to a hitherto inconceivable degree. Romania and Hungary have dealt with their border disputes. Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, rather than fighting for individual recognition, are working together militarily in a Baltic brigade. The purpose of the May 2000 Vilnius summit was for the nine NATO aspirants to come together to issue a statement of common purpose. They have shown that they want to be in an alliance with each other, as well as with Western Europe, a huge step forward for countries with a history of rivalry, warfare, and instability. The fact is that as long as there is an open door to a new round of enlargement, there will be no division within Europe. Shutting that door tight, however, would create one.

Finally, let us not forget that it was the Soviet Union that drew the Iron Curtain across Europe, not the West. It was Joseph Stalin who denied Poles the right to free elections agreed to at Yalta, and it was the Soviets who warned Central and Eastern European countries against accepting Marshall Plan aid from the United States. To say that NATO enlargement creates a new “Iron Curtain effect” is to forget where the threat to peace in Europe originated for 45 years. Unless aggression arises from the east, from Russia and its allies among the former Soviet republics, no such division will be drawn again. NATO has never been an offensive alliance, and notwithstanding the military operations in Bosnia and Kosovo to deal with a brutal dictator, the contention that NATO is an offensive alliance that menaces Russia is as absurd today as it ever was.


NATO enlargement will be prohibitively expensive. In the debate leading up to the 1999 Senate vote ratifying enlargement, cost estimates for the United States and for the new member states varied wildly. Unsurprisingly, those opposed to enlargement reckoned the costs much higher than those who supported it. Estimates ranged from $27 billion to $110 billion in total. The burden carried by the United States was estimated by the RAND Corporation as $14 billion and by the Clinton administration as $2 billion (the administration figures did not include guaranteed loan programs to help aspirant countries qualify for membership).

So far, the bulk of the actual costs of enlargement have been borne primarily by the new member countries. The United States regularly (and rightly) complains about NATO members not devoting sufficient resources to their defense budgets. It was no accident that in NATO’s Kosovo air operations, decision making was coordinated by the United States, Britain, and France — since those were the NATO members contributing the bulk of aircraft. Some countries’ forces are woefully inadequate. But the problem of too-small defense budgets is hardly confined to new members. As for the U.S. defense budget, commitments to peacekeeping in Bosnia and Kosovo have been far greater drains than NATO enlargement.


The United States is overextended and will go into decline as a result of NATO commitments. An early form of this argument was made in the late 1980s by Harvard historian Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. With timing that could only be described as singularly bad, Kennedy predicted in 1988 that the United States would follow the course of the Spanish and British empires: “The United States runs the risk, so familiar to historians of the rise and fall of previous Great Powers, of what might roughly be called imperial overstretch.” Inevitably, decline would ensure.

On the popular level, no one distilled the essence of this argument better than newspaper columnist and former Reform Party presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan. It is an argument arising from an “America First” point of view that is often characterized as isolationist. As some will recall, Buchanan’s book, A Republic Not an Empire: Reclaiming America’s Destiny, made quite a splash early in the 2000 presidential campaign. In the book, Buchanan darkly warned about the urgent need for a course correction on foreign policy: “For, with little discussion or dissent, America has undertaken the most open-ended and extravagant commitments in history.” Having described the demise by overextension of the British, French, Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires, he wrote, “Our country is today traveling the same path that was trod by the British empire to the same fate. Do we want America to end that way?”

Buchanan saw the enlargement of NATO as the ultimate manifestation of America’s unwise hegemonist vision. Particularly galling to him was Sen. Richard Lugar’s statement that “If history teaches us anything, it is that the United States is always drawn into such European conflicts because our vital interests are ultimately engaged.” On the contrary, Buchanan wrote, “history teaches us no such thing.” “Between 1789 and 1914 there were seven major wars. With the exception of an undeclared naval war with France under John Adams, and the War of 1812, the United States stayed out of them all. As for World Wars I and II, the United States kept clear of both conflicts for more than two years before going in.”

This argument is completely specious. The United States of the 1800s (the century in which most of the European wars he cites took place — the Crimean War, for instance, or the Austro-Prussian War of 1866) was a very different country from the United States of the twenty-first century, with very different international interests. And the fact is that the United States did not escape being drawn into the two great wars of the twentieth century. In a third, the Cold War, it was one of the two protagonists. The United States as we know it today was inescapably shaped as an international power by this experience. That the United States did not take part in the war of Piedmont and France against Austria in 1859-60 has nothing to teach us about the U.S. role today.

Moreover, the Buchanan thesis, even if couched in populist terms, is clearly far out of touch with the sentiments of the American electorate. Most Americans, though they may be chauvinistic, do not want an “America First” kind of world. A majority supported the first round of NATO expansion and probably will support the second round as well, given honest presidential leadership. This is a good part of the reason why the Buchanan presidential candidacy in the 2000 election drew the support of a mere 1 percent of voters.

Neither is it factually true that the United States is a country in decline. The American military is in some respects overextended by the scattered peacekeeping demands made on a diminished force structure, but American power at the start of the twenty-first century is supreme and undisputed to the point of causing resentment even among our friends and allies. (The French, for instance, suffer incurably from hyperpower envy.) American economic dominance is equally unchallenged. At a meeting of the Gorbachev Foundation of North America in 1998, I asked Paul Kennedy whether he was not feeling a little sheepish about his predictions. “There is still time,” he said. “I was talking about 2020.” Indeed, it is a truism that sooner or later, all great powers decline. But there are no signs that the United States is anywhere but in the ascendant stage of its national life. The Roman Empire lasted for 400 years. The United States as a great power has been around for just 100, as a superpower for just 50, and for little more than 10 as the “hyperpower,” to take the French term as a compliment, or at least as an accurate statement about reality.


Nuclear disarmament will suffer. Another awful consequence of NATO enlargement, its potential to galvanize “resistance in the Duma to the START II and START III treaties,” was spelled out in a June 1997 open letter to President Clinton signed by more than 40 ambassadors, congressmen, and former generals. They contended that a Russia in decline would renew its dependence on nuclear weapons as the only affordable response to NATO expansion.

These arguments were wrong on both predictions. First, the START II treaty was ratified in the Duma the moment a Russian president made it a priority, which Valdimir Putin did as one of his first official acts. Under President Yeltsin START II had languished, undoubtedly to the satisfaction of the Kremlin. Secondly, rather than an increase in Russia’s dependence on its nuclear forces, we have seen these forces decline rapidly. Russia is now actively seeking arms reduction to unprecedented levels in order to cope with the costly problem of keeping its warheads secure. The Russian government also recently announced that it would be increasing spending on its conventional forces.


Political divisions in the United States will increase, given that the NATO enlargement vote was taken without the benefit of a real debate. Many opponents of NATO expansion had the extraordinary brazenness to claim that the topic had received no public airing. But given that the subject was under almost constant discussion throughout most of the 1990s, especially after 1994, any seNATOr who found himself taken by surprise when the vote finally happened in May 1998 really had no excuses. When the Senate vote did take place, the result was overwhelmingly positive, 80-19, better than the administration had hoped for. There was not much evidence of rancor or bitterness among the seNATOrs, despite all the complaints that took place in the weeks before. A second round naturally ought to and certainly will receive a similarly thorough airing — including extensive hearings by numerous congressional committees.


Russia will gain veto power over NATO decisions. The signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997, a conciliatory step by the Clinton administration intended to give Russia a stake in European security, worried many supporters of enlargement. Doubters thought that the Clinton administration had gone too far and had in effect handed a veto on NATO plans to the Russians. As Henry Kissinger wrote in a much quoted op-ed article, “I will hold my nose and support enlargement even though the conditions may be extremely dangerous. . . . Whoever heard of a military alliance begging with a weakened adversary? NATO should not be turned into an instrument to conciliate Russia or Russia will undermine it.”

The Founding Act established a joint council to manage relations between Russia and the alliance, a body that meets in Brussels once a month. Clearly, this council did not hinder the first round of expansion, nor the decision to act militarily in Kosovo. There is no reason to believe the Founding Act will influence the second round of enlargement, unless Vladimir Putin is much smarter about playing his few cards, and the United States allows him to do so.


Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary are fully fledged NATO members today, and yet none of the dire predictions surrounding their accession have been realized. No cataclysm has struck Europe, and U.S.-Russian relations haven’t collapsed. The usual suspects — some of whom are Republican SeNATOrs — can be counted on to again raise their voices in objection to a new round of enlargement, but eventually to vote for it. Given the change in party control of the White House, it is likewise possible that Democrats will express more reservations this time than when enlargement was the policy of a Democratic administration. But in the end, there are few signs of diminishing political support.

Extrapolating from recent history, we are certainly justified in believing that a second round of enlargement will be successfully completed and free of negative consequences, as was the first. Some years from now, we may expect that the rest of the former Warsaw Pact nations will be a part of NATO, and the Baltic countries as well. The case against enlargement was made at length and tested by reality, and it has failed on all counts.

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