The European security system, post-Cold War, is in a process of change. Naturally, this generates much debate in many countries. In most Eastern European countries, NATO membership is generally welcomed and sought after. In neutral or non-aligned countries, like Ireland and Finland, joining NATO is at least for the time being out of the question. In Ireland the debate has also revealed much criticism of current security thinking. This became especially pronounced during the Nice Treaty referendum campaign. In Finland, there is much pro-NATO sentiment, but the majority of the population is against membership. In addition, NATO's expansion is a sensitive question in the Baltic area because of Russia's negative attitude. We invited Professor Michael Cox to analyse the current thinking behind NATO's expansion.

NATO expansion again — not whether but how

By Michael Cox

In his brilliant 1999 study on what he pointedly calls the original 'US decision' to enlarge NATO, the American academic James Goldgeier shows in almost painful detail the complex arguments, the political pressures and the indecision that accompanied the process that finally — and somewhat reluctantly — led Washington foreign policy makers under Bill Clinton to take the critical first steps that led to the expansion of the Alliance in the second half of the 1990s.

But it was never an easy decision, and while later apologist have tried to argue that the decision flowed logically and inevitably from the end of the Cold War in 1989, the insiders at least knew the truth. There was no such logic. Indeed, back then at least, another very different 'decision' had been taken: and that was to keep Mikhail Gorbachev in the game and the only way of doing so, it was reasoned, was by not expanding NATO eastwards. Anyway, to have done so would have run all sorts of risks by importing  new problems into the Alliance and creating a serious imbalance in the delicate balance that was NATO before 1994. It would also have involved new military guarantees to potentially unstable countries that the US did not much feel like making. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon in particular had major reservations about expansion. 

In the end it was events, not logic, that made the decision 'inevitable'. The unforeseen and unwelcome collapse of the Gorbachev project in 1991, the good showing by the Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky two years later, pressure from the Poles and the Czechs, Europe’s abysmal performance in the war of succession in the former Yugoslavia, and republican successes in the Congressional elections in late 1994, convinced Clinton that he really had no choice. Egged on by key think-tanks like RAND, and compelled to do the 'right thing' by the Polish-American lobby, the administration bit the bullet, and the decision was taken — though if it had not been fully and enthusiastically backed by the President himself and his Czech-born Secretary of State, Madelaine Albright, there is some doubt as to whether it would have ever been taken at all.  

How far to expand?

However, as even the most enthusiastic of converts recognized at the time, many things remained unresolved. How far for instance would expansion go after the inclusion of Poland, the Czech republic and Hungary? Should membership of NATO be offered to less suitable candidates like Romania, Bulgaria and  Croatia? Would the invitation be extended to those countries which had once been part of the former Soviet Union — like Ukraine, Georgia and the three  Baltic republics for example? How much would it all cost. And what impact would it have on the Russians? As Goldgeier wisely observed 'the first round of NATO expansion' may have dealt with some questions but it 'left' many 'others unanswered'. 

As the United State under a very different administration looks forward to the next round of  enlargement we would do well to remember these words.

In some ways, of course, the situation is now much easier than it was back under the Democrats. True, the energetic and enthusiastic Clinton has gone, to be replaced by the less persuasive George W. Bush, who — as his recent trip to Europe revealed — may talk  reasonable 'American' but certainly does not understand 'European'. One also detects a marked reluctance by Bush to seriously sell  expansion to a homeward bound electorate and an increasingly isolationist Congress. On the other hand, the new administration will face far less intellectual opposition to the idea of expansion than it did a few years ago, when it was virtually impossible to find any influential of note willing to support the idea. Nor are they much worried any longer by the Russians — which was a critical consideration under  Clinton. After ten years of so-called reform, Russia now carries less influence rather more in Washington, where the current attitude veers unsteadily between hostility on the one hand and indifference on the other to Vladimir Putin and Russia. Certainly, an  administration ready and willing to tear up the ABM Treaty of 1972, so that it can move forward with its Ballistic Missile Defence system, is hardly likely to worry too much about reasoned objections coming from a country in steep decline led by a former member of the KGB.  

In spite of the many obvious problems therefore the United States is bound to push ahead with expansion over the next period. As Secretary of State Colin Powell made clear in a keynote speech in Brussels on February 27 earlier this year, "NATO enlargement is a key part of the process of  uniting all of Europe. A decision to invite in qualified new states is among the most serious the Alliance could make. It threatens no one and contributes to stability in Europe."

Smart thing to do

It was left however to another official to make the case in detail. Indeed, in what has so far been the most systematic attempt to date to explain US policy, the American Ambassador to NATO — Alexander Vershbow — made a critically important speech in late March, one that was as wide-ranging as it was interesting. An expert on arms control and by no means a hawk, Vershbow made three significant points.

The first was philosophical. Expansion, he argued, was not merely a strategic imperative but also an expression of America's long-term historical 'commitment' to what he called an 'Open Door'. His  second point connected to the debate back in the United States itself.  Expansion, he reminded skeptics, was not just the right thing to do — it was also the smart thing to do. It was in short in the US national interest. Thirdly however he pointed out to the enthusiasts that much still needed to be done before the next round of expansion could go ahead. This in a way was the most fascinating part of his tour de force. NATO, he agreed, might be ready to expand towards the East. However, were the candidates who were standing in line ready for NATO? He was not so sure. In fact he was not at all convinced that any of the new possible members were ready. "None of the candidates", he went on, choosing his words ever so carefully, "has done enough" yet "to be considered a sure-thing as of today".

Thus it was not just Moscow which constituted a block to expansion. As Vershbow made clear, "the Russia factor will not be the determining factor in the enlargement debate". He was emphatic: Russia does not have and "cannot have  a veto". Washington would  to be sensitive to "Russia's concerns". However, it would not let these stand in the way. "No", the biggest problem — he went on — were the new countries themselves, many of whom had not even begun to address some of the issues about what NATO membership might mean for them. Here he drew some sobering lessons from the past. As he pointed out, it had not been plain or smooth sailing  after 1994. Far from it. In fact, if the experience of the earlier round of enlargement demonstrated anything, it was that becoming a member of NATO could actually be a serious challenge to the countries involved. Indeed, if joining the Alliance delivered (as it did) a real  'shock' to relatively stable systems with reasonably well developed militaries like Poland, the Czech republic and Hungary, how much greater it might be for those who were less developed economically, politically more volatile or militarily more backward. Difficult times therefore lay ahead. 

American hegemony

Vershbow's warnings about the future should not of course lead us to draw the wrong conclusion. After all, following an initially hesitant start, the United States over the past few years has developed a very powerful set of reason for wanting to see NATO move eastwards. For one thing, it can see no serious alternative to doing so. For another, NATO remains an important instrument through which the US  continues to exercise its influence on the continent. Richard Nixon, as ever, got it right many years ago. The Alliance, he argued, was  the key political axis around which all else revolved in the larger game called US hegemony. Not only that, it was the  best, indeed the only guarantee the United  States had of maintaining its leadership over unruly allies, some of whom (like the French) had  certain pretensions to organize things for themselves without the United States. 

This perhaps takes us to the hub of the issue: the unspoken assumption and the ever-present fear that  if NATO does not continue to expand then people will not only begin to ask what is the Alliance for anyway — a question asked by Zbigniew Brzezinski back in 1994 — but might also start to look for ways of building their own security arrangements. It is no coincidence that at precisely the same time the United  States is pushing for NATO expansion (in spite of the known problems) officials in the Bush White House are raising all sorts of objections to any attempt on the part of Europeans to create their own defence force. As a senior American official noted in the spring, while the US has no objection in principle to the EU operating at the "low-end" of the security chain, dealing in the main with local "peacekeeping" operations, it would have real problems if this led to a "two-tiered Alliance with the gap between US and European forces" growing "ever wider".

Thus in the end what will determine the pace of NATO expansion in the future will not just be the readiness of new members, but American concerns about the reliability of some of the old ones. As ever the question about whether or when NATO should be expanded will be the outcome of many American  calculations — only one of which has to do with European security.

Michael Cox is a Professor at the Department of International Politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He is the editor of the Review of International Studies and Research Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. His latest books are E.H.Carr : A Critical Appraisal (Palgrave, 2000), A Farewell To Arms? From Long War to Long Peace In Northern Ireland (Manchester UP, 2000) and American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies, Outcomes (OUP, 2000). He is currently bringing an updated version of E.H. Carr's classic The Twenty Years Crisis (2001). Email address:


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