To Widen NATO?

U.S. Ambassador to Germany visits Combined Resolve II
To Widen NATO? - Michael Stürmer

On April 4th of this year, three new members joined NATO: Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. The decision to invite them was highly controversial in the strategic community, not because of Cold War nostalgia but because of the risk of losing Russia in the process and being faced with huge strategic dilemmas.

When the decision was finally reached, it sparked the joke in Brussels that a bad idea whose time has come.

NATO widening was combined with, and to some extent cushioned by, the NATO ­Russia Council set up in 1997. But it still may prove to be a force making NATO weaker instead of stronger: It has already downgraded the Partnership for Peace Programme, an ingenious formula offered after the end of the Cold War for tailor-made cooperation, more with some, less with others.

Now NATO has decided to buy time. Not only because the newcomers are not well prepared, but also because their English is found wanting and some links with the past persist in ex-Soviet armed services. More importantly the old Russian problem is there in a new form. If NATO now decides to call off the continuation of the widening process - except, perhaps, for Slovenia - the West will seem to have subscribed totally to Russia's theory of the 'Near Abroad' and the widening process will have become a hostage to Moscow's interests. If, however, NATO persists, the focus will sooner or later be on Ukraine and the Baltic republics. In 1997 the US gave the Balts strong signals of support. But those signals were not the last step before incorporation in NATO but an Ersatz­substitution in order to gain time and maneuvering space. The Russians, left and right, reformers or not, have always said that if the Baltics or the Ukraine-Belarus is theirs anyway - were to draw closer to NATO, let alone join, this would open the gateway to another Cold War. The chances are that they mean what they say.

In assessing that risk, the logical conclusion must be either to stop the process at tremendous moral cost, or to proceed and pretend that in the end even Russia might be welcome if one day it decides to apply. This is what Strobe Talbott has suggested, in all seriousness, time and time again. Talbott, of course, knows that Russia has more than a few substantial border disputes, including that with China, and does not meet any of the more serious criteria that NATO has developed for candidates. Russia in NATO is pie in the sky - or the end of NATO.

But why is it so important not to lose Russia? The West admitted the point by setting up, as compensation for the widening process, the NATO-Russia Council. But so far this has not made much of a difference one way or the other. It may be that what we are experiencing now is the renaissance of great power rivalry. The unfriendly climate is there, the antagonistic mood, the militant rhetoric over Iraq, Serbia and many other issues. The United States makes a point of not being dependent on a United Nations mandate if and when immediate action is needed against foreign monsters. Thus the United States makes it clear that they hate to be dependent on Russia's good will, but they also undermine one of the last pillars on which Russia's self-respect and status rest.

By now, the question of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic is causaftnita, though accompanied by grave doubts about its inherent wisdom and military expediency. But on a global scale, the West in general and the United States in particular is paying a price. START I and II are stalling, START III not forthcoming. The idea of building with the Russians a new balance to keep the Middle Kingdom in check has no substance in the real world. A muscular joint policy against proliferators of weapons of mass destruction is beyond anybody's reach or imagination. It may be that all those difficulties would not have arisen without NATO's half-hearted widening process. But the latter certainly aggravated the underlying conflicts.

Finally: where do we go from here? In this impasse the wisest policy is still what Prince Talleyrand told aspiring diplomats: "surtout pas de zele". Russia still has a long way to go. It will come to appreciate the stabilising role of NATO in the Western neighbourhood; at the same time it will rediscover that proliferation, especially in the Greater Middle East, is the common enemy. And politicians in Moscow cannot fail to appreciate that even regarding China the US and Russia share some vital interests. In short: Il faut donner le temps au temps.

Professor Michael Stürmer is Steven Muller Professor of German Studies at The Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Center, and Professor of Mediaeval and Modem History at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg.