Commentary Magazine

Why Die for Danzig?

With the procedures for admitting new members into NATO having been set in motion at July’s summit meeting in Madrid, the debate over expanding the alliance has begun in earnest. Although agreements will not be submitted to a Senate vote until next year, the committee on foreign relations has scheduled hearings on the subject to begin this month, and a parade of military and diplomatic authorities will testify on what, if approved, would amount to a solemn pledge to treat an attack on Poland, Hungary, or the Czech Republic as an attack upon the United States.

The debate that will unfold in hearings, then in committee deliberations, and finally on the Senate floor is thus likely to constitute the fullest exchange of views about America’s role in the world since the Soviet Union disappeared. The decision will be a historic one, and it is certainly being seen that way by Bill Clinton. With the Middle. East peace process stalled, Bosnia still mired in ethnic hatred, and the President’s domestic accomplishments heavily mortgaged to the Republicans, NATO expansion could turn out to be the issue for which his administration is best remembered.

If so, it will be rich irony. Clinton began his presidency with a focus sharply skewed toward domestic policy: as he put it in 1993, brushing aside a question on Bosnia, “What I got elected to do was to let America look at our own problems.” To compound the irony, the Clinton team was itself initially ambivalent about expanding NATO. This history left Clinton open to the jibe of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, caught by an open microphone as he whispered to two other prime ministers at the Madrid summit, that Clinton’s reversal was motivated less by national-security considerations than by the desire to curry favor with American voters of East European descent.

Yet if Clinton can be accused of seeking partisan advantage, the same accusation can be brought against the Republicans. Until this year, the main Republican complaint about NATO enlargement was that Clinton was not proceeding quickly enough. When in 1996 the Senate approved the NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act, authorizing funds to help Central European states prepare for membership, Republicans broke overwhelmingly in favor of the bill. Yet as the Madrid summit approached, twenty Senators, fourteen of them Republicans, released an open letter to Clinton posing pointed questions about enlargement. The document was plainly intended as a shot across the President’s bow.

The shifting sands of partisan politics are not the only hazards on the path to U.S. ratification of NATO enlargement (which must also be approved by each of the other fifteen current members). The populist pot that was brought to a boil during the debate over NAFTA will be stirred again by isolationists like Patrick J. Buchanan. Though this is unlikely to yield more than it did the last time around, when the stew was seasoned with the threat of lost American jobs, the atmosphere could change radically if, say, during the course of the deliberations, extremists in Bosnia managed to kill some of the American troops stationed there.

Then there are the issues of the budgetary costs of expansion and of equitable burden-sharing among the allies. No sooner had French President Jacques Chirac left the Madrid summit, where he joined in declaring that “admitting new members will entail . . . providing the resources which enlargement will necessarily require,” than he returned home to announce that France would not contribute a single franc. Senator Joseph Biden, a supporter of enlargement, has warned that such conflicts over burden-sharing pose an “existential” challenge to NATO that could “torpedo” ratification.

Voices of skepticism or opposition have been raised not just by the twenty Senators who signed the open letter but also by foreign-affairs columnists like Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times and Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post, and by a group of 50 experts and former officials organized by Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the former President. While heavily weighted with cold-war doves whose opposition seems of a piece with their criticisms of other U.S. security policies, the group also includes such stalwarts of national defense as Paul Nitze, Richard Pipes, and Fred Iklé. The 50 have castigated NATO expansion as “a policy error of historic proportions.”



Different critics emphasize different points, but for some of them a major theme, after the issue of costs, is that Americans should not be required, in effect, to “die for Danzig” (to resuscitate the rallying cry of pre-World War II appeasers). Christopher Layne of the libertarian Cato Institute, for example, has written that “the best way for America to stay out of future European wars is not to be militarily present on the continent when they begin.” While most critics do not share the sharp bent of Layne and his colleagues, the same underlying sentiment echoes in Jim Hoagland’s sarcastic comment that Americans will next be expected to “promise to die for Ljubljana [Slovenia], Tallinn [Estonia], and Bucharest [Romania].” It echoes, too, in the warning of the Eisenhower group against “security guarantees to countries with serious border and national-minority problems and unevenly developed systems of democratic government.”

Another argument against expansion—which also amounts to an argument against NATO’s continuance even in its present form—is that the proper vehicle for preserving peace in post-cold-war Europe is no longer NATO but some larger international body. James Chace, the former managing editor of Foreign Affairs and now the editor of World Policy Journal, proposes creating just such a “European Security Organization,” while Jonathan Clarke, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has suggested that the vehicle already exists in the form of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

For other opponents of enlargement, the goal is not that NATO itself disappear but, on the contrary, that it be preserved as it is. Thomas Friedman worries that “expansion . . . will dilute [NATO’s] power every bit as much as baseball expansion diluted Major League pitching and made every 90-pound weakling a home-run threat.” Others, like the Eisenhower group, caution that expansion “will draw new lines of division between the ‘ins’ and ‘outs.’ ” Michael Mandelbaum of the Council on Foreign Relations contends that expansion would “recreate further to the east the line of division that existed during the cold war” and thus impose a new “gray zone” of insecurity with Russia.

This brings us to the argument that weighs most heavily with foreign-policy specialists: namely, that NATO expansion will arouse fears or sensitivities among Russians that will weaken the standing of pro-Western democrats in that country to the benefit of nationalists and Communists. “The prospect of expansion has already damaged the West’s relations with Russia,” writes Mandelbaum, and Friedman adds that “America’s allies in Russia are already feeling less room to maneuver.” Susan Eisenhower takes the point further, viewing NATO expansion as but the culmination of a pattern of Western high-handedness toward Russia that began during the Gorbachev days and that has brought upon Russia a dangerous “sense of shame and defeat” whose consequences may well return to haunt us.



How much weight do these objections carry? Interestingly enough, almost all of them have antecedents in the debate over the original creation of NATO in the late 1940’s. Many of today’s opponents have invoked George F. Kennan’s recent judgment that NATO expansion would constitute “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era”; whether they know it or not, Kennan, the intellectual father of the cold-war strategy of “containment,” also opposed the North Atlantic treaty when it was first put forward.

Just as, today, the Eisenhower group warns against having to defend countries with “serious border and national-minority problems,” so in the late 1940’s Senator William Jenner asked whether joining a North Atlantic pact would not compel us “to accept all the ancient grudges of our wards.” Just as James Chace seeks some larger European-security organization, so in 1948 did Hamilton Fish Armstrong, a predecessor as editor of Foreign Affairs, advocate “a move to strengthen the United Nations as a whole rather than to underwrite a group of its members.”

The issue of costs and burdens is likewise a familiar one. Newsweek reported in 1949 that while “most Senators favored the pact in principle,” the issue was, “Could the United States afford it? [That] question was by far the [most] pressing.” And fears of Russia’s reaction were also on many minds, with Senator Robert Taft warning that “if Russia sees itself ringed about gradually by so-called defensive arms, . . . it may decide that the arming of Western Europe, regardless of its present purpose, looks to an attack upon Russia.”

NATO’s success over 40-odd years makes such arguments seem foolish in retrospect. Although that hardly guarantees the foolishness of similar arguments today, most of them do prove weak upon examination.

Take the question of costs. The Clinton administration, which circulated high figures back in 1994 when it was seeking to deflect pressure for enlargement, now says that the costs to the U.S. will amount to only $150 million to $200 million a year for twelve years (on the assumption that we will be footing 15 percent of the estimated bill). This figure, which is far less than the American share of other NATO expenditures, has invited derision. Other estimates—such as those of the Rand Corporation and the Congressional Budget Office—suggest that the total costs of expansion may be two or three times higher than the administration’s figures and that the U.S. share will also be higher. But even if so, the American contribution would amount to no more than $1 billion or so a year. Measured against the total U.S. outlay for national security, not to mention the outlay for myriad things less important than national security, this is small beer.

Besides, the history of national-security expenditures amply proves the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The NATO operation to restore peace in Bosnia has cost the United States some $6 to $7 billion in its first year and a half; it would have cost much less to take timely action to nip the Bosnian war in the bud. The expansion of NATO can be counted on to forestall other Bosnias to come.

Even in a narrow economic sense, the costs of expansion may be offset by returns. When the North Atlantic treaty was first under consideration, the strategist Bernard Brodie argued that “only by the promise of security . . . could the West European states make the efforts necessary to their social, political, and economic salvation.” And thus it happened. European recovery became, indeed, one of the building blocks of America’s own postwar prosperity; today, besides competing with us, Europe provides markets and products, investment opportunities and capital on which America battens. By the same token, the spread of security to Central Europe can be expected to bring in its wake a prosperity from which all will benefit.

The fears that NATO will be diluted through expansion are also misplaced, at least in this initial round. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are all working seriously to modernize their military forces. Far from being weakened by them, NATO is likely to benefit from a transfusion of fresh blood from nations whose courage and love of freedom have been tempered in the struggle against Communism. This could be tonic in an alliance whose present members have lately exhibited a depressing flaccidity.



The more important points raised by the critics concern the creation of new lines of division in Europe and the response of Russia. There is no denying that a distinction will exist between those within an expanded NATO and those outside. But that distinction would be far more invidious if NATO closed its rolls, drawing a line between a kind of hereditary aristocracy of the free, rich, and secure and the rest of Europe. Since that line would be nothing but a relic of the cold war, it would tend to confirm rather than to contradict the perception that the inherent mission of NATO was anti-Russian. By contrast, expanding NATO and affirming that it is open to still further expansion are actions that will replace a hard dividing line with an effaceable one.

By remaining open, NATO can also turn the widespread wish for inclusion to good use. There are already nine applicants in addition to the three now invited in, and more will follow. NATO has responded to the rush for admission by detailing a set of criteria and creating a kind of antechamber where the aspirants may queue up. The criteria include democracy, political and economic stability, an absence of unresolved border or national-minority conflicts, and a requisite level of physical infrastructure as well as financial and military assets. The prospect of NATO membership has already led to the formal resolution of old disputes between Hungary and Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany, Romania and Ukraine, and Poland and Lithuania.

The antechamber itself is the Partnership for Peace (PFP), founded in 1994 as part of the Clinton administration’s effort to deflect pressures for NATO expansion. In the ensuing years, PFP has created a surprisingly effective framework for states to cooperate with NATO whether or not they wish ultimately to join it. Currently there are 27 members: 14 of the 15 former Soviet republics, 11 other formerly Communist states of Eastern Europe or Yugoslavia, and 4 cold-war neutrals (Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland).

PFP members participate in military exercises with NATO and work toward making their forces congenial with NATO’s. They also join in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, and even in “peace enforcement,” as in Bosnia. While not enjoying the mutual-defense commitment that binds NATO members under Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty, PFP members are promised that NATO will “consult” with them should they detect a threat to their security. In return, PFP members pledge to increase the “transparency” of their military activities and to take specific steps to assure democratic control of their armed forces. In addition, NATO has established separate coordination agreements with Russia and Ukraine even though both also belong to PFP.

Instead of keeping NATO cloistered as an exclusive club, these arrangements put the alliance at the center of a wider European-security architecture, thereby diminishing cause for concern both about “dividing lines” and about “gray areas.” The most sensitive of these is Ukraine. Thanks to its size, location, culture, and history, an independent Ukraine constitutes a virtually insuperable barrier to the reconstruction of a Russian empire. But these same factors make the notion of including Ukraine in NATO especially sensitive. The cooperation agreement allows some squaring of the circle. Military liaison has been established, and joint maneuvers have been undertaken. The arrangement, though, is but a pale analogue of Russia’s own, more comprehensive, agreement with NATO, and so Russia has little cause to object.

Will expansion, nevertheless, have a deleterious effect on Russia’s evolution? While all polls suggest that the Russian public is relatively indifferent on the matter, the Russian political class has been broadly opposed to NATO expansion. This includes even many democrats motivated, in part, by concern for the way the issue could be exploited by xenophobes and nationalists, and also by a seemingly genuine fear of Western intentions.

In reality, of course, Russia has no reason to fear. Even during the cold war, when the Soviet Union was defined as NATO’s enemy, the grand strategy and military doctrines of the West were always defensive in nature. All the less does NATO today have any designs against a Russia that is no longer its enemy. The notion that pushing NATO’s borders east will allow a jumping-off point for an invasion of Russia is laughable in an age when NATO’s dominant member, the United States, went through paroxysms of anguish and had to secure a writ from the UN Security Council before it could bring itself to invade Haiti.



Where Russian opposition to NATO expansion is not based on paranoia, it may arise from a lingering nostalgia for empire or from the hope of once again carving out a Slavic sphere of influence. But the largest factor may be simple confusion, reflecting Russia’s failure so far to sort out its national interests as a normal state rather than as the heart of a totalitarian, multinational, messianic empire. The fact that such top leaders as President Boris Yeltsin, General Aleksandr Lebed, and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev have all publicly reversed themselves on the NATO issue is symptomatic of this larger state of confusion.

Here, the West does have a useful role to play, and some lessons can be learned from our experience in Bosnia. Throughout the early stages of that conflict, Russia presented itself as the patron of the Serbs, over and over again forestalling Western action, exercising its veto in the Security Council, and warning NATO against undertaking air strikes or troop deployments. Finally, in August and September 1995, NATO brushed aside these warnings and carried out its one significant bombing campaign, which, despite protests from Russian officials all the way up to Yeltsin, helped pave the way for the Dayton peace agreement. When NATO then decided to deploy thousands of peacekeepers, Russia was invited to participate but refused. In the end, however, a 1,000-member Russian contingent did join the peacekeepers, under a Russian deputy commander and outside the NATO structure. By all accounts, these Russians have performed their mission responsibly, and to judge from the statements of Russian commanders and occasional reports in the Russian media, they have furnished a small source of pride for the Russian military.

What this suggests is that we can respond to Russian sensitivities without necessarily yielding to Russian admonitions. A sustained dialogue with Russian political and military leaders might help them to see how little intrinsic conflict exists between their enlightened self-interest and ours. It was in pursuit of just such a middle ground that NATO signed a “founding act” with Russia to create permanent consultative mechanisms housed within NATO headquarters. This agreement has aroused alarm even among some supporters of NATO enlargement like Henry Kissinger, who worries that now “all discussions within NATO . . . will be influenced by Russian participants whose objectives cannot possibly be the defense of NATO territory.” It is true that the NATO countries at times were susceptible to various kinds of Soviet pressure and influence; but influence is not a one-way street, and in today’s circumstances it is the Russians who may well prove the more susceptible party.

Finally: should American boys be asked to die for Danzig? Sadly, experience teaches us that America would find it almost impossible under any circumstances to remain apart from a European war that threatened Danzig (now Poland’s Gdansk) or Prague or Budapest. Of the four major wars we have fought in this century—the two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam—every one was a “foreign” conflict from which we had resolved to stay aloof. The best way to keep Americans from dying for Danzig or its neighbors is to keep these cities themselves out of the shadow of war, and the best way to do that is by embracing them in NATO.

But if so, why not also bring Ljubljana, Tallinn, and Bucharest under NATO’s protective cover? The answer to that is prudence. NATO’s ability to extend an umbrella depends on the new members’ ability to contribute to their own defense. Its ability to renew itself upon the foundations of shared principle depends on the new members’ democratic credentials. Its ability to expand without changing its character depends on digesting new members gradually. The decision to offer an initial invitation to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic strikes the right balance. It constitutes an important and necessary step, although not a final one, in adapting the structures of American and European security to the lifting of the Iron Curtain.



“I rather liked NATO the way it was,” writes Thomas Friedman. But that NATO was born of the changes that shook Europe in the late 1940’s, and Europe is changing again today. The real question is: what will be America’s place in this new Europe? From the point of view of the skeptics, the American role should be residual. Other institutions, whether OSCE or the European Union, can emerge as the main institutions of European politics, and NATO can be allowed to wane or, what will amount to the same thing, remain static. But there is a contrary view, which is that, mutatis mutandis, the safest bet for European peace and security is to keep America at the center.

Europe is one of history’s most fruitful civilizations, but in 1914 it collapsed catastrophically, yielding total war, Communism, fascism, and Nazism. The surviving democracies, while keeping European values alive, nevertheless pursued suicidal policies of appeasement. When the continent finally emerged from the maelstrom of a second total war, its prospects were bleak indeed. What saved it was America’s decision to break with its own traditions and become a European power.

This was not an American idea, but a British one, first aired by Winston Churchill in his 1946 speech at Fulton, Missouri. That speech is best remembered for the phrase “Iron Curtain,” but its main point was to beckon America into a close postwar alliance with Britain. Two years later, another British official, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, came up with the idea of a North Atlantic pact, which became a reality in NATO. Together, NATO and the Marshall Plan inaugurated a kind of Pax Americana in Europe under which the continent has enjoyed over a half-century without a war among its powers, the longest such stretch since the Middle Ages.

With the cold war over, is it not time for Europe to stand on its own feet? Owen Harries, the editor of the National Interest, is an opponent of NATO expansion who believes America should “leave Europe to the Europeans.” His advice was followed in 1991 in Yugoslavia, when Washington and the European Union alike agreed that the moment had come for the EU to demonstrate its capacity for independent action. (“This is the hour of Europe, not of the Americans,” declared the leader of the EU’s 1991 mission to Belgrade.) As we all know, the Yugoslav crisis ended up revealing Europe’s continuing inability to act without American leadership. In the words of Joschka Fischer, the leader of Germany’s Green party, which leaned toward pacifism until absorbing the lessons of Bosnia, “Europe has proved incapable of building its own common defense. . . . Only the Americans can provide the ‘big stick’ to enforce the peace of Europe.”

It is not only America’s muscle, however, but also its broader vision that Europe cannot do without. Why, for example, has the EU lagged behind NATO in opening the way to new members? European bodies, as NATO Secretary General Javier Solana recently put it, tend to get hung up on “the price of tomatoes.” Nor is this the limit of European parochialism. The U.S. devised the Marshall Plan, proffering large gifts of money on the condition of European cooperation, in order to induce the Europeans to look beyond nationalism. Today, the EU may seem to be going us one better by heading down the path toward a single currency; but the EU’s approach to European integration, which puts “deepening” ahead of “broadening,” also threatens to create a new divide, with rich and Christian nations on the one side and poor and Muslim ones on the other. The former Belgian Prime Minister, Wilfried Martens, put it plainly: “Turkey is no candidate for EU membership, neither now nor later. It is a European Union that we are building.” Here, then, is another reason why NATO must be the essential cornerstone of the new Europe.

This is not to say that NATO can go on defining itself exactly as it did in the days of the Soviet threat. A pledge to stand together against an attack on any one of its members may remain at the heart of things, but NATO cannot be only a mutual-defense pact, if it ever was. Indeed, Ernest Bevin, the organization’s inventor, saw it as “a sort of spiritual federation of the West,” and the North Atlantic treaty spelled out the purposes of the founding states in terms no less grand: “To safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law,” and to seek “the preservation of peace and security.”

Fulfilling these purposes in today’s circumstances, when NATO is no longer pressed by a single overarching foe, will require adjustments. In addition to remaining open to new members, these include a greater emphasis on democracy and a broader range of missions. But much more than its ability to make these adjustments, the future success of NATO depends crucially on the continued leadership of the United States. For to expand NATO means to keep both it and America at the center of European politics.



For the United States, assuming a commitment to the defense of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic means turning away from the isolationist temptations that have made themselves felt in the aftermath of the cold war. What is in this for us? In 1949, the North Atlantic treaty signified a complete about-face from the tradition of eschewing “entangling alliances.” Although the obligations were in theory mutual, America, being much the most powerful of the partners, put up far more than it got in return. Nevertheless, though the bargain may have been uneven, this bold policy eventually brought us the ultimate prize of statecraft—victory without having to fight. The lesson for today is that to assure our own safety, we need to exert rather than to husband our unique power.

In 1949, no one foresaw how NATO would work. U.S. officials viewed it as an analogue to the Marshall Plan, a temporary measure until the Europeans could resume responsibility for their own security. Few, if any, foresaw that the North Atlantic treaty would soon spawn its own elaborate organization, the “O” in the NATO we have come to know so well. Similarly, no one can see with pellucid clarity how NATO will work in the new, undivided Europe. We can be confident, however, that a harmonious Europe, tightly linked to America, will not only be a great good in itself but will offer us the best platform from which to face, in other regions of the world, whatever challenges lie ahead.


About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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