Expanding NATO: a puzzling problem


Washington -- SECRETARY of State Dean Acheson, in his memoir "Present at the Creation," tells the story of the day in 1949 when the founding countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gathered in Washington to sign the NATO treaty, obligating them to come to one another's defense if attacked by the Soviets. Even as he initialed the treaty, though, Acheson wondered whether the allies' willingness to sign in Washington would be matched with a willingness to fight together in Europe. Was the treaty worth the paper it was written on?

He wrote: "The signing ceremony was dignified and colorful" but "the Marine Band added a note of unexpected realism as we waited for the ceremony to begin by playing two songs from the currently popular musical play 'Porgy and Bess' -- 'I've Got Plenty of Nothin' and 'It Ain't Necessarily So.' "

The same air of unreality that attended NATO's formation now accompanies the debate about whether NATO should be expanded into Eastern Europe. Congress and the foreign policy establishment talk of adding countries to NATO as if it were the YMCA. The House just voted to add Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to NATO, with virtually no discussion of the implications for this country of having to protect these countries.

"While there may have been an hour's debate on this issue, it was at the bumper-sticker level, not a serious discussion," said Jeremy Rosner, who is researching Congress' role in foreign policy at the Carnegie Endowment. That's worrying, he added, "because life-and-death commitments should not be done by impulse shopping."

He's right. My daddy always said to me: "Son, never go into a global thermonuclear war to protect a country you can't find on the map."

I would bet serious money that of the members of Congress who voted to bring Slovakia into NATO there aren't 10 who could name its capital or the countries that border it. Yet, they just voted to extend America's nuclear umbrella over it.

Yet, we still talk about adding countries to NATO with all the casualness of drawing up the guest list to a Washington dinner party. Why this lack of seriousness? One explanation is that deep down we don't really believe the East Europeans will be attacked by Russia. So if you don't have enemies, who really cares who your allies are?

Another explanation is that the NATO debate isn't about NATO. about domestic politics. For the Republicans, pushing for rapid NATO expansion, when President Clinton wants to go slow, is a way of painting Mr. Clinton as soft on Russia.

Are there any good arguments for enlarging NATO? I don't think so. I agree with Michael Mandelbaum, who, in the next issue of Foreign Affairs, argues that the two cases being made for NATO expansion -- one having nothing to do with Russia and the other having everything to do with Russia -- are equally invalid.

The nothing-to-do-with-Russia argument says that we really shouldn't be worried about NATO expansion because it is simply a club for nurturing new democracies and preserving old ones. But if that's the case, he says then why not include the most important potential democracy, Russia?

The everything-to-do-with Russia argument says that Russia is genetically expansionist and we ought to draw a NATO line around it sooner not later. But if that is so, argues Mr. Mandelbaum, we should draw the line further east -- on the Ukraine-Russia border, not the Poland-Ukraine border. Why abandon Ukraine?

Moreover, to expand NATO on the presumption that Russia is irredeemably imperialist and aggressive prejudges Russia's current democratic experiment as a failure and runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. When considering this argument, we should remember the music that Acheson heard, "It ain't necessarily so."

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.

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