PARIS -- The executive branch of American government seems determined to commit the United States to responsibilities in Europe which common sense says the Congress will refuse.
The administration wants rapid expansion of NATO. It wants this in defiance of the fact that expansion offers destabilization rather than stabilization in East-Central Europe and Russia.
From the beginning of the debate over NATO enlargement, critics have maintained that it is most unlikely that a two-thirds majority of the U.S. Senate would agree to extend unconditional U.S. nuclear guarantees to NATO's new members.
It may be doubted that the Senate majority would even endorse nuclear guarantees for Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, which are not on Russia's border (except for the Kaliningrad enclave between Poland and Lithuania). That it would do so for the Baltic states is more doubtful yet. It has been a terrible idea to bring this matter up.
The administration is determined to invite the Poles, Czechs and Hungarians into NATO next summer. It wants them, and probably one or two other newcomers, inside the alliance by 1999, when NATO has its 50th anniversary. This requires the Senate and the national legislatures of 15 other NATO countries to ratify NATO's new commitments by 1999.
Mr. Clinton is following what has become the consensus policy of the American strategic community. The plan to expand NATO is backed by the Polish and Baltic lobbies in the U.S. for understandable reasons. They do not understand that they support a program that could weaken rather than strengthen these countries' security.
The policy community has an ideological as well as organizational interest in NATO expansion. It sees it as part of a lTC larger expansion of America's world role and post-Cold War responsibilities. This suits bureaucratic interests in Washington, and also in the NATO apparatus, which has become a quasi-autonomous actor in Western policy determination.
The policy bureaucracy and its adjuncts in the think tanks and universities have formulated this project without adequate attention to its domestic political ratifications, leaving that for the politicians to deal with. However, while prime ministers can usually carry their parliamentary majorities, President Clinton cannot carry the U.S. Senate on this issue unless a big and dangerous crisis has developed with Russia -- and possibly not then.
NATO's expansion actually tends to promote such a crisis, as it ** cannot seriously be interpreted as other than an anti-Russian measure, and since it draws a new line of political and military division across Europe, with NATO on one side and the rest on the other -- which makes no sense. We spent 40 years trying to get rid of the last iron curtain.
However the policy community has a vision of a future federative community of the democracies, in which NATO would be the integrating agent in Europe, Russia itself would eventually become a member and the United States would be at the helm of it all.
It sees NATO not only expanding but evolving, becoming a trans-Atlantic and eventually -- why not? -- Eurasian political, economic and trading community in which the United States would be the leading nation.
This complacent and sentimental view of the future has deep roots in the historical American approach to foreign policy, and the results have not always been bad. But on the occasions when policy initiatives went against congressional sentiment and public apprehension, as happened with Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations, the executive-legislative clash that followed was damaging to all.
Some argue that until NATO is extended to Central Europe, a power vacuum exists there. This consideration is irrelevant to the extent that a power "vacuum" becomes dangerous when rival powers exploit it to enlarge their own influence -- which is exactly what NATO expansion amounts to, thereby inviting Russian retaliation. To do this makes no sense when Russia itself has accepted, indeed initiated, its own removal from Central and Eastern Europe -- with grace and good sense.
There now are dynamic, independent nations in Central Europe with enlarging institutional ties to Western Europe and to the Western and international economies. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are as secure today as Finland, Sweden and Austria. NATO membership offers them little objective advantage. NATO rejection, following a vote in the U.S. Senate not to extend guarantees to them, would do immense harm.
This is certainly true in the separate case of the Baltic states. Their independence is not challenged today by Moscow. Interference with their independence would provoke international crisis. That may not seem a very reliable guarantee of their future security, but it is a better one than they are likely to get, in foreseeable circumstances, from the United States Senate.
There are problems that it is better not to try to anticipate. There are problems precipitated by the attempt to anticipate them. NATO expansion generates problems; it does not solve them.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 12/19/96