Don't Expand Nato

THE PLAN FOR EXPANDING THE NORTH ATLANTIC TREATY Organization, which moved forward in Brussels last week with a vote to name the new members at a meeting in 1997, is a rarity in public policy: an initiative that promises no benefits whatsoever. None of the reasons commonly cited for expansion stands up to scrutiny. Indeed, extending NATO eastward could damage American and Western interests.

Expansion's backers argue that it will protect democracy in the countries likely to join--Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. But democracy is not threatened there. All have problems, the result of four decades of communist rule, but NATO is irrelevant to solving them. Democracy is in far greater jeopardy--and its prospects are of far greater importance to the United States--in Ukraine and Russia. But they will be left out of an expanded NATO. Nor would the planned expansion contain a resurgent Russia. If Russia were again to threaten its neighbors to the west--something it's too weak for now--Ukraine and the Baltic states would be most vulnerable. Thus the countries that need NATO won't get it and the countries that get it don't need it.

A third argument for expansion is that NATO must fill a strategic vacuum between Germany and Russia. But a new, unprecedented European security order already exists in Europe. At its heart is the remarkable series of arms-reduction agreements signed between the end of 1987 and 1993, including the all-European Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty and the two Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START I and II) signed by the United States and Russia. They resemble previous cold-war arms treaties in form but differ radically in content. They reshape Europe's military forces according to the principle of "defense dominance," making them more suitable for defense and far less so for attack. And they provide for transparency: every country knows what forces all the others have and how those forces are being deployed and operated. This "common security order" makes Europe less vulnerable to a major war than ever before in modern history.

Some say the process of expansion has gone so far that failing to complete it soon would damage the alliance's credibility, weakening the West. This reflex is obsolete. During the cold war, the West feared that backing down anywhere would embolden the Soviet Union to press against Western positions all over the world. This was the reason for standing firm in West Berlin even at the risk of nuclear war. But the cold war is over. There is no adversary to take advantage of a Western retreat or delay. Stopping the process of expansion would be embarrassing, certainly. But the end of the East-West rivalry has greatly reduced the political cost.

The potential costs of pushing ahead--as the Clinton administration seems determined to do--dwarf the discomfort of changing course. The mere prospect of NATO expansion has hurt the West's relations with Russia. The close cooperation that marked Russian-American relations during the gulf war and made it possible to speed the removal of Russian troops from the Baltic states with a phone call from Bill Clinton to Boris Yeltsin has already disappeared. There are several reasons for this. One is the ill will toward the West created in Russia by the plan to expand NATO toward its border. This ill will is blocking ratification by the Russian Parliament of START II, which would substantially reduce the number of nuclear weapons aimed at the United States. Most dangerously, bitterness over NATO expansion could turn Russia, over the long term, against the entire post-cold-war settlement. That settlement, including the liberation of Eastern Europe, the end of the Soviet Union and the dramatic reductions in military force, is extraordinarily favorable to the West. Russians respect it because they agreed to every part of it. NATO expansion would be the first step in changing the security arrangements of Europe taken against Russia's wishes.

Finally, expansion would seriously weaken American support for NATO. By plunging ahead with a policy the case for which is clumsy--and by largely avoiding the public discussion it merits--the Clinton administration virtually guarantees a divisive Senate debate. A two-thirds majority must ratify the move. Even if the White House wins--by no means a certainty--public support for NATO inevitably will diminish, a dangerous development for a vital commitment that must last indefinitely. Nor will asking them to share the costs of expansion--perhaps $100 billion over 10 years--bolster NATO's standing with American taxpayers.

Expansion's full costs, political and financial, can't be known in advance. But deciding issues of public policy involves weighing costs against benefits, and in this case the decision is easy because the benefits are clear: there are none. If NATO expansion were a new company, its prospectus would say: if you invest in this firm, the best you will do is break even. You'll almost certainly lose a modest amount of money, and you might lose a great deal. You won't make any. That is the definition of a bad investment.