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NATO Expansion and the Problem of a NATO Strategy
Global Intelligence Update, Red Alert, March 15, 1999

 
This past week Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic formally became part of NATO. This means that the mutual guarantees of assistance in time of war, that have been the essence of NATO for several generations, have now been extended to these three. If any of them are attacked then it is the legal and moral obligation of all NATO members to come to their assistance. This dramatically increases both the responsibilities and vulnerabilities of NATO. The expansion may also increase the opportunities. These possibilities need to be carefully considered.
 
NATO has become defined in two ways. First, it has been defined, along with the European Union, as an alliance among democratic states. To be a bit more precise, it has been identified as an organization that motivates formerly non-democratic states to become democratic. The assumption is that membership in NATO and the EU is so attractive that the formerly socialist states, now freed from Soviet control, would be motivated to reconstruct their political, social and economic systems in order to be permitted to joint. Thus, in the first round of admissions, membership was given as a reward to three countries that had gone the furthest in evolving into democratic polities with market economies that do not discriminate against ethnic minorities.
 
The second role that NATO has defined for itself derives from the first. If NATO is a club for democratic capitalist countries, and if its purpose is to motivate countries to be democratic and capitalist, then it follows that NATO should also punish countries that are not democratic and capitalist. One punishment is exclusion. Slovakia and Romania, for example, both wanted to join NATO, but were rejected for membership for not living up to NATO's standards. Since rejection, both have been trying to reform their internal systems in order to be eligible in the next round of expansion. There is another punishment. In extreme cases where the anti-democratic, anti-free market behavior of states goes beyond certain limits, NATO is seen as an instrument of rectification, imposing penalties on the transgressor, including military penalties. Serbia has become the exemplar of this treatment.
 
NATO has, in other words, transformed itself from a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union, into a system of relations designed to regulate the internal political, economic and social relations of not only member countries, but also of non-members on the periphery of the NATO alliance. Thus, in addition to admitting new members based on their adherence to democratic principles, and inducing others to adopt and adhere to those principles, NATO has become an instrument for punishing those nations which violate those principles in particularly egregious ways. Thus, while Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were being admitted last week, NATO aircraft were poised to attack Serbia unless Serbia agreed to permit Kosovo internal autonomy.
 
NATO sees itself as being engaged in low-risk operations. The question of Polish or Hungarian admission to NATO did not depend on the perception of any strategic threat to Europe. Instead, their admission depended on moral questions, such as the nature of their political and economic life. Excluding a country did not carry with it any particular risk. Including a country did not carry with it any particular benefit, beyond expanding a community of nations having shared values. Bombing Serbia was not perceived as carrying with it any particular risk either. Serbia was seen as isolated, weak and helpless.
 
What we are getting at is this: NATO has evolved into a moral
instrument from a strategic instrument. Its evolution into this moral instrument depends on the accuracy of the core perception, which is that NATO no longer faces a strategic challenge from any quarter. If this is correct, then the moral project of transforming all of Europe into democratic, tolerant, market driven economies is a low-cost, low-risk operation, certainly within the capability of NATO. But if this perception is false, if there are still serious, potential risks to European security, then treating NATO as a moral rather than a strategic project carries with it enormous risks.
 
This issue revolves entirely on the Russian question: how can we expect Russia to behave in the first decade of the 21st century? Are there any circumstances under which Russia could once again pose a threat to Europe? Russia certainly attempted to transform itself into a democratic, tolerant, market driven society. Russia tried quite hard to fit into what we have termed the Western moral project. It is our perception that Russia has not only failed in this transformation but more, that it knows it has failed.
 
Now, there is a tendency to dismiss the ability of Russia to assert itself internationally because of its economic problems. No one should take comfort from this. First, Russia's military has certainly suffered from economic neglect. However, this policy is changing very quickly and the Russian military has become the beneficiary of additional resources in recent months. This is particularly true of core units that have always represented the heart of Russian military power. Much of the Russian military machine remains intact. The very depression that tore Russia apart preserved the Russian military's cadre. Since the civilian economy could not absorb them, much of the officer corps is still intact. Russian research and development have continued with some intensity and the Russians have developed, if not fully deployed, some excellent and important new weapons.
 
It should never be forgotten that Hitler took a completely hollowed military force in 1933 and within five years turned it into the awesome Wehrmacht. As important, the very process of rebuilding German military strength revived the German economy. Defense spending is a very efficient way to implement Keynesian deficit financing to revive the civilian sector. What the Germans had was an intact officer corps, a strong research and development capability, an idle industrial plant, and a political consensus that rearmament was essential. All but the last of these is present in Russia, and we see that political consensus rapidly developing.
 
It is interesting to note that among the new members joining NATO as well as among those who are hoping to join, there is a very different perception of why they are joining. The Poles, for example, have seen the Russians come and the Russians go. The one thing that they know without any doubt is that nothing is permanent in this region. The retreat of the Russians is merely the preface for their return. The Polish reason for joining NATO was certainly a desire to be part of the Western moral project. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary all certainly see themselves as a part of that project. But the driving force for membership had less to do with that than it had to do with the strategic fear of a return of the Russians to their borders and the inability of any of these countries, by themselves, to protect themselves. Since each of them was invaded and occupied by Soviet forces, the dread of a return is real and justified.
 
This is the real, underlying weakness in today's NATO. The older NATO members have adopted a view of NATO that it is primarily a low-risk moral project. The newer members of NATO see NATO has a strategic guarantee of their independence in the face of the inevitability of a resurgent Russian power. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic view NATO membership as a military guarantee of their territorial integrity. The rest of the NATO members do not see any threat to their territory and have focused on using NATO as a force for political reform in Europe.
 
One of the consequences of this is that Brussels has done almost no serious and meaningful strategic planning for the defense of the new region. Hungary, for example, is completely geographically isolated from the rest of NATO. It is separated from Poland by Slovakia, from the Czech Republic and Germany by Austria, and from Italy by Slovenia. At the same time, it is being used by NATO forces as a staging area into the former Yugoslavian territories in support of military operations there. Obviously, no one expects to have to rush forces to Hungary either to defend its territory or to defend U.S. airbases there. Alternatively the assumption is that in time of conflict, Slovenia, Austria and Slovakia would all permit the passage of reinforcements and material. Now this may be true, but the test will come in the event of a crisis and in a crisis, the ability of Russia to assert itself may condition any secret guarantees that may be given.
 
The admission of Hungary is a strategic absurdity without the admission Slovenia. But the deeper mystery revolves around the defense of Poland. Poland has about a two hundred mile border with Belarus, which is now federated with Russia. The southern part of the border is marshland, not suited for military operations. About half of the border is flat, superb tank country. That border can be defended. The problem is that Poland also faces an extensive direct frontier with the Russian enclave around Kaliningrad (the old German city of Koenigsberg). That enclave is separated from Belarus by Lithuania. Now, if Russian forces take Lithuania, then the northeastern frontier of Poland becomes almost indefensible. NATO defenders will have to abandon the eastern part of the country and retreat to the Vistula River line. This not only means giving up a third of the country, it also makes Warsaw the front line. This is compounded by the fact that just as Slovenia hasn't been admitted to NATO, Slovakia hasn't been admitted. Slovenia is secure, well behind the lines of any future confrontation with Russia, and without having to ante up for the common defense. If Slovakia were to ally itself with Russia, and this is not an unpopular view in parts of Slovakia, the entire southern frontier of Poland would be exposed as well as Hungary's northern frontier.
 
The point we are making here is that using a military alliance for a moral project becomes very dangerous if a strategic threat reemerges. Since we see the reemergence of a strategic threat from Russia, we are arguing that the current shape of NATO since its expansion is militarily insupportable. It might have been better not to expand NATO, but having expanded, NATO's eastern frontiers are no longer defensible. It has become absolutely indispensable that Slovakia and Slovenia be admitted to NATO if NATO is to be able to defend its frontiers. Now, this poses a challenge to NATO's vision of a moral project. NATO has been cautious about Slovakia because of certain anti-democratic tendencies of its former Prime Minister. Whatever the moral character of the regime, its location in the Carpathian Mountains makes its inclusion essential.
 
There are more serious long-term issues. The situation on the northern frontier of Poland is unsupportable. Since the Kaliningrad enclave cannot be liquidated, we assume, it must be isolated. Lithuania must be included in NATO. Indeed, if that flank is to be protected fully, the rest of the Baltic States must be included, shortening NATO lines substantially and anchoring the left flank on the Gulf of Finland. In the south, Romania must be included in order to anchor the southern frontiers of NATO in the Carpathians, defending the Hungarian plane. Finally, and most importantly, a decision must be made on Ukraine. Ukraine in NATO hands creates a magnificent pincer on Belarus along with the Baltics.
 
The Russians won't like this. If our assumption is correct and Western relations with Russia have already been ruptured beyond hope, then now is the time to act, before Russia fully revives and can preempt such moves. If the West does not act now, it will regret its dilatory behavior for generations. However, if our assumption is incorrect, and Western-Russian relations can remain at this level indefinitely or improve, than the West will have created an unnecessary and dangerous crisis. Turn the matter around. If the Russian view of the West has become as negative as it appears from what they say, then Russia will assume the worst of the West and act preemptively. In that case, it is a race over who will act first in the Baltics, Ukraine, and Slovakia.
 
These are the deep and pressing strategic issues facing NATO. The fate of Kosovo may be morally pressing, but it is not strategically significant. It is not that moral issues are frivolous, but they always carry with them a price. That price can sometimes be paid, sometimes not. The price for Kosovo is not a military price. As a military operation it is of little cost or consequence. Rather it is an intellectual challenge. Do the NATO planners who are currently studying strikes on Serbian towns also have the ability to ask broad geopolitical and strategic questions about NATO's expansion? Put differently, while NATO goads the Russians, particularly in Serbia and more generally with NATO expansion, it may compel the Russians to begin acting strategically again. That development will compel NATO to respond to, rather than control, events. We believe that to be what is happening.
 

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