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It's a Bad Idea; Vote Against It

By Jack F. Matlock, Jr., former U.S. ambassador to the USSR and currently the Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.
March 3, 1998

The U.S. Senate will vote shortly on the administration's proposal to accept three new members to NATO: Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. All three countries have made remarkable strides in establishing democratic institutions and market economies since their rejection of communism and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from their territory.

They are part of Europe and deserve to be in European institutions. Nevertheless, the Senate will do these newly democratic states, the United States and America's allies a service if it rejects the proposal.

How can this be? Is it not in our interest to have these countries integrated into a peaceful Europe? Have they not suffered from invasions and foreign domination in the past? Is their security not important to us?

Certainly, it is in our interest for Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to become an integral part of Europe. Certainly it is in our interest for them to remain free of aggressive external powers.

But the best way to achieve this is not by bringing them into NATO at this time. None at present is threatened by any other country. The three are among the most politically stable in Europe. They need to become part of the European Union to gain access to its markets. They need the support, sympathy, and - if it should ever become necessary - the protection of other countries, including the United States. But for now what they need most is support in building a civil society and developing a productive market economy. Forces inside the country are greater potential threats to their stability than aggressive countries outside.

Why are their governments eager for NATO membership, if this is the case? Because they remember the past and fear that it may be repeated if Russia should revive its strength and go off on another rampage through the neighborhood. A more objective observer would say that their fears are misplaced. Even though some Russian chauvinists make threatening statements, they are a tiny minority and have attracted little political support for expansionism. Furthermore, the country is too weak to carry out threats against neighbors, even if extreme nationalists should gain power.

The Russian Army was unable even to subdue Chechnya, one of the country's smallest provinces. If Russia should gain strength and show signs of aggressive intent, there will be plenty of time to extend NATO protection to countries threatened.

The public in the three candidate countries is much more divided on the question of membership in NATO than proponents are willing to admit. Only in Poland does the idea have strong support. In the Czech Republic, more than 40 percent is dubious or undecided and the proportion in Hungary is almost that high. When pollsters ask more pointed questions regarding willingness to fulfill obligations to NATO, support dwindles rapidly.

For example, according to polls conducted by the U.S. Information Service in 1996, predominant opinion in the Czech Republic and Hungary was against sending troops to defend another country, having NATO troops stationed in their country and even of allowing NATO exercises and overflights. When pollsters asked if they would be willing to devote more money to their military in order to meet NATO standards, citizens in all three countries were adamantly opposed: in Poland by 74 to 16 percent, in the Czech Republic by 84 to 11 percent and in Hungary by a whopping 87 to 9 percent.

The administration has told the Senate that NATO enlargement will cost the United States very little. Whatever the overall tab may be, it would seem, others will pick it up.

But is it so insignificant and will they really? Both propositions are questionable. It stands to reason that the military in these three countries - up to now Soviet trained and Soviet equipped - will require a complete revamp to be any use to NATO: retraining at every level, better communications, a modernized logistic infrastructure, new NATO-standard weapons.

These will not be cheap. And consider this: our NATO allies have told us it is not their problem and they won't pay a penny. So who will pay? The United States? The administration says no - or, at least, not very much. So that leaves the countries in question. But what happens when they try to raise their defense budgets (some estimates aim at a doubling or more) when the country is set against it? They are, after all, democracies. Can they really do it without giving rise to internal political instability?

Now, if there were an obvious external threat, they could be expected to grit their teeth, buckle down and do what was necessary to protect themselves. But that is not the case, since there is no obvious threat.

But that's not the end of it. Membership in NATO now is more likely to delay than hasten what the three candidate countries really need, membership in the European Union and the access to West European markets it brings. It is going to be painful for our European allies to open their markets to the competition of East European products and they will delay it as long as possible. If we take the countries into NATO, it will give the E.U. an excuse to delay their entry further. If the United States really wants to help these countries, it would tell its European allies that NATO membership can be considered only after countries are members of the E.U. That puts the horse in front of the cart.

And there is still more. We should ask ourselves what the most serious threats to our security are in this post-Cold War period and whether bringing new members into NATO will help us deal with them. The most serious threat is not a Russian invasion of Central Europe but rather the possibility that nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons or the means of making them may seep out of Russia and fall into the hands of rogue regimes or terrorist groups.

The most serious focus of instability is in the Balkans, not around the candidate countries of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Bringing the three countries into NATO does absolutely nothing to help us deal with either real problem. In fact, it can make it more difficult to cooperate with Russia to ensure that its weapons do not find their way to the wrong hands. If we persist in treating Russia as a potential enemy, we can hardly expect them to welcome U.S. security teams to their most secret installations.

Expanding NATO, in short, is not necessary to reach the objectives the Clinton administration has announced. It will make it harder, not easier, to protect our country from the real threats we face. The Senate should reject the proposal, but should at the same time authorize the president to extend security guarantees to the candidate countries and express a willingness to vote in favor of NATO membership for them if they ever face a plausible external threat.

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