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The NATO Expansion Debate: Reviewing the Arguments

Global Beat Issue Brief No. 25
February 2, 1998

Linda Bentley and Robert Leavitt*
Amid the sex scandal in Washington and the crisis with Iraq, President Clinton asserted in his January 27 State of the Union address that Senate ratification of NATO expansion was his first foreign policy priority in 1998. A few days before, Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote President Clinton noting his same priority. Current plans in Washington call for a vote in the Senate in early March. As the last stage of debate begins about NATO expansion phase one (to include the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland), supporters and critics in Washington, around the US, and in Europe and Russia have begun to redouble their efforts to persuade a still large bloc of undecided US Senators.

The following report, drawn from a January 28 debate on NATO expansion, outlines some of the leading arguments from each side. The debate was sponsored by a "No to NATO Expansion" nationwide speakers tour, and hosted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, MA. Speaking in favor of NATO expansion were Nicholas Rey, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland, and David Gompert, Vice President of the RAND Corporation, Research Professor at the National Defense University and former State Department and National Security Council expert on Europe. Opposing expansion were Sir General Hugh Beach, a retired four-star British Army General and current Vice Chairman of the British Council for Arms Control, and George Rathjens, Secretary-General of the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at MIT.

Expansion Goals

The broad goals of expansion, as outlined by Nicholas Rey, include enlarging "NATO's zone of peace and stability;" enlisting new allies who will make substantial contributions to the alliance; and enabling the reduction of US resources committed to NATO. Poland, Hungry and the Czech Republic, Rey maintained, have "shown repeatedly that they will be faithful, cooperative allies." They will also become exporters of stability themselves to eastern neighbors such as Ukraine and Lithuania. Their inclusion will thus "reduce the likelihood of American troops having to fight in Europe." Further, the addition of the new military forces will lessen the burden on US troops committed to NATO.

For David Gompert, the political goals of expansion are as important as the military goals. "How can [the Senators] say no" to including the new democracies in Central Europe, Gompert asked. "On what basis can we reject their membership? what is the distinction between Poland and Portugal, and Hungry and Holland?" Rejecting the three states would send Russia the message that "they do after all have a say" in the affairs of these states. It would also send a message to the Europeans that "we are on our way out." Gompert also questioned the viability of maintaining an alliance with only half of Europe at precisely the time when "Europe is unifying."

George Rathjens, however, stressed the lack of clarity on NATO's post-expansion mission. The American public, he asserted has not received a "straight, unambiguous story" on the goals of expansion. Is it primarily about stability within an enlarged NATO, he asked, or "a hedge against Russia.... There has never been, as far as I know, an alliance in the history of the world that has lasted for any significant time unless it was predicated on an opponent."

Rathjens also emphasized the significance of our obligations under Article Five of the treaty (to defend any member from attack) and asked if the public understands that Article Five "means going to war and if need be using nuclear weapons and risk having nuclear weapons rain down upon the United States."

Gompert answered this question affirmatively. "We would view [a threat to Poland, Hungry and the Czech Republic] as a threat to democracy in Europe and as a threat to Europe....Three times in the 20th century that is the answer Americans have arrived at," Gompert said. "If the answer is yes, doesn't it make more sense to be on record to that."

Rathjens and Beach both stressed that other European institutions, such as the European Union, are far better suited to facilitate the broad political and economic integration with the West so strongly desired by the Central and East European states, and that economic investment, trade, and political and economic reform are more central to enhancing stability in the region than expanding NATO. "It seems bizarre to try to increase stability by bringing people into a military alliance," noted Beach.

The Russian Dimension

Russian reaction to NATO expansion remains one of the most controversial issues of the enlargement debate. The Russian response has been "quite muted and realistic, and increasingly so over the last four years since NATO enlargement became an active subject," said Rey. There is no evidence, he added, that the process of NATO enlargement has hurt cooperation with Russia on nuclear issues nor has it hindered Russian economic development.

"It is not a question of how the Russian government will react, but rather, who will be the Russian government," Rathjens countered. Yeltsin and his supporters are widely viewed by Russians as having "sold the country down the river" and this has the "potential to have very bad effects on the development of a reasonable governance in that country," Rathjens argued. Already, he asserted, the drive for NATO expansion has pushed Russia to seek closer ties elsewhere, and to convince many in the Russian military that a stronger emphasis on nuclear weapons is necessary to counter the enlarged western alliance.

General Beach made a similar point. " Although it is true that Russia has behaved extraordinarily well vis-a-vis the rest of the world... NATO enlargement is doing something to [Russia] which is dangerous." Even pro-Western, Russian democrats view NATO expansion as "a deliberate affront." The Russian economy and its political system remain "extremely precarious systems" and Russia hasn't "turned the corner yet." Ultimately, according to Beach, there is a significant longer term danger of the "Weimarization" of Russia, in which growing resentment against Western policies give rise to extreme nationalism and anti-Western leaders.

David Gompert however, maintained that the most Russians understand that the "future of Russia depends upon the process of internal reforms, cooperation with the West and integration into the Western community." The presumed risks of expansion are thus overstated. The expansion of NATO, he argued, will not convince Russia to oppose cooperation with the West. "The Russians have moved beyond this issue."

Gompert did admit, though, that a second round of NATO expansion, particularly if it includes the Baltic states, might indeed lead to a more severe Russian reaction.

The Costs of Expansion

The uncertain future of expansion makes cost estimates difficult. Government and private estimates vary widely, depending on changing assumptions about what items to include, burden-sharing among the U.S., other existing NATO powers, and the new members, and the potential inclusion of additional countries beyond the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland.

Proponents stress that costs to the U.S. in the first round are marginal. Most of the necessary costs of weapons modernization, developing interoperability in command, control and communications, and even teaching English will be borne by the new members themselves. Rey and Gompert also asserted that the costs to the new members would be relatively small, less than 10 percent of the current Polish military budget, according to Rey. Moreover, according to Gompert, "these countries will have to spend a great deal more [on defense] if they are outside the Alliance then if they are in."

Cost implications for the U.S., according to Rathjens, are unknown, given the apparent unwillingness of other NATO allies to increase their own expenditures, and the difficulties the new members may face in light of their still struggling economies. Low-end estimates for the U.S., he noted, also contradict the open-ended nature of the expansion process.

For the potential new members, Beach argued, membership in the Alliance would cause these states to "spend more on weapons of war then they otherwise would have done" at a time when capital is desperately needed for economic development.

Rathjens stressed even more the opportunity cost of NATO expansion. He characterized NATO expansion as a "retrogression into Cold War days." We currently have a "the greatest opportunity to turn the world around" and to move away from the idea that the world order has to be one based on military blocs and nuclear weapons, he said, and focusing on expansion eliminates that opportunity.

* Linda Bentley is a research intern at the Center for War, Peace, and the News Media, where Robert Leavitt is Associate Director.

For additional background on the NATO expansion debate, visit the Global Beat's NATO Expansion page.

More information on the No to NATO Expansion Tour

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