The Washington Times

The United States has a major decision just ahead about the future of its relations with Europe. It’s the question of the next round of enlargement of NATO.

When Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined the Atlantic Alliance in 1999, the first nations of the old Warsaw Pact to do so, some predicted worsening relations between the United States and Russia – a reinvigorated Cold War. Now, nine more nations aspire to membership. Once again, Russian opposition is loud, especially because Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – the Baltic states once forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union -|| are eager for membership.

U.S.-Russian relations could hardly be characterized as especially warm these days, but the reasons for this have nothing much to do with the most recent round of NATO enlargement. Russia is still struggling to come to terms with its diminished post-superpower status as well as the difficulty of economic and political reform. At the end of the day is the question of whether Russia really wants to be a democratic, capitalist, peaceable country in which the rule of law prevails and protects the liberty of ordinary Russians – i.e., will Russia become fully a European country? We don’t know the answer to that question yet, and recent signs have not been promising.

The result with regard to NATO enlargement is paradoxical. In the aftermath of the Cold War, some were moved to ask what was the purpose of continuing (much less enlarging) the alliance. History offers few examples of military alliances long surviving the threat that gave rise to them. NATO’s purpose was to defend Western Europe against the Soviet Union. What is the threat now? The question had a greater piquancy in the early post-Soviet period, when optimism about Russia’s prospects was running high.

The question of an alliance without a threat had an official response and an unspoken response – as well as a deeper explanation that took a little longer to emerge. The official response is that NATO is the military expression of a community of shared values. Insofar as other European countries share or come to share those values, nothing should exclude them from participation in NATO. The United States is committed to “a Europe whole and free,” and the alliance is fundamentally an expression of that commitment, not a response to an external threat.

Unspoken was a certain wariness about the future direction of Russia. Russia is not the Soviet Union, but the assumption that its post-Soviet incarnation would be wholly benevolent was perhaps worth hedging. The paradox, then, is that some who were once worried about NATO enlargement as a slap in the face to the democratic and capitalist progress of Russia are now looking at the lack of Russian progress and Moscow’s general international unhelpfulness, concluding that indeed, the security concerns of Central and Eastern European nations justify NATO membership.

But it seems to me that there is an explanation for NATO’s continued relevance that runs deeper than the question of threat. NATO is the premier expression of U.S. influence in Europe. When the Cold War ended, the world changed, and with it the strategic landscape of Europe. The bipolar superpower rivalry gave way to a unipolar world with U.S. power at the center. A Europe once delineated by U.S. power matched against Soviet power is now a Europe in which U.S. power meets no countervailing pressure. Everything we know about international relations suggests that a power in the position in which the United States finds itself today will seek to expand its influence, not curtail it.

This is a better framework for understanding NATO and the question of enlargement than the alliance-threat model that has so befuddled observers. If NATO were an alliance of states of roughly equal power against a powerful enemy, and the enemy disappeared, it would indeed make sense for the alliance to disappear as well, not least, perhaps, because of suppressed rivalries between the former allies. But that’s not what NATO is, nor, in a sense, what it has ever been. The United States is far and away the dominant power, and the responsibility of the United States extends to the totality of European security, not just security against external threat. That we share values is important, but it is not the whole story.

Those long excluded by the Cold War from this security architecture want in, and it is in our interest to have them in, because to decide otherwise is to begin to demarcate a zone in Europe in which the United States will settle for less influence – which quite possibly amounts to saying less democracy, less stability, less economic liberalization, less prosperity, less respect for human rights, etc. This would, in short, be a part of Europe much less to American liking. And in the long run, if such a zone exists, the United States might well find it harder and more expensive to see to the security of the parts of Europe to which our commitment is longstanding.

NATO membership is the acid test of participation in this U.S.-dominated European security order. Those countries that meet membership criteria (which include not only military but political standards) ought to get in – the Baltics certainly included. That’s not because the United States owes anyone any favors. It’s because the more tightly drawn Europe is to the United States, the better off the United States is, until that happy day when the whole world beats swords into ploughshares and studies war no more.