The Washington Times

Leaders of NATO’s 19 member countries meet in Prague this week, the main purpose of which is to extend invitations to join the trans-Atlantic alliance to seven Central and Eastern European nations: Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria. I have long been an enthusiast for this project, as readers of this column already know. I also understand that enthusiasm of this sort is and has been baffling to many people, including some foreign affairs specialists who, from the beginning, have feared that enlargement was far richer in the potential for harm to the United States than in the potential for good.

The arguments against NATO enlargement – and the warnings attending them – have come and gone over the years, as events have mainly rebutted them. NATO enlargement would antagonize Russia, for example, perpetuating it in the role of enemy of the West. Another: What was the point of the alliance at all in the absence of an enemy? Or: How could we extend security guarantees to territory that looks indefensible?

There is a structural characteristic to the arguments that have been advanced against NATO enlargement over the years. It is this theme: Longstanding, stubborn realities of the world make NATO enlargement a foolish idea.

In this reading, there is a cold, cruel world out there, full of permanent facts to which we had better accommodate ourselves, lest they crush our attempt to deny them. An antagonized Russia would lash back [possibly as a result of a centuries-old expansionist tendency]. Enlargement would mean dilution and an inability to exercise effective decision-making within the alliance. The function of the alliance would be imperiled by political instability among new members. And so on.

None of these arguments was silly; they deserved [and received] serious counterarguments [in the main, later vindicated by events]. But they all, I think, mistook the essential character of the project of enlargement, a character that was perhaps not even clear to the people arguing most urgently in favor of it.

We – those of us promoting the project – viewed this as an exercise in constructing something. The world was emphatically not an amalgamation of givens; in fact, in Europe in the aftermath of the Cold War, it was up for grabs. We had a sense [and sometimes not much more than that] that we could do some things now that would have a lasting impact to the good.

For a while, I had a tendency to view the question of enlargement through a classically “realist” lens [though the “realists,” in the sense in which the term is used in international relations theory, were mainly against enlargement]: The United States, having become more powerful, was doing what nations that have become more powerful have done since the beginning of time: expanding. We don’t do conquest; we do security guarantees.

There was another current of opinion that favored enlargement precisely because of uncertainty about Russia’s future course. [That strain is still present in the Baltics, for what I think anyone would agree is ample historical reason.] Others, for example, the “liberals” of international relations theory, saw enlargement principally as the magnanimous extension of security to people who share our values. On the sentimental side, I, a Cold War hard-liner, also felt a substantial moral debt to the people who had done so much to bring down the Evil Empire. Besides which, the people of Central and Eastern Europe often seemed more energetically pro-American than some of our older allies. Time to get them in from the cold for good.

We each had a piece of something, but it was a little bigger than what any of us imagined. Here are some conclusions that I think are justified by events so far.

First, NATO is the primary vehicle for U.S. engagement in Europe. Throughout the Cold War, most of us understood NATO as a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union. It was, but it was also the embodiment of American engagement as such and placed Europe at the center of U.S. foreign policy. That’s why NATO so easily outlasted the Soviet threat.

Second, NATO is a permanent peace treaty for its own members. Signatories to the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 forever renounced war. The treaty was useless. NATO makes its members’ peace meaningful by making mutual security a joint project.

Third, NATO binds its members together in the common project of deciding what the common security project is. It begins, in other words, with the proposition that 19 [soon 26] nations can each have certain ends that the others take as their own.

Fourth, NATO has encouraged a sense of transnational community among citizens of its member states. The expansion of this transnational “society” has extraordinary potential for promoting peace and prosperity.

Finally, NATO is a work in progress. There is no reason to think we have exhausted our ability to use it to the mutual benefit of its members. What is NATO? NATO is what we make of it.