Baiting The Bear

Will the U.S.-backed push by NATO into central Europe start a new Cold War?

Topics: France, Germany, World War II,

WASHINGTON — when the president of the United States announces that a “historic step” has been taken, the sound of champagne corks popping shouldn’t be far behind. Especially when it involves a “new, different Europe in the 21st century, an undivided continent where our values of democracy and human rights, free markets and peace know no boundaries.”

That is how President Clinton pitched the agreement reached in Moscow extending NATO’s embrace to the frontiers of the Russian border. But the bubbly wasn’t flowing at the Kremlin, and there are compelling arguments to suggest that the agreement, the most important U.S. foreign policy initiative since the end of the Cold War, could prove to be a disastrous blunder.

Under the agreement, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic could join NATO almost as soon as the U.S. Senate ratifies it. Administration officials argue it is the least we can do for the former Warsaw Pact countries who shrugged off the shackles of communism and have sought the comfort of the NATO umbrella ever since. At the same time, a joint NATO-Russian “advisory council,” they point out, gives Moscow a seat at the Western military table, enough to assuage any fears that a new Iron Curtain is being built to keep the bear hemmed in.

Nonsense, responds George F. Kennan, the retired diplomat and prime mover of America’s postwar containment policy. Not only does the agreement violate the 1990 pledge not to expand NATO when the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from East Germany, but it preys on Russia’s current weakness, brought on by its own painful transformation into a modern, democratic, market-oriented country. As such, it’s almost guaranteed to generate exactly the kind of Russian behavior that NATO expansion proponents say they fear. The agreement, Kennan warned in a New York Times op-ed piece last week, is likely to “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy, to restore the atmosphere of the Cold War to East-West relations and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

In short, Kennan concludes, it “would be the most fateful error of American policy in the whole post-Cold War era.”

Kennan is not alone. Former arms control negotiators Paul Nitze and Paul Warnke and former NATO commanders Andrew Goodpaster and John Galvin have joined a rising chorus of opposition to NATO expansion, noting it already has begun to sour the climate for further reductions in nuclear weapons.

As part of the agreement, NATO says it has no intention of placing nuclear weapons or “substantial” combat forces in Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic. But that won’t cut much ice in Russia, despite President Boris Yeltsin’s public support for the agreement. In a clear response to the specter of NATO expansion, the Duma, or lower house of parliament, has announced Russia will retain a full nuclear force and not ratify the START II treaty, which limits the number of land-based and multi-headed long-range missiles.

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That gives independent arms control experts the chills. “Given the dilapidated state of their nuclear arsenal, that’s a particularly dangerous thing,” says John Tirman, an arms control specialist and executive director of the Winston Foundation for Peace, a Washington arms control foundation. “You could have accidental launches, all kinds of terrible things.”

Tirman says the agreement highlights Yeltsin’s political weakness while strengthening his nationalist, Communist and ultra-right-wing opponents. “They’re saying, ‘Look, Yeltsin’s giving away the store. You can’t trust him. The West is really out to get us, as we’ve always been saying. Why would they expand to our borders if they didn’t view us as the enemy?’ And that’s a perfectly rational thing to say.”

One would think that current NATO commanders would be all for expanding their authority. But many are not. Expansion, they point out, means integrating into the alliance the militaries of former Soviet Bloc countries whose soldiers are totally ignorant of Western weapons and military doctrine. “It would be a headache of immense proportions,” said one NATO official. Others fear that an expanded NATO will become unwieldy and ultimately irresolute. They point to NATO’s political counterpart, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, noting how its own large and fractious membership hobbled its efforts to deal with the crisis in Bosnia.

So, what’s in it for Clinton? Some observers suspect the expansion plan is payback for Polish-American and other East European ethnic American support in the 1996 election. Others see it as a cheap way to bring the former Soviet bloc countries under the Western European umbrella without giving them membership in the European Union, a move that would cause economic pain to America’s Western allies. Says Tirman: “It’s a political deal to expand the borders of Western Europe without paying the economic price of a proper expansion, which would be membership in the EU. It’s not a security deal, but it becomes a security issue because of the Russian response.”

If, as President Clinton and his supporters claim, the point of the agreement is to provide the former Soviet bloc countries with security, why can’t the United States give them security guarantees without expanding NATO? If the aim is to integrate them more closely with Europe, then why not include them in the European Union? And if the United States truly doesn’t want to threaten Russia, wouldn’t its best course be to foster closer economic ties between Moscow and its former satellites?

The cost of equipping Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary with NATO-standard weapons systems is estimated at up to $100 billion. That’s a lot of money for a lot of weapons that ultimately don’t produce anything. Like the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Western Europe after World War II, that kind of money could help pave the way for the economic stability and confidence in the former Soviet Bloc that’s needed for a truly lasting peace after the Cold War.

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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