A diplomatic triumph for Bill Clinton Russian capitulation on NATO expansion is a win for both countries
By Christopher Ogden
(TIME, May 26) -- Bill Clinton could hardly wait to summon reporters, and who could blame him? Russia's grudging agreement last week to a new European security pact will allow the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to expand eastward, right up to the borders of the old Soviet Union. "An historic step," said the ebullient President, with no hyperbole for a change. The accord between NATO and Russia, which clears the way for Moscow's former satellites to join the Western alliance, is the most significant foreign policy development since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and has strategic consequences that will be with us for decades. Called the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, the agreement will take the sting out of Russian anger that NATO expansion was going to happen whether Moscow liked it or not. Implemented properly, the pact will soothe, but diplomatic denials not withstanding, it still represents a crushing capitulation for Russia and a diplomatic triumph for Clinton and the Western nations.
The President, representatives of the other 15 NATO states and Russian President Boris Yeltsin will meet in Paris on May 27 to sign the accord, which will establish a NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council to discuss security issues, without, according to U.S. officials, limiting NATO's authority to station troops or weapons wherever it wishes. Then NATO ministers will gather in Madrid in July and offer membership on NATO's 50th anniversary in 1999 to the former captive nations of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
The hard-liner's justification for enlargement is harsh: What better time to kick an opponent than when he's down? Russia is weak; the new Eastern and Central European democracies are fragile; Russia has the resources and, historically, the inclination to rise and threaten again. So now is the time to shelter those nervous fledglings of the former Soviet bloc so they can thrive under NATO's protective wing. As an added benefit, supervised membership may even ease regional hostilities that have destabilized Central Europe for generations. Then, if Russia keeps democratizing and ultimately proves to be no menace, it might join and form an undivided Europe.
That's the political rationale, but whether expansion is really a good idea is more complicated. For example, will extending the West's nuclear shield eastward mean more stability in Europe, where war this century has cost 50 million lives, including those of 500,000 Americans? Or will expansion just redivide Europe along a more eastward line, angering Russian nationalists who consider the plan an offensive danger and who may respond by ousting the new democrats, stopping the reduction of nuclear and chemical stockpiles and resuming nuclear threats? Is it sensible to extend a military alliance and in the process antagonize Russia when it is not threatening the democracies of its former clients, especially when they are already protected by other agreements signed since the end of the cold war?
These are important questions, but with the U.S. a virtual foreign policy-free zone lately, there has been almost no debate outside the diplomatic and academic community about NATO extension. There will be more after the July NATO summit, and it should be thorough. Critics will question whether the U.S. should get more deeply involved in Europe. They will focus, properly, on the cost of expansion--$35 billion overall, according to the White House, vs. the $125 billion Congressional Budget Office estimate--and argue that defending London is one thing, but Budapest? Proponents of expansion will counter yes, Budapest, and cite the greater potential cost of not expanding. They will remember that the U.S. raced home too quickly from Europe after World War I and had to return, at much greater cost, to fight World War II. They will explain how enlargement will anchor the U.S. in Europe, and trumpet that last week's agreement with Moscow was neither a sop nor an insult but an opportunity Russia should seize. And they will be right.
NATO enlargement is Bill Clinton's top foreign policy priority for his second term, the overseas equivalent of the balanced-budget deal just reached. He will get this one too. There has been some criticism, including from George Kennan, the 93-year-old dean of U.S. Sovietologists, who is worried that expansion could incite anti-Western factions in Russia. But there is currently no national figure around whom opposition is likely to coalesce. Congress backs expansion. As is often the case, conviction on Capitol Hill is wider than it is deep, but in this case two added factors undergird support: a lingering belief that anything Russia hates cannot be bad, and that 20 million American voters of Eastern or Central European heritage want their homelands protected, as they were not a half-century ago. That will guarantee a big legislative victory. Honest coordination with Russia along the lines of last week's agreement can ultimately guarantee that everyone wins.
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