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Critique of NATO’s Expansion

by Robert H. Whealy on Oct 1, 1997

On July 8, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, former East European satellites of the former Soviet Union, were admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But President Clinton’s push to expand NATO beyond these nations will probably backfire.

His argument to expand NATO is based on an outdated crusade against communism, a crusade launched against the Soviet Union in the 1945-1948 period after World War II.

The mistakes of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman in 1945 were to exaggerate military factors and play down a political agenda. At the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, Stalin had a political program for the occupied territories of Eastern Europe. In contrast, the United States, although militarily more powerful than the U.S.S.R., was more devoted to winning World War II than to looking at the political future.

The State Department is making a similar mistake today. NATO expansion will impose new duties which Americans would be reluctant to assume. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s expansionist policy is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of power. The Russian Federation contains half the population of the former U.S.S.R., and the Russian economy is in shambles. The Russians find it hard even handling the tiny Baltic state of Lithuania, let alone dominating the Great Power club.

In 1945, that club constituted London, Moscow and New York, but by 1985, when Gorbachev came to power, relations had changed. The European Union at Brussels had replaced London, and Germany was the major economic force behind the EU. Besides, Moscow had to watch out for Tokyo and Beijing.

American and German bureaucracies have apparently not understood that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 just as the Austro-Hungarian empire disintegrated in 1919, at the end of World War I. Expansion of NATO is not only unnecessary, it is based on devotion to past anti-communist cliches.

In addition, based on the experience of Britain, France, and the United States, the State Department is ignoring the preamble and the original purpose of NATO, which in 1949 was an alliance of democracies. The Czech Republic has some claim to be a democracy. Poland and Hungary have made progress towards a democratic constitution, but it takes decades to build a real democracy. Spain, for example, had to wait forty years to qualify a eligible to enter NATO.

Today the French and the Germans, but for reasons different from each other, both want to enlarge NATO, but in different geographical directions. Italy wants its neighbor Slovenia to join NATO. France, a second Mediterranean power, supports Italy. Since Romania has historically been pro-French, France backs Romanian membership. The Germans want Lithuania in, which France opposes.

Since 1991 capitalism has replaced communism in Eastern Europe, but democracy lags behind. The Bosnian civil war, 1992-1995, should have warned the Great Powers about hasty, unplanned action. Based on bad memories and the ghosts of the past, NATO has informally expanded its jurisdiction in the Balkans. The diplomats should take another look at the map to decide where, why, and whether to expand NATO.

Politicians and diplomats may make bad treaties, and one day the authors of expansionist military plans may have their bluff called.

What comes to mind is the defensive alliance of German Chancellor Bismarck with Austria in 1879. The Kaiser and Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Aerenthal later changed the original defensive purpose of that treaty in 1914 to sponsor imperialism in the Balkans. This was one factor in causing the devastating destruction called World War I.

We should continue to expand our markets in Eastern Europe. But Washington should let the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, and Russians protect that investment, if they want American capital. The Congress and the State Department should allow private corporations to take their own risks and not ask America’s youth to bail them out from the gamble of expanded NATO guarantees.

Transformation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in effect into a Eurasian Treaty Organization should not be encouraged. If Senators do not veto expansion of NATO, at least they should delay it or prepare to stall any further expansion. American citizens should still be working to prevent World War III.


Robert H. Whealey is an associate professor of history at Ohio University (Athens, Ohio) and a writer for the History News Service.