e-mail us


NATO: an idea whose time is past


There is a silent assumption operating in Washington that NATO should be expanded to all the nations of Eastern and Central Europe. Hardly anyone discusses the questionable premises of this proposition.

Basic evidence is developing that the expansion of NATO is a bad idea. The Council for a Livable World and the Center for Defense Information are issuing solid documentation that NATO is a historical anachronism and that its mission to defend Western Europe against the USSR is over.

The giant NATO bureaucracy, dominated as always by Americans, is planning to invite into the organization a limited number of Eastern European nations when NATO meets in Madrid in July. These new members would officially join NATO in 1999 in connection with its 50th anniversary.

These developments, to which little attention has been paid in Congress or the rest of the country, deserve the closest attention. The expansion of NATO into a highly unstable region of the world would impose enormous new military obligations on the United States. The NATO treaty says categorically that a threat to any member nation is a threat to every member. The United States, the most powerful voice in NATO, would be assuming solemn and costly obligations to defend nations such as Poland, Slovenia and even the 15 new republics that split off from the USSR.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the cost of expansion even into the likely new members -- Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia -- would be between $61 billion and $125 billion over the next 15 years. A study by the Rand Corporation confirms these estimates. The share the United States would pay is uncertain -- especially since the new members might well be unable to pay the customary dues. It is quite possible therefore that the United States would end up paying most of the vast cost of giving military protection to nations that are economically underdeveloped and politically unstable.

More important, the expansion of NATO arouses all the profound traditional fears the Russians have of an invasion of their nation. Their memories go back to the invasions by Napoleon and Hitler. Even moderates in Russia see an enlarged NATO as a threat. The Kremlin knows that NATO was created to surround the USSR, and Russia seems to be persuaded that the new NATO will be a part of an anti-Russian alliance.

The expansion of NATO could revive the anti-Western feeling that runs deep in the minds of Russian legislators who have only recently and reluctantly agreed to ratify the START II agreement and the Chemical Weapons Convention. The growth of NATO could impede efforts to modernize the treaty regarding conventional forces in Europe and the newly-born negotiations on START III. A tragic result of a new NATO could be the revival of the divisions that brought about the organization in 1949.

Some military planners imply that the expanded NATO is appropriate or even necessary to counter a Russian threat to the region. But is there evidence of a resurgent expansionist ambition in Russia that warrants what is in effect a new military wall surrounding Russia?

America has dominated Europe for almost five decades. The financial cost is estimated to be in the range of $50 billion a year. In a Europe that is now prosperous and without a credible threat from the East, there is no reason why the United States should station 100,000 American troops in Europe. Nor does it makes sense that the top NATO commanders be U.S. officers.

New alliances between Europe and Russia, the Ukraine and the Baltics and the Balkan countries are highly desirable. But the growth of NATO to all of these countries seems to presuppose that Russia is an implacable enemy and that a Europe armed to the teeth is still necessary.

The Center for Defense Information, a group composed of former high military officers, asserts that NATO should be "dis-established." If NATO is pushed eastward, CDI claims, "peaceful cooperation between Russia and the West will be jeopardized and the danger of nuclear catastrophe increased." Strong words from an organization of retired admirals and generals!

Europe and the whole world should clearly seek to influence the vast area of the former Soviet Union in the rule of law, democratic processes and the way by which economic justice can be brought to all. But is the perpetuation of NATO a sensible policy by which to bring human rights to the 400 million people formerly confined within the USSR?

The American people have vast responsibilities to the world. Those burdens are even more acute in a universe where the threat of communism has disappeared. But the habit of thinking that there is a military solution to complicated economic and political problems lingers on.

The Center for Defense Information is so opposed to the expansion of NATO that it recommends that the name North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- NATO -- be changed to Pan European Security Alliance. It is a new and a bold idea. We need challenging ideas like that in a world where minds and hearts are frozen in cold war categories and outdated stereotypes.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 1997