President Clinton and NATO Expansion

Peter W. Schramm

April 24, 1998

President Clinton just spent two weeks in Africa, returned to the United States for a short stay and then set off for Latin America. His ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, was just in Afghanistan negotiating a peace accord and then was on to Cambodia to promote peace there. Meanwhile, back in Washington, the Senate is about to debate and then vote on the most important foreign policy issue to arise during President Clinton’s tenure, perhaps one of the most important issues to face this nation in this century. And nobody in the Administration is talking about it much.

That issue is the enlargement of NATO. Accepting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the alliance means that we are agreeing to help defend them. It means that we are willing to have Americans die to keep them free. To listen to what the Administration is saying, you would think that trade with Africa and Latin America and peace in Afghanistan and Cambodia were important. Compared to NATO expansion, they aren’t. We have not fought two hot and bloody wars and one cold and long one this century over any of these places and aren’t likely to in the future.

Defenders of the administration’s relative silence on the issue of NATO expansion might point out that the administration has said enough already. The American people generally support the expansion and the Senate is likely to vote in favor of it. What more needs be said?

A lot more. The same polls that show that the American people support NATO expansion also show that they don’t know a lot about it. This suggests that support for NATO and its expansion is not very secure. If President Clinton is serious about keeping the alliance strong, he needs to make the case for it now and in the future. For those opposed to NATO and its expansion are right to say that it will be expensive and risky. If the alliance is tested in the future, if we must act to uphold the solemn commitment we are about to make to the Czech, Hungarian and Polish peoples, then the doubts now sown by the opponents of expansion will sprout into a jungle of skepticism and refusal.

To prevent this, President Clinton must publicly discuss at every occasion the reason why NATO should expand and we should accept the hazard and expense this will entail. World War I, World War II, and World War III, otherwise known as the Cold War, all occurred for the same reason: one nation or alliance of nations tried to dominate Europe. We fought in these wars to prevent this because any nation or alliance of nations that dominated Europe would have controlled vast resources of wealth, technology, and human skill. The United States would have had to accommodate itself to a power controlling such resources. To that extent, we would no longer have controlled our own destiny and might at a later date have found our independence fatally impaired.

The principle that we should prevent any nation or alliance of nations from dominating Europe is as true today as it has ever been. Indeed, it is one of the fundamental principles of American geopolitics. Thomas Jefferson adhered to it when, thinking of Napoleon, he wrote to a correspondent that "it cannot be to our interest that all Europe should be reduced to a single monarchy."

In Jefferson’s day, the United States was too weak to do much about any nation that threatened to control all of Europe. Today, however, we can use our power to ensure that we and the nations of Europe work together to serve our mutual interests. This is the principle purpose of NATO and its greatest benefit.

There is currently in Europe no nation that threatens this mutually beneficial arrangement. In the future, however, Russia might. No one can now foresee how the extraordinary political and economic changes it is undergoing will turn out. If it does not develop into a peaceful liberal democracy, it might still revive economically and use its vast natural resources, technical expertise and weapons of mass destruction to support an aggressive and expansionist foreign policy. Expanding NATO now is insurance against such a development and the threat of war that will return should Europe once again be threatened by domination.

Nor should we worry that expanding NATO will cause Russia to become fearful and aggressive. We have expanded NATO by offering Russia unprecedented concessions and reassurances. We have promised, for example, not to station NATO troops on the territory of the new members. Such steps should persuade the Russians that this expansion is defensive and not threatening to any interest a democratic Russia might hold. Not once since the end of the Cold War, after all, have we or NATO exploited Russia’s weakness.

Travel to foreign lands is pleasant. It is hard work to remind the American people of the responsibilities they are undertaking and the sober and unforgiving realities of international politics. But that is a President’s duty. Fulfilling it could be the legacy that President Clinton has been searching for.

Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.