Global Policy Forum

NATO Enters New Era with Eastward Expansion


By Daryl Lindsey

Deutsche Welle
March 28, 2004

A year ago, the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance seemed doomed to go from being an alliance of 19 members to a Cold War ghost with zero. But this week, NATO is about to complete the most ambitious expansion in its history. On Monday, the heads of seven countries between the Baltic and Black seas will converge in Washington to celebrate their acceptance into NATO at a White House reception attended by United States President George W. Bush. Four days later, they will become official members during a ceremony at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

The flags of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Rumania, Slovakia and Slovenia will all be hoisted up alongside the existing 19 members, bringing the total size of the transatlantic military alliance to 26 states and pushing the NATO map eastward across most of the former Soviet satellite states and linking Western Europe all the way to Turkey. "This is very symbolic that the Cold War is long over in Europe," said Daniel Keohane, a defense expert at the Center for European Reform in London. "And we should remember that the EU is also taking on 10 new members this year, and that most of those countries that are joining NATO are also joining the EU. It's a sign that the final brick has been removed from the Berlin Wall."

Symbolism aside, the admittance of the Eastern European states means more political and practical help for Washington and its allies in the war on terrorism and in Iraq. "Though the new members won't bring a lot in terms of equipment and prowess, they do have the capacity to bring niche expertise that could prove valuable to NATO. Of the new countries," Keohane said. The Baltic states, for example, are highly regarded for their minesweeping and the Rumania is renowned for its mountain troops.

A New Beginning

For the new member states, membership is expected to bring credibility as well as new responsibilities. Most will have to undertake serious reform measures to bring their militaries in line with NATO standards. "They'll have to spend their defense money in more efficient ways and in most cases they'll have to get rid of conscription armies and have more professional armies," explained Keohane. Membership, however, does have its privileges. As part of the alliance, they will have the opportunity to gain more military experience outside their own countries by participating in NATO-led peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and, possibly, Iraq if the alliance reaches an agreement to send troops.

Alignment with NATO and the U.S. has already proven lucrative for some new members. Rumania and Bulgaria are expected to be among the beneficiaries as the Pentagon reduces its presence in Western European countries like Germany and shifts them east. New Pentagon plans on the drawing board call for smaller and cheaper bases to be erected in the more economical Eastern European countries.

Going West

This week's NATO expansion is the second since the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. In 1999, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary became the first former Eastern Bloc countries to join the alliance. The path was cleared for the seven new members in 2002. But NATO did delay admission for Albania and Croatia because the countries were neither politically nor militarily prepared for the responsibilities of alliance membership.

For a long time, NATO membership for the former Eastern Bloc countries was anything but a foregone conclusion. Moscow furrowed its brows over the westward migration of its former satellite states. Eventually, after assurances from Washington that NATO posed no threat to Russian security, Moscow acquiesced. "Moscow actually reacted well," Keohane said. "(Russian President Vladimir) Putin has been fairly relaxed. He's understood this is a battle not worth fighting. I don't think he regards NATO as a threat as it previously would have been in Russian history."

‘Big Bang' or Slow Implosion?

The obvious benefits aside, the seven states are joining a NATO that has been deeply battered by divisions over the war in Iraq. When the accession protocols were signed in Brussels in March 2003, NATO was facing yet another crisis with the alliance split over whether or not to support the military invasion in Iraq. While France and Germany strongly objected, Britain became a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led operation.

Despite the pending mood of crisis at the time, then-NATO Secretary Lord George Robinson tried to make the best of a bad situation, describing NATO's expansion as the alliance's "Big Bang." The membership of the seven eastern countries was a vital step in the development of the Euro-Atlantic community, Robertson said, and would hold out the promise of peace and stability on both sides of the ocean. With negotiations underway for a United Nations resolution that would give the international body and, by default, NATO a mandate to send peacekeepers to Iraq, the worst of the tensions between Paris, Berlin and Washington seem to have passed, but fears of similar rifts within the alliance in the future could threaten NATO's survival. "The real problems lie in disagreements between Paris, Berlin and Washington," Keohane explained. "The key issue is how serious those groups all are about the future of NATO because the new members won't have the same political clout at the NATO table as traditional members like the U.S., France, Germany and Britain."

NATO, created after World War II in 1949 to protect Western Europe from the threat of Communism, has struggled to redefine itself after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Ironically, the alliance's successful role in that epochal historical shift could prove to be its own undoing. Most of NATO's current activities are in the peacekeeping field, and observers like Keohane say that may not be a sufficient raison d'etre for the alliance. "I'm not sure how NATO as a military alliance can really sustain itself if it is only preoccupied with carrying out peacekeeping missions," he said. "The missions NATO has carried out (recently) have all been in places where the United States has already run a war. There's a danger that NATO will be seen as America's cleaning lady." Other scenarios could also play out. In Western Europe, most of the new members are perceived as extremely pro-U.S. and also pro-NATO. Nor are they very enthusiastic about transforming the European Union into a serious military actor, the path Germany and France have sought to take. Though they lack the power of the larger NATO states at the negotiating table, they could also flex their muscles in ways seen during EU accession talks that could actually buttress the alliance's standing.

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