Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, 9 July 2001

Nato Enlargement: Prague and Beyond

by F. Stephen Larrabee, Corporate Chair in European Security at RAND. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of RAND or any of its sponsors.

NATO enlargement has not been a major issue in transatlantic relations in the last few years. However, President Vaclav Havel's address in Bratislava in May and President Bush's speech in Warsaw in June have changed the dynamics of the enlargement debate and given it new momentum. NATO enlargement is now back on the transatlantic agenda and is likely to stay there for the next 18 months. However, while the debate on NATO enlargement is heating up, a number of ambiguities and unresolved dilemmas remain.

First, the strategic rationale for the next round is not clear. The rationale for the first round – to stabilize Central Europe – was widely accepted within the Alliance as a strategic imperative. But there is no shared consensus about the rationale for the second round. Some Alliance members think it should be to stabilize Southeastern Europe while others feel it should be to complete the stabilization of Central Europe. Others feel the Baltics should be included.

Second, which candidate will be invited to join still is undecided. With the possible exception of Slovenia, none of the candidates are unequivocally ready to assume the responsibilities of membership, especially in the military sphere. And while Slovenia qualifies on economic and political grounds, adding Slovenia alone does not do much to enhance NATO's military capabilities.

Third, in contrast to the first round, there is no strong European leader on whom the U.S. can rely to do the heavy lifting. In the first round, Germany played a critical role in shaping the NATO debate in Europe. Indeed, NATO enlargement was largely a U.S.-German endeavor. Germany, however, has largely achieved its strategic agenda – the integration of Central Europe. It does not have the same strong strategic interest in further enlargement that it had in the first round. While it will probably support the admission of Slovakia and Slovenia – this would extend the Central European periphery of NATO – the U.S. cannot rely on Berlin to play the role of the "European locomotive" that it played in the first round.

Nor can the U.S. expect leadership from other members of the Alliance. Britain has strong reservations about further enlargement. France is more interested in strengthening the EU's defense role than in NATO enlargement; it may push Romania's candidacy – at least pro forma – but NATO enlargement is not likely to be an issue high on its foreign policy agenda. Italy favors a southern opening, especially the admission of Slovenia, as do Greece and Turkey. But none of these countries have enough political weight to gain support for their position unless other Alliance members agree.

The Changing Enlargement Landscape

Moreover, the political landscape in Eastern Europe has changed significantly since the Madrid summit. In the period after Madrid, the prevailing view was that the next round would probably include Slovenia and Romania. Slovenia remains a strong candidate. However, Romania's chances have slipped since Madrid, due in large part to the continued infighting within the ruling coalition and a slowdown in economic reform.

Bulgaria's chances have improved somewhat as a result of its strong economic and political performance since the May 1997 elections, which resulted in the emergence of a more democratically oriented reformist government in Sofia. However, Bulgaria still has a long way to go before it is ready for membership, especially on the military side. Moreover, admitting Romania without Bulgaria could leave Bulgaria isolated and could have a very negative impact on the prospects for Bulgaria's democratic evolution.

Slovakia's prospects have also improved. As long as former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar was in power, Slovakia's chances of NATO (or EU) membership were virtually nil. But the election of a democratic government in Bratislava in September 1998 has cast Slovakia's candidacy in a new light. The current government, headed by Mikulas Dzurinda, has embarked on a significant reform path and made membership in NATO and the EU a top priority. As a result, Slovakia has become a strong candidate for NATO membership in the second round.

Finally, the prospects for at least one Baltic state being invited to join the Alliance at the Prague summit have significantly improved. Indeed, the possibility that all three might be invited to join at the summit cannot be excluded. This idea was literally unthinkable at Madrid, where the Baltic states had to fight hard just to be considered eligible for membership at all. Now, however, the Baltic issue is clearly on the table.

U.S. Policy and Objectives

As in the first round, U.S. leadership will be critical. This is especially true because, as noted earlier, there is no European locomotive to pull the European enlargement train the way Germany did in the first round. Thus it will be up to Washington to shape the Alliance debate and provide the political leadership on the enlargement issue.

What position the Bush administration will adopt toward enlargement is not entirely clear. However, in his speech in Warsaw, Bush spelled out an expansive vision of NATO "from the Baltic to the Black Sea" and made clear that the "zero option" was not an option. His speech strongly suggested that the U.S. is thinking in broad geo-strategic terms, even if Washington has not yet formally decided on which specific candidates should be admitted. Moreover, by specifically mentioning the Baltic region and opposing "false-lines," Bush explicitly rejected the Russian thesis that there was some "red line" which NATO should not cross.

The speech was clearly designed to lay down a marker – that the administration sees an expanded NATO as the cornerstone of European security. His speech suggested that, from the U.S. point of view, the issue now is not whether NATO will expand again but how far and how soon. The administration clearly sees this process of enlargement beginning at Prague, but not ending there. The timing and modalities of expansion still need to be worked out. But the broad outlines of the administration's vision have now been spelled out. Thus Bush's Warsaw speech is likely to give new momentum to the enlargement debate, forcing members to focus more concretely on the "who" and "when."

The Baltic Issue

The most contentious issue is likely to be the question of the admission of the Baltic states. Here there is the possibility of a fault line between the U.S. and some of its key European allies, especially Germany. While there is no clear consensus on the admission of the Baltic states in the U.S. – either in the administration or the Congress – support for Baltic membership has grown significantly over the last two years, and especially in the last six months. Two years ago the idea of Baltic membership in the next round was largely taboo. Today it has increasing support.

Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina), the former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, has openly called for admitting the Baltic states and some former officials such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor under President Carter, support admitting at least one Baltic state in the next round.[1] By contrast, many European members of NATO, especially Germany, oppose or have strong reservations about admitting the Baltic states in the next round, fearing that this could lead to a serious deterioration of NATO's relations with Russia. Thus the Baltic issue could become a bone of contention between the U.S. and many members of the Alliance.

In this debate, Germany's role will be important – perhaps critical. Germany currently favors admission of the Baltic states into the EU, but it is far more hesitant about Baltic membership in NATO. German attitudes, however, are evolving. Recently, two members of the SPD - Peter Zumkley and Markus Meckel openly called for admitting the Baltic states in the next round.[2] Friedbert Pflüger[3], a leading member of the opposition CDU, has also argued for bringing in at least one Baltic state in the next round. While the official German attitude remains hesitant regarding admission of the Baltic states – above all due to fear of the Russian reaction – German reservations could soften if the United States comes out strongly in favor of admitting one or more Baltic states.

The Russian Factor

Russia will be an important factor in the enlargement debate. But it is not likely to play as prominent a role as it did in the first round of NATO enlargement, especially in the United States. The "Russia first" lobby in the U.S. is far weaker today than five years ago. Moreover, the Bush administration has signaled its intention to take a tougher, more "realistic" approach to relations with Russia. Thus Russia's leverage is considerably less than it was in the first round.

Russia continues to oppose enlargement in principle. However, Russia's response is likely to be heavily influenced by which countries are included in the next round. If the next round is limited to Slovenia and Slovakia, enlargement is not likely to have a major impact on NATO-Russian relations. However, the inclusion of one or more Baltic countries would be more problematic – since it would cross an important "red line" which Moscow has sought to impose regarding the admission of former member states of the Soviet Union and open up the possibility of Ukraine's admission at a later date.

While Russian security concerns should be taken into consideration, Russia should not be given a veto over NATO enlargement. Nor should any country, or group of countries, be excluded because of their geographic location or because they once were part of the Soviet Union. Indeed, a strong case can be made for including at least one Baltic country in the next round of enlargement. Doing so would make clear that there are no "red lines" and that Russia has no veto over the security orientation of any state, even if that state was once part of the Soviet Union. Conversely, excluding the Baltic states could encourage Russia to believe that the West tacitly accepts that the Baltic states are part of a Russian sphere of influence and encourage Moscow to step up pressure on the Baltic states.

Enlargement Options

Conceptually, there are several possible options for the next round.

Staggered Membership: A Possible Solution?

The best option might be a combination of the Big Bang and Limited Enlargement. In effect, the Alliance would announce that it intends to enlarge to include all the countries "from the Baltic to the Black Sea" as soon as they are ready to assume the responsibilities of membership. NATO would begin this process at Prague by inviting a limited number of countries – perhaps, Slovenia, Slovakia and Lithuania – and announce that further invitations would be issued at the next summit in 2005. In the meantime, the Alliance would begin membership discussions with the other aspirants, setting target goals that needed to be met by the time of the next summit. Such a strategy would have a number of advantages:

Admittedly, such a process would change the character of NATO over time, making it more of a "political" entity. But NATO is moving in that direction anyway. The main impetus for the creation of NATO – the Soviet threat – has disappeared and a similar existential threat is not likely to emerge in the foreseeable future. Article V will remain an important Alliance mission. However, increasingly the key military requirement for Alliance forces will be deployability and the ability to contribute to crisis management, not collective defense.

[1] See Zbigniew Brzezinski, 'NATO: The Dilemmas of Expansion,' The National Interest, No. 53, Fall 1998, pp. 13-17. See also, Anthony J. Blinken, 'NATO Must Grow,' New York Times, 2 April 2001.

[2] SPD-Politiker für NATO-Beitritt der baltischen Staaten," Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 17 March 2001.

[3] Friedbert Pflüger, "Who's Afraid of Round Two?", The Washington Times, March 19, 2001.