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

NATO Enlargement – A European View

by Tomas Ries, National Defence College, Finland. This paper reflects the author's views only, and not Finland's official policy.

Politically, further NATO enlargement in some form is probably unavoidable. On the deepest level because NATO at its core is an expression of the Atlantic community of liberal democratic values. Refusing entry to new applicants who fulfill the criteria and knock strongly enough and long enough is not only politically embarrassing but undermines the foundation on which NATO rests. Secondly, from a more immediate perspective, it will be difficult not to follow-up the tacit invitations involved in the MAP and the expectations linked to 2002. Finally pressures for selective enlargement to specific candidates will no doubt arise again from individual NATO members, driven by various peripheral interests.

Whether or not enlargement is desirable is another issue. This a function of its impact on vital European security interests, which is the focus of this discussion paper. This includes three issues: Firstly, what are Europe's vital Grand Strategy objectives? Secondly, how could NATO enlargement affect these? Thirdly, how can enlargement be modulated to minimize costs?

Grand-strategy Objectives for European Security

Five objectives might be considered fundamental for European stability (excluding the need for steady global economic growth, which is beyond the scope of this paper):

  1. Preserve the North American – European partnership
  2. Prevent a new division of Europe with an alienated hostile Russia
  3. Support and enlarge Europe's stable liberal base
  4. Manage violent instability affecting Europe
  5. Maintain an insurance against revived military threats

These are outlined below, with some thoughts on how enlargement could affect them.

1. Preserve the North-American/European Partnership

Historically the North American-European partnership is young. It emerged during the Cold War, based on joint economic development and the Soviet threat. The collapse of the USSR removed one key pillar, but the partnership remains important nevertheless. Firstly because both continue to share the same economic and political base, with transnational economic links generating deeper interdependence than ever. Secondly because the same economic links – which fuse the entire OECD community but in which North America, the EU and parts of East Asia are the main players – create shared global security interests, even if the EU's nascent CFSP as yet has difficulty dealing with this. Thirdly because Europe remains dependent upon US security guarantees and military capability in the event of a revived direct military threat from outside. Fourthly because North America and the EU are two of todays most powerful global actors, whose relationship affects the world.

NATO remains vital for this partnership even without the Soviet threat. Primarily because it is the only formal political link across the Atlantic, and secondly because of its continued military role. Politically the official ties, along with the intimate and extensive institutional framework, provides a unique forum for deep and continuous security-political dialogue. This provides essential support for the political relationship as well as a unique capability for joint multinational security-political decision-making and military action. (Europe's military dependency on the US and NATO's military role are dealt with in sections 4. and 5. below.)

From this political perspective NATO enlargement includes two major drawbacks. Firstly weakened decision-making resulting from a greater number and diversity of members. Secondly possible strains on the US commitment if frictions from additional members led to US perceptions of a more problematic 'entangling' engagement. Positive consequences include adapting the alliance to Europe's evolving political map, and consolidation of the enlarged Atlantic liberal community.

2. Avoid a New Division of Europe with an Alienated, Hostile Russia

This remains a vital strategic objective. Maintaining cooperative relations with Russia is essential for European security, while the consequences of an alienated and hostile Russia could be unpleasant for both Europe and the world.

NATO enlargement will almost certainly have negative consequences on this relationship. The question is not if Russia would react, but how strongly and how deeply. NATO is perceived with suspicion and hostility by Russia's military and parts of the establishment around Putin. At the very least enlargement would lead to strong protests, a chill in relations and probably the rattling of military sabres.

This per se is not unmanageable. The question is whether Russia would go further. This is unlikely for two reasons. Firstly because there is in fact very little Russia could do. Beyond protesting, freezing diplomatic relations, shaking an already shaky military and rattling her nuclear arsenal there is little she can do. Some of these are bad enough, but they have little real impact. This leaves escalating to the use of various forms of force. But this would raise the crisis to a level almost certainly perceived as too high by the Russian leadership.

Secondly extreme Russian protests would be curtailed by her economic dependency on the west. Firstly for export revenue, as oil and gas exports are her only serious source of income. Secondly for investment, as the key part of Putin's plan to build a functioning industrial base. Russian resort to violence in Europe would freeze relations with the west, including exports and investment plans. The cost to Russia would thus be inordinately high.

In the short term it is thus unlikely that Russian reactions would go beyond posturing. More serious is the longer-term damage to Russian attitudes towards the west. In the near term enlargement would almost certainly increase the influence of the Russian military over foreign policy, with a more militarized and hostile stance towards the outside world. Domestically it could boost support for xenophobic nationalist trends within Russia and weaken the liberal, western oriented factions even further.

The long term consequences of such a development are disturbing. On the other hand this trend is already underway, regardless of western policies. Looking back over the last ten years it is clear that Russia has largely failed to make the much hoped-for transition to a free-market economy, democracy and the rule of law. Instead the economy was captured by a handful of oligarchs, social hardship increased, and domestic politics are steadily growing more authoritarian. While unpleasant to contemplate, events indicate that a deep 'Huntington Gap' does indeed separate Russia from liberal Europe.

As a result the political gap between Russia and the west has also steadily grown. The initial mutually enthusiastic hopes of the early 1990's rapidly faded, and by the mid-90's both sides had lost faith in the economic relationship, gradually leading to western political indifference and rising Russian frustration. By the end of the decade serious crises in the relationship emerged with increasing frequency: in 1996-1997 over NATO enlargement; in April 1999 over Operation Allied Force; in September 1999 after Russia's second attack on Chechnya, provoking pressure within the EU for sanctions; and most recently on a lower level in the summer of 2000, following indications of new Russian tactical nuclear warheads being moved to Kaliningrad. All of these were virtually unthinkable ten years ago.

Russia is clearly going her own way, and all current indications are that the gap between her and the liberal world will continue to grow. The trend is deep has been underway for some time, and while NATO enlargement may accelerate it, abstaining from enlargement is unlikely to reverse it.

3. Support and Enlarge Europe's Stable Liberal Base

The deepest source of peace and stability in Europe is the community of liberal states based on democracy, market economics, the rule of law and social stability. Supporting those states striving to join this community, and accepting them into it when they comply with its standards, enlarges and consolidates this stable base.

NATO and the EU are the two institutions at the heart of the European liberal community. While NATO has a specific security-political role and the EU shoulders a broader responsibility for embracing the emerging liberal states, opening the alliance to them has two advantages. Firstly, it consolidates the enlarged zone of stability and peace in Europe, both within new members and towards outside powers. This is particularly important in security-political 'grey zones' where crises of misunderstanding can arise. These consist of areas in which emerging liberal states – identified by the western public as belonging to the liberal community – are exposed to potential threat. This is the case for the three Baltic states, which parts of the Russian establishement – notably the military – perceive as essential for Russia. Should they be subjected to pressure the combination of domestic opinion and international credibility would make it impossible for the western community to remain indifferent, even without formal commitments. While currently remote, such crises could arise out of misunderstanding which prior NATO membership would preempt. It can be argued that Russia's growing alienation noted above is increasing this need.

Secondly, NATO membership may in certain cases need to be synchronized with EU enlargement, which involves a tacit but growing security commitment which the EU is unable to back up for some time. Finally the negative impact of not enlarging must be taken into account. It weakens our liberal credo, could generate disillusion among aspirants, and may send undesirable signals to the outside world.

4.Manage Violent Instability Affecting Europe

Policing violent instability along Europe's fringe has emerged as one of NATO's most visible tasks since the end of the Cold War. And since 1995 it has managed the actual enforcement task surprisingly effectively, even if subsequent peace-building – in which NATO plays a supporting peace-keeping role – has proved more elusive.

This policing capability remains vital for European stability. On the one hand directly, by enforcing order in unstable fringe areas, partly by containing regional violence and partly – though this ultimately remains beyond the reach of pure enforcement – by contributing towards resolving conflicts. On a deeper political level it is equally essential as a means of reaffirming the power and authority of the liberal community, both at home and abroad.

Here NATO is the key instrument, for which no substitute yet exists. Firstly for political crisis management, since its extensive, intimate and tested institutions make it the only multinational organisation capable of hard analysis, decision-making and action. Secondly for large scale military operations, since it alone possesses the integrated military command structure capable of conducting complex large-scale multinational military operations. Thirdly for warfighting, because it alone provides the political and operational link to the US – which is the only power in the Atlantic community capable of serious power projection and advanced high-intensity warfare.

NATO is thus essential for European crisis management, peacekeeping and peace enforcement (ie war). While the EU is now endeavouring to develop capabilities in these fields, they will remain very weak for a long time. Strongest are the mechanisms for political crisis management, but they still face considerable teething problems. Operationally the EU is even more limited. At the lowest end of the Petersberg tasks – 'Humanitarian Operations' involving humanitarian support, hostage rescue and evacuation – the EU has the most autonomous capability. One step up – peacekeeping missions based on local consent – the EU can deploy smaller contingents, but would need to rely on NATO's integrated militiary command and US logistic and transport assets for any larger troop presence. EU efforts to fill this gap will still take many years. Finally at the uppermost end of the scale – peace enforcement – the EU fully depends on both NATO infastructure and US warfighting assets.

NATO thus remains essential for hard crisis management, peacekeeping and peace enforcement. For these missions enlargement could have two positive consequences. Firstly by increasing the international legitimacy of a given operation, since more states would be backing it and taking part. Nevertheless this would not significantly reduce the need for more basic international mandates for action. Secondly by increasing the pool of assets for peace-keeping missions, though this is already covered by the current partnership arrangements. On the other hand enlargement would have the major drawback of weakening NATO decision-making.

5. Maintain Insurance Against Military Threats

The danger of direct military attack against the European liberal community crumbled with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it remains remote today. Coupled with its inflamatory nature this has placed it far from the political agenda. Nevertheless the return of such a threat cannot be excluded, and while remote, its serious consequences make it prudent – read necessary – to maintain an insurance policy against such an eventuality.

For Europe such a revived direct military threat could take two forms. Firstly, from rogue states with missiles. Secondly, in the event of deep Russian regression, with an alienated and hostile régime under weak and tense domestic conditions, resorting to military and especially nuclear pressure as its only remaining means of influence and respect.

In both cases NATO is vital and has no substitute. Firstly for hard crisis management, as the only organisation capable of joint multinational analysis, decision and military action. Secondly for deterrence, through the Article 5. links with the US, which remains the only credible deterrent against conventional and nuclear threats and – perhaps – against rogue states. Thirdly for defence, again through the links to the US, which remains the only state capable of large scale high-intensity warfare, and is the only member developing TMD.

Under such dark scenarios Europe thus remains deeply dependent on the US, and hence on the NATO link. Consequences of NATO enlargement here are largely negative. A greater number of members would weaken decision-making, extended defensive responsibilities and more 'entangling' obligations could weaken US support, extended defence commitments could exceed NATO capabilities and last but not least, stretching US deterrence to cover a larger, remoter and more diverse set of states could weaken its credibility. On the other hand enlargement advantages include greater depth, notably for existing European members (shades of Germany and Poland), and greater reach.

Which Agenda for NATO?

From a realpolitical perspective NATO enlargement depends upon which security political agenda one prioritizes. If emphasis is placed on consolidating and supporting Europe's growing community of liberal states – which is the deepest foundation for stability and peace in Europe – then NATO must remain open to new candidates. This is especially the case for those small states which have confirmed their liberal transition but remain in an exposed security-political situation. The three Baltic states are a case in point. Two further arguments along this vein are that by removing such security political 'grey areas' the danger of crises of misunderstanding is reduced. Secondly there is in some cases a need to synchronize EU enlargement with the security support which only NATO provides.

At the same time the drawbacks of enlargement are clear. Internally, through damage to NATO's efficiency, as greater diversity and larger numbers of members may strain political cohesion, will weaken decision-making and may hurt operational efficiency. Externally by further straining the relationship with Russia, since it will inevitably displease key parts of the Russian leadership, at the least accelerating the further alienation and isolation of Russia and at worst contributing to deep long term hostility. Thirdly it may affect the US commitment to Europe, should new members lead to new problems increasing US domestic perceptions of an 'Entangling Alliance'. Fourthly it could overstretch NATO defence capabilities and US deterrence credibility.

Thus if emphasis is placed on maintaining a powerful military alliance, both for policing the fringes (crisis prevention, peacekeeping and peace enforcement) and as an insurance policy against a revived direct military threat (deterrence or defence against Russia or TMD threats), then such enlargement that would weaken cohesion and military capability is inadvisable. Similarly, if emphasis is placed on not offending Russia, then enlargement should be limited or avoided. However here it is worth reiterating that Russia is in fact gradually alienating herself, regardless of what we do.

However some of these costs can be reduced by modulating the way in which enlargement is carried out. This depends on the agenda one assigns to NATO, and is a key issue for discussion. Possibilities to safeguard alliance cohesion and efficiency include the obvious, such as ensuring that membership criteria (democracy, rule of law, market economy) are fully met. More controversial options would be to preserve full Article 5 guarantees to all new members but envisage limits to their decision-making rights, and/or to establish a new 'inner core' of major NATO powers for key issues. However this could in itself also weaken alliance functioning and the credibility of Article 5.

To reassure Russia it is possible to envisage restraint as to the depth and width of enlargement. Depth can be limited by further 'Base and Ban' provisions, similar to those of Denmark, Norway, Germany and others. Width can be restrained by excluding geoplitically sensitive applicants even though they meet membership criteria. This is paradoxical however, as it is precisely these countries which most need NATO security garantees. In northern Europe this includes all three Baltic states.

If we assume that enlargement in some form is politically inevitable the key issue becomes what form it should take. From a realpolitical perspective this is a function of which of NATO's Grand Strategy roles we give priority. This is the fundamental issue which needs to be resolved before 2002.

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