NATO Expansion — Is the World Safer?

by on March 30th, 2004

The Washington Post, along with just about every European news outlet available, reports on the expansion of NATO. And while the South Lawn was the site of much hoopla and back-slapping, this euphoria masks the difficult work ahead for the alliance, Europe and the United States.

The painful fact is that while it is great that NATO will now include Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Baltic States, the organization is now confronting the least-symmetrical (or most asymmetrical, if you prefer) threat — terrorism — in modern times. It is the type of threat that defies large, heavy armies and slow-moving bureaucracies — in other words, NATO.

And NATO expansion hasn’t done much to ameliorate Russia’s national inferiority complex. WaPo notes Moscow’s displeasure with NATO’s decision to start policing Baltic airspace, which Russia has historically claimed within its own sphere of influence. So more Russo-NATO acrimony can be expected, not less.

And, moreover, there is some question as to how much extra security NATO expansion has brought in relative terms compared to the added burden. After all, from this day forward, if tiny Slovenia (which your average American couldn’t locate on a map) is attacked, all NATO nations are honor bound by Article V to come to Ljubljana’s aid. Ditto for Bucharest, Sofia, Bratislava, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn.

With all of these reasons against expansion, why was it pursued at all? Hopefully the answer is that cooler heads in Brussels and Washington realize that, prior to radical and difficult transformation, NATO needs to expand and embrace former communist countries and welcome them to the West — it’s no coincidence that this announcement was timed barely a month before the EU accession of several new NATO members. Accentuate the positive.

The first step has been taken. NATO is now bigger, more broad-reaching, and is prepared to take on new challenges. The second step, as ever, will be much tougher. NATO has to sit down and take a long look at itself to decide how it is going to evolve to confront those challenges, principally and most urgently terrorism. It will be, in Uncle Rummy’s words, a long, hard slog. It won’t just require re-tooling of machinery, it will require re-tooling of minds and strategies. And it has to start soon. NATO is still worthwhile but it needs to realize that the path to irrelevancy may be just around the corner if some serious course alteration doesn’t start soon.

Marc C. Johnson