Sept. 13 2006 1:00 PM

War Games

By Hanna Rosin
     
       Sometime in the next year, the U.S. Senate will have to decide whether or not to ratify an agreement allowing a handful of Eastern European countries to join NATO. The debate over the expansion sounds about the same as it did when the alliance was first founded. Opponents plot out war scenarios involving U.S. soldiers in Cluj, and warn about alarming the Kremlin. Supporters relish the idea of antagonizing the Kremlin, and yearn for the thrill of the Cold War.

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       This debate is carried out in entirely the wrong tones. The decision of whether to expand NATO is no longer a matter of moving imaginary soldiers closer to or further from the Russian border; a land war in the countries under consideration--Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia--is, after all, unlikely. We should expand NATO, but not because we should contain Russia. We should expand it for more subtle, cultural reasons, to gradually include Eastern European countries in an alliance of stability, and have them look to the West as a model of democracy.
 
 The arguments against expanding NATO rely on a frightening view of Russia, and an elaborate game of Risk. Expansion would push the alliance up to Russia's borders, and force the U.S. to treat any attack on the new member states as an attack on us. This horrifying vision of U.S. troops infecting every place from Bilbao to Bialystock would make an ideal campaign poster for Russian nationalists, say opponents. Russian President Boris Yeltsin would have no choice but to play to their xenophobic fears, and God knows what could happen next, but it's sure to involve missiles.
       Unfortunately, Mr. Yeltsin has already failed to play that role. In the 1997 Helsinki summit, Mr. Yeltsin said he opposed the expansion but did not storm out of the summit and slam the door, leaving us to decipher his position from Pravda. Instead, he gave the impression he could live with the idea. He suggested the United States could negotiate on other outstanding security matters, such as arms control and anti ballistic missile programs--exactly the issues alarmists fear he will avoid. Meanwhile, ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhironovsky hasn't been heard from in months.
 
 The pro-expansion side merely plays into the hands of opponents. Rather than changing the terms of the debate, they merely relish in it. Zbignew Brzinski, one of the major proponents of NATO expansion, hashes out the debate in old Cold War terms. He argues that for strategic purposes, the U.S. should always take for granted the possibility of Russian expansion, and recruit as many Eastern European countries to our side as possible. Others counter that Russia has no desire to re-create the Warsaw Pact, so there's no need to recruit allies. Either way, the debate is rehashed Kremlinology.
       But it should be updated. President Clinton gets at the real reasons to expand NATO. He calls the expanded alliance a "new structure of peace." Recently, he wrote a letter to Congress explaining that the expansion would strengthen democracy and free market reforms for all of Europe just as it has done for Western Europe since 1949.
 
 This would be usual Clinton boilerplate, except that NATO itself makes the language concrete. When the alliance decided this summer to accept the new countries, pending U.S. approval, they set specific standards. A country had to respect democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law, free markets, settle its border disputes and have civilian control over its military to be included. The standards have already changed behavior. Eager for acceptance, Hungary settled its border disputes with Estonia.
       When the Senate takes up the issue, the debate is likely to be rancorous. Given how international agreements are debated these days, NATO expansion is an issue that, oddly, might have crowd appeal. Bob Dole got his loudest applause at the Republican convention whenever he said the words Boutros-Boutros Ghali. Opponents of granting the president fast-track authority on trade agreements have been running commercials this last month showing average Joes leaning against their trucks complaining about how much NAFTA has cost them. The opponents of NATO expansion have picked up the cue, shifting the debate to the million dollar tab the U.S. would have to pick up to update antiquated Eastern European armies.
 
 The truth is, however, including these four Eastern European countries is probably a done deal. Western Europe has approved it, and Secretary of State Madeline Albright is heavily lobbying for Senate approval. If we are really worried about Mr. Yeltsin's reaction, we should ease the blow by engaging him on other security concerns he has laid on the table. Or send him an invitation to the 50th anniversary gala in 1999.

Hanna Rosin is a senior editor at the New Republic.

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