Sept. 13 2006 1:16 PM

Shall Pittsburgh Fight for Pozsony?

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft
       That sardonic British prime minister of the 1830s, Lord Melbourne, used to say that nobody ever did anything very foolish except from strong principle. With NATO expansion, the Clinton administration has set out to disprove Melbourne. It is a very foolish idea indeed, and it is being not so much from a weak principle as from no discernible principle at all.


       In the beginning it was so simple. One aggressor, Adolf Hitler, had been defeated, and now his place had been taken by another, Joseph Stalin. By 1949, Europe was divided into two blocs which had already nearly gone to war over Berlin. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed then for the simple purpose--it seemed--of guarding free western Europe against the Red Army.
 Actually, things weren't quite so neat even then. The Englishman who was the first Secretary General of NATO, General Lord Ismay, used to say that the 'organization's purpose was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down" (we could use leaders today with that gift of phrase, and that kind of honesty).
       The Europeans, exhausted by two appalling wars within 25 years, were terrified that the Yanks would go home as they had after 1918. They were terrified of the Russians. But they were also terrified of one another, as Ismay's "keep the Germans down" implied. NATO's existence was complicated by the creation of West Germany, and its rearming.
 Still, the alliance worked. For half a century there was no general European war, and at last the Cold War was won. The Soviet Russia and its empire collapsed. With the Cold War over, there was a more than good case for winding NATO up, after it had honorably served its purpose. There was a case--it ain't broke--for leaving it alone. There was no case at all for fixing it, by expanding NATO eastwards.
       The alliance has one fundamental principle: "All for one and one for all." By NATO's founding document, an attack on one member is held to be an attack on all. One Soviet infantryman's boot crossing the frontier at Kaltensondheim was to be as much an act of aggression against the United States as a nuclear missile aimed at Manhattan.
 At any rate, that was the theory. Historians may one day wonder whether this wasn't all a "fable convenue," a useful myth. Would any American president really have seen a dozen American cities incinerated to defend Lower Saxony? Mercifully, we shall never know.
       What we do know is that this is still the principle underlying NATO, with implications after expansion that are well-nigh demented.
       Leave aside the perfectly justifiable apprehensions of the Russians. The first three new members of the club are Poland, the Czech Republic--and Hungary. Until its partition by the Trianon Treaty of 1920, the ancient (not to say "apostolic") kingdom of Hungary included not only what is now Hungary but what are now western Ukraine, western Rumania, northern Serbia, a slither of eastern Austria--and Slovakia.
 To this today, Hungarians resent that partition and believe, not without reason, that it was grossly unfair to them even by the simplest standards of national justice. There is a large Hungarian minority still in southern Slovakia, worse treated than almost any other minority in Europe. The unlovely ultra-nationalist Slovak government has talked publicly of solving this problem by "transfer" of the Hungarians, or, as we nowadays say, by ethnic cleansing.
       Whatever the rights and wrongs of the dispute, it is bitter and intractable. And it now potentially affects us all. By a hypothesis which we must contemplate, Slovakia might commit what Budapest construes as aggression.
       And according to that bedrock principle of NATO, that will also be construed as an attack on Germany, France and America. In 1939, right-wing cynics in Paris sneered at the idea of going to "war for Danzig." Is the whole of the west to go to war for Komarno and Sahy?
 The whole project of NATO expansion is of a folly that defies explanation. Until, that is, one remembers the bleak truth that what passes for American foreign policy is driven at least as much by domestic agenda as by rational calculation of national interest.
       It is time for President Clinton to stop grandstanding and act like his country's chief executive. He might take as his text the words of another 19th-century prime minister, Lord Palmerston: "We have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests."
 Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of The Randlords, and is a contributor to British publications too numerous to mention.