April 7, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

NATO Turns East

Last week, NATO received an infusion of new blood. At this time in the half-century old alliance's lifespan, that's exactly what the defense alliance needs. The inclusion of seven new members, most from the old Warsaw Pact and some formerly parts of the Soviet Union, will be a huge boost to morale. If anyone remembers why NATO still has a purpose after the end of the Cold War, it is the Bulgarians, the Romanians, the Estonians, the Lithuanians, the Latvians, the Slovakians and the Slovenians.

"As witness to some of the great crimes of the last century, our new members bring moral clarity to the purpose of our alliance," said President Bush at the White House ceremony last Monday, welcoming representatives of the seven nations along with NATO's new Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. "They understand our cause in Afghanistan and in Iraq . . .because tyranny for them is still a fresh memory. And so now as members of NATO they are stepping forward to secure the lives and freedoms of others." Next to seek membership will be Albania, Croatia and Macedonia.

New member nations will help NATO find its vision in a world faced with so many challenges. Unfortunately, among our "old" allies in Western Europe, fighting and squabbling has broken out over Iraq, between Europeans and Americans, between Europeans and Europeans. These disagreements have taken their toll over the past year, and gravely undermined international relationships.

But it is worth remembering that strains and fractures in the fabric of the NATO alliance predated Iraq, Afghanistan, and the attacks of September 11. Almost as soon as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and former Warsaw Pact members started knocking on NATO's door, there were those who predicted the end of NATO. Without an opposing military alliance in Europe, without the Cold War, what purpose could NATO possibly serve? So they argued.

Others of us believed that NATO represented the best vehicle for consolidating the gains of freedom in Europe, among nations previously held hostage in the orbit of the Soviet Union. We thought that here was finally the chance to repair the division of Europe ratified at the Yalta Conference in 1945, the Iron Curtain.

Membership in the European Union will also serve to anchor these countries institutionally in the West. Still, there is no substitute for the full security guarantees of the military alliance, which makes them partners not just of other Europeans but of Americans as well.

As Col. Edvardas Mazeikas, commander of Lithuania's air force, told the New York Times, "For us, history is close. We are in a dangerous place. All through history war has passed through here, from Napoleon to the Nazis to the Soviets. Lithuania is a very good place for tanks. That's why collective security is so important for us."

All this has not been lost on the Russians, who have made unhappy noises in recent weeks. Compared to the Russian opposition voiced to the first round of NATO enlargement, however, which brought in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, these rumblings have been fairly restrained.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Agence France Press that the presence of American soldiers on Russia's borders was causing paranoia, and a full 44 percent of Russians polled in late March reportedly are "deeply concerned" about NATO's enlargement. The good news is that younger respondents were more amenable than older respondents to look favorably on Russian cooperation with NATO, which President Putin has accepted through the creation of the Russia-NATO council.

Of course, it might also help if Russian politicians, such as Mr. Lavrov, acknowledged publicly that NATO is surely the least of the threats faced by Russia - indeed no threat at all - and that NATO enlargement has not brought American soldiers closer to Russia's borders. The new NATO presence in the Baltic countries consists of four Belgian F-16s, supported by 100 Belgians, Norwegian and Danish troops. Does anyone even recall the last time the Belgian air force fired a shot in anger?

Today, the imminent threat to the West is not Russia, but the modern threats of radical fundamentalism, terrorism, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. NATO has recently undertaken its first out of area mission in Afghanistan and may take over control in Iraq as well, as has been advocated by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

In that fight, the eastward and southward-facing bases in the new NATO countries will be important logistical assets. And so will the determination of the new members to be valuable partners in the alliance they have worked so hard to join.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times