Skip to main content

142. The Enlargement of NATO and Central European Politics

The expansion of NATO is nothing new. NATO has enlarged itself several times in the past, most recently absorbing the G.D.R. (through the back door of the G.D.R.'s incorporation into one Germany). But the currently envisioned expansion is different from previous ones: this enlargement is primarily politically motivated and it is about the future shape of Europe. The foremost political challenge on the continent after the Cold War is the integration into European organizations of the countries previously included in the Soviet bloc, and NATO has stepped up to this challenge as part of its transformation. If the NATO-Russia Council is successful and NATO's relations with Russia develop along a constructive path, then the alliance's eastward enlargement has the potential to accelerate the integration of Central European countries into a Euro-Atlantic community in a manner that erases the animosities that caused armed conflict in the past.

Among elites in Central Europe, the rationales for joining NATO are clear: acceding to the alliance may ease residual fears among the populations of these countries that their transformations since 1989 could be endangered by internal unrest, an irredentist Russia, or other perils. NATO's enlargement may also assuage German intentions, allowing a "normal relationship" to develop between Germany and the Czech Republic or Poland, thus putting the legacy of the Second World War to rest. And, as specified explicitly by NATO and the European Union (EU), enlargement of the two institutions has come to mean two sides of the same coin.

NATO's process of ratifying changes in the 1949 Washington Treaty should be completed by 1999. Until then, the military and political integration of the first three invitees--Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary--will not be fully underway. Such integration, however, is itself a process with many consequences. Questions arise. What are the effects of NATO's enlargement decision on the invitee states? How will the international behavior of these countries change in the aftermath of the Madrid decisions? What kind of a NATO member will each of these countries be?

In size, geostrategic importance, and the armed forces, Poland dwarfs all the other NATO aspirants. It is also the best prepared and the most serious prospective NATO member, a result of post-1989 Polish policy of forging close links to NATO, with near uniformity among elites and the public about the need to join the Alliance.

Poland's enviable position in Central Europe of having good relations with all of its neighbors is unlikely to change following its accession to NATO. Indeed, it is in the Polish interest to have good relations with its neighbors who will remain outside of NATO after 1999. This would prevent Poland from becoming a "front-line" state in another Cold War-like situation. And rather than an eastern bulwark of NATO, there is every indication that Poland is going to be a spokesperson within the alliance for continued enlargement. A Poland in NATO is likely to be a benign regional actor and an important tool for the alliance in central and eastern Europe.

Poland seems likely to contribute significant forces to the alliance and to take the responsibilities of being an alliance member seriously. Indeed, out of all the countries being considered for alliance membership, Poland stands out as the one country with a long-standing and demonstrated seriousness in collective security, and one that brings important assets to the alliance. Far from being a "free rider," Poland is likely to remain an above-average European contributor to NATO as a member. For a country similar to Spain in many respects (size of territory and population), Poland is likely to surpass Spain quickly in its importance and contribution to NATO.

The Czech Republic was probably the least controversial of the NATO aspirants, even though the acceptance of this country as a future NATO member went hand in hand with the knowledge that most Czechs did not care much about NATO and that the Czech Republic might become a below-average contributor once it secured membership.

The Czech Republic has no territorial or minority problems with its neighbors and the cooperative Czech stance in the region is unlikely to be affected by either the invitation or membership. The Czechs will continue to try to keep Slovakia under consideration for future waves of enlargement. But Czech membership in NATO will strengthen the differentiation between the Czech Republic and Slovakia; the Czech-Slovak border changed from provincial to state boundary in 1993, and in 1999 it will change again into a boundary distinguishing the post-Communist transition states and "Western" Europe. As a result, Czech-Slovak relations will take on a more distant, though not necessarily worse, form and will lose their "special status" at a faster pace.

The Czech Republic is unlikely to be an alliance member of any great importance. The country's small size, low defense awareness, and limited appreciation for the military act to constrain the Czech role. But the country may make a respectable contribution to NATO reaction forces and the Czech government has demonstrated seriousness about collective security since the end of the Cold War. Assuming the continuing trend toward smaller armed forces and a greater reliance on motivated volunteers, the Czech military could be a small but valuable asset to the alliance.

It remains to be seen whether the national security elites of Hungary can ensure a safe political foundation for a long-term honeymoon regarding NATO integration. Hungarians will have to accept that joining NATO means obligations to the Alliance as much as vice versa. For many Hungarians, defending or speaking up for the rights of their ethnic kin in neighboring states lies at the core of sovereignty, and a NATO that is very likely to abjure involvement in such disputes will not receive unequivocal loyalty from them.

Hungary's relations with neighboring countries were the biggest question mark over its suitability for NATO. As long as a reformist government is in place in Romania, potential for trouble is low. But what will happen if the Romanian reformists are voted out of power? Although there is no question of any armed conflict between the two countries in the foreseeable future, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that a Hungarian government may try to use its NATO membership in a subtle way to pressure Romania. The same applies to Slovakia. The bottom line is that the incentive of membership in NATO that drove the Hungarian government to sign treaties with neighboring countries will disappear, at least partially, with Hungarian entry into the alliance. NATO has made it clear to Hungarian officials that any use of membership for gains in bilateral relations with neighbors would be treated in a most negative fashion, but domestic pressures may still push a future Hungarian government toward a more assertive role in the Danube basin.

Like the Czech Republic, Hungary's contribution to and its role in the alliance will be limited by the small size and potential of the country. At most, it may contribute a brigade of reasonable quality for the alliance's projection missions (roughly Portugal's contribution). Although Hungarian interest in collective security since the end of the Cold War has not matched the involvement of the Czechs or Poles, there are some special circumstances (war in neighboring Yugoslavia and the potential for spillover) that explain Hungarian behavior. Finally, the acceptance of Hungary into NATO may cost less than expected because of the already-existing NATO facilities in Hungary that have been put in place as part of operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

NATO's metamorphosis and reinvention of itself involves new functions, new capacities and new challenges. Such an unprecedented transformation of an alliance for common defense towards a structure for collective security poses vexing policy dilemmas. Changes in what an "alliance" is, and NATO's adaptability, add up to a new phenomenon. Yet NATO's principal members, especially the United States, have rejected any shift from the primacy of NATO after the Cold War, e.g., to a pan-European collective security organization. Instead, NATO has incorporated elements of collective security, extending its functions and membership. From an instrument of realism, NATO is becoming an institution imbued with idealism. Put differently, NATO has been recast as something other than an alliance arrayed against a foe, and increasingly as a collective entity "for" certain norms, values and behaviors. From an enterprise devoted to deterrence and, if necessary, war-fighting, the North Atlantic Alliance has moved irrevocably into arenas of peacemaking (Bosnia), civil-military socialization (via the Partnership for Peace program), confidence-building (through efforts to ensure resolution of tensions between neighbors), and other collective endeavors. And through holding out the possibility of membership and participation on equal footing with current NATO members, NATO has shaped the environment by putting in place a set of incentives for cooperative international behavior that advances the goals of a more peaceful and integrated continent.

It is also notable that, so far, the dire predictions by opponents of NATO enlargement have not come true. For example, there are no signs that the Madrid decisions have had any impact on the domestic political situation in Russia. In addition, through the NATO-Russia council, the Russians have been given a say in European security matters. Regarding the objection that enlargement means the drawing of "new lines of division," the countries that had wanted to join but were not invited to be in the first round have been among the most adamant about the wisdom of the move. Indeed, they welcomed the Madrid round of invitations (even if tinged with disappointment) because they saw it as the true breaking down of the Cold War line of division rather than the construction of any new barrier. As long as the process remains open to future enlargement, the attitude is likely to continue.

None of the questions generated by NATO's enlargement amount to insurmountable challenges and indeed, they are to be expected, but they involve fundamental questions about the purpose of the alliance. Guarantees made to new members invoke mutual defense responsibilities, financial and in-kind contributions, and expectations that democratic norms and consensual behavior will be maintained. Now that there is no unequivocal adversary, such an "exchange" is implicit in joining NATO. The most widespread consequences of NATO's enlargement, however, involve a further politicization of these matters both among the members-to-be and those excluded from the first tranche. In other words, the "politics" of NATO's enlargement has just begun.

Mr. Szayna spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on October 29, 1997.


About the Author

Thomas S. Szayna

Read More

Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more