Washington, 5 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Both supporters and opponents of NATO expansion have tended to discuss the issue in terms of its impact on Russia. And as a result, their increasingly heated debate has failed to pay much attention to the other purposes that the Western alliance has served and also the purposes that the prospect of expansion have promoted.
Supporters of expansion typically have argued that the Western alliance should expand now to provide an insurance policy for countries in Eastern Europe in the event that Russia should regain its strength and revert to the often aggressive ways of the past.
Opponents of any growth in the alliance, on the other hand, have suggested that the Russian threat to Europe has disappeared along with the Soviet Union and that any expansion would undermine Russian reform at home and Russian cooperation abroad.
Unfortunately, this focus on Russia and Russia alone has obscured the multiple reasons that lay behind NATO's founding in 1949, the multiple roles it has played and continues to play in a variety of spheres, and the enormous contribution that the prospect of expansion has made to laying the foundation for a more stable and peaceful Eastern Europe.
NATO was established, as more than one commentator has observed, to keep the Russians out of Europe, the Americans in, and the Germans down. During the Cold War, attention to the first often obscured the other two. Indeed, by preventing Soviet expansionism, NATO helped its member countries to focus on domestic development rather than on defense as they often had in the past.
But during the discussions on forming the alliance, most of its future members were far more worried about the two other factors: the possibilities of a resurgence of German militarism and of an early American exit from Europe as happened after World War I.
And that has continued to be so. By rooting Germany in a broader security arrangement, NATO has made an important contribution to the rapprochement of Berlin and Paris and to the construction of a more united Europe. And by creating an institution that linked America's fate to Europe's, NATO has served to limit the reemergence of traditional isolationism in the United States.
But NATO has done far more than that. By promoting cooperation and interoperability among the military and political elites of its members, NATO has allowed them to explore their common interests and overcome their past suspicions. And in times of crisis, this ongoing cooperation has allowed the West to act, as in the Gulf War, more quickly and easily than would otherwise have been the case.
And over time, NATO has done even more. It has helped to promote democracy in members such as Turkey and Spain. It has integrated the military industries of its members in ways that limit the ability of any one of them to act unilaterally. And it has even contributed to the economic growth of all by eliminating many of the fears behind national protectionism.
More recently, the possibility of the expansion of the alliance has made yet another contribution to European stability. It has led the countries that hope to be included in the alliance to try to resolve some of their historic quarrels. Among the pairs of countries that have done so are Hungary and Romania, Poland and Lithuania, and most recently Ukraine and Romania.
Moreover, and precisely because NATO leaders have made it clear that any country hoping to join must demonstrate a commitment to democracy, human rights and a free market, all the countries seeking to get in have done more in this direction than their past records on these issues might have led anyone to expect.
Indeed, historians may ultimately conclude that these developments represent some of NATO's greatest achievements. But this prospective contribution of the alliance will only survive if its current members in fact demonstrate that they will include new members not only now but in the future.