Washington,24 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- As the debate on NATO expansion sharpens, its supporters are pointing to the benefits the alliance offers to new members. And its opponents are calling attention to the harm a larger NATO might have on Moscow's relationship with the West.
But neither side in this ongoing debate has acknowledged that the expansion of the Western alliance -- at least in the way that it is taking place now -- may in the end bring the greatest benefits not so much to the new members but to Russia itself, the country that some suggest the alliance is still directed against.
First of all, in managing the expansion of NATO, Western countries have worked hard to give Moscow an unprecedented role in alliance decision-making. The NATO-Russia Charter signed last June certainly gives the Russian government a voice if not a veto in what the alliance will do in the future.
Indeed, as Russian diplomats have regularly pointed out, Moscow obtained a seat in NATO councils long before the alliance offered membership to any of the other former Warsaw Pact states. And the new Russian presence at alliance headquarters in Brussels means that the alliance itself has been transformed even before it has been expanded.
Second, in the course of the often intense public discussions about the expansion of the alliance, Western leaders have been at pains to specify what the alliance will and won't do in the future in Eastern Europe. They have made commitments about the basing of various kinds of weaponry, the level of integration of commands, and transparency of the alliance with respect to Russia.
In virtually every case, these Western statements have been intended to reassure Moscow that, as all alliance spokesman point out, NATO is not and never will be directed against Russia. And some of them have even suggested that at some future time, Russia itself could join the alliance that was created to contain its Soviet predecessor.
Consequently, even as Russian officials, politicians and commentators have complained about the growth of the alliance, they have often welcomed if far more quietly these alliance commitments as a form of Western acknowledgment of a special Russian role in Eastern Europe and especially on the territory of what was the Soviet Union.
And the most thoughtful of Russian commentators have noted that the process of NATO expansion has led the West to make commitments to Moscow on this score that the Western countries could not have made any other way.
And third, the expansion of the alliance eastward benefits Russia in ways that many Russians may not now appreciate but will likely see in the future as a major force pushing for the democratic reform of that country and its further integration into Europe.
By including some of the countries of Eastern Europe into its ranks, NATO effectively removes them as possible targets for those in Russia who would like to reverse the events of recent years or at a minimum to project Russian power in ways that are likely to make it more difficult for Russia to reform itself.
On the one hand, by providing a security guarantee to the new members, NATO will help transform the political debate in these countries just as it did in Western Europe four decades ago. By taking foreign policy out of the center of that debate, NATO will give these countries both a chance to direct their primary energies to domestic affairs and the confidence to deal with Russia less as a political threat than as an economic opportunity.
And on the other, by defining more precisely the immediate international environment within which Moscow must operate, the Western alliance will help to limit the influence of nationalists in Russia who may be interested in reversing the changes following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But just as was the case when NATO introduced forces into Bosnia, so too now as NATO prepares to expand, the chief beneficiaries of the alliance's action will be Russian reformers who will again find a way to use the opportunities the alliance offers rather than simply oppose it for domestic purposes.