Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO Plans: Lots of Talk But No Action

They might as well call it NATO week. The American capital has been engaged throughout this week in an unprecedented flurry of conferences and speeches. The general theme is American foreign policy in an uncertain world. The real focus is NATO.

It started Wednesday with Senate Republican leader Robert Dole at lunch, the new Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, in the afternoon, and President Clinton in the evening. They all appeared under the auspices of the new Richard Nixon Center.

On Thursday, it got complicated. The Nixon Center offered Henry Kissinger at lunch and Zbigniew Brzezinski in the afternoon. Another conference of the Center for Strategic and International Studies offered Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke in the morning, the Pentagon's Walter Slocombe at lunch, and Brzezinski (again) at dinner.

Bob Zoellick, who was the brains behind James Baker's time as secretary of state, ran a debate over whether Russia will be "a cooperative or managing partner of the NATO alliance." Assorted powerful senators, from Richard Lugar to Sam Nunn, Joe Libermann to John McCain, shared walk-on roles with veteran policymakers like Brent Scowcroft and new ones like Strobe Talbott.

This week is to U.S. foreign policy what the Oscars are for Hollywood: an orgiastic agglomeration of the stars, in which the lines are all well-scripted.

We knew in advance that Kissinger and Brzezinski are urging the extension of NATO to Eastern Europe in the strongest terms. We knew that the Republican leaders Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich agree. And so does President Clinton, who has already said that the accession of the Poles and Czechs and other Central European countries "is not a question of 'if' but of 'when.'"

And, equally, we know that these emperors are not really wearing many clothes. They keep saying that NATO is about to expand, and yet behind the scenes a new consensus is growing: that this is no time to distract the restive and introspective American public with any talk of new alliances.

An extension of NATO is by legal definition a treaty that will require the approval of the Senate, with the hearings in Congress and public debate that such a vote requires. The American public has either forgotten or learned to live with the fact that Article 5 of the NATO treaty requires them to regard an attack upon any other NATO member as an attack upon themselves.

This has been the heart of NATO, the pledge on paper that the United States was prepared to risk the nuclear incineration of Boston in order to defend Bonn. An extension of NATO would mean a further pledge that the United States is prepared to risk the destruction of Washington in order to defend Warsaw. And Washington's new consensus is that this core of the NATO alliance commands so little public support today that it is probably best left undebated.

Senate hearings and public debate about the fact that NATO has lost its enemy and has yet to define a new role are seen as positively dangerous, threatening NATO's residual role as the symbolic link that binds the United States and Western Europe together.

Journalists and Russian and European diplomats will scurry back and forth to monitor all the fuss. But the bottom line is that this will be a week of ringing phrases and empty promises. These are times to let sleeping dogs lie.