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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Joining NATO Won't Be Easy For the Baltics

Viewed from northern Europe, the question of NATO's planned eastward enlargement acquires rather different dimensions than when looked at from London or Bonn. More so than other parts of Europe, the Baltic area is a region where the enlargement process could go horribly wrong, inflicting irreversible damage on the Western alliance's relations with Russia.

What enlargement process, I hear you say? Surely the United States and leading European NATO members have never seriously considered expanding the alliance to bring in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania? How could NATO extend a credible security guarantee to these three little states perched on Russia's borders?

Why should the North Atlantic Treaty Organization take such a step when it would clearly be perceived as hostile to Moscow and could even provoke a violent Russian response? These are all valid points, yet the fact remains that the Nordic states see matters differently. Danish Defense Minister Hans Haekkerup put it eloquently in a recent conversation in Copenhagen. "If new democracies emerge in central and eastern Europe," he said, "I have a moral problem denying them the same security that we Danes had in the Cold War."

However, he then made the crucial observation that to give the Baltic states a security guarantee is not at all the same thing as to plot aggressive military action against any of their neighbors. Throughout NATO's history, the essential principle uniting the alliance has been collective defense against possible attack, not preparation for aggression.

According to the Danes, it follows that to admit the Baltic states into NATO would not represent any kind of threat to Russia. This would be all the more true, they say, if NATO and Russia signed some far-reaching agreement on political and security relations, such as the charter recently proposed by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Yet if the Baltic states were ever to join NATO, Russia would need to be included in the alliance's military and political structures to a far greater degree than Western governments currently envisage.

This could easily result in the dilution of the principle of collective security that lies at NATO's heart. It could, in fact, transform NATO from a defensive military alliance into a kind of watered-down, pan-European security organization -- which may suit Russia, but is not something that appeals to many Western governments, let alone the Baltic states themselves.

In one sense, discussion of possible Baltic entry into NATO is far too premature. It seems most unlikely that NATO will invite the Baltics to join when it announces its decision on enlargement next year.

Moreover, the process of inclusion will by no means be smooth even for those states considered to be leading candidates for admission -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. That is because all NATO governments will have to ratify the new members' admission, and some countries -- notably Greece and Turkey -- are sure to demand something in return for agreeing to enlargement in Eastern Europe.

One day, perhaps, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will be in NATO. Yet it will never happen unless there is a fundamental reorganization of NATO's relations with Russia -- a radical readjustment of world outlooks on both sides, which at present seems a long way off.