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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Weak Alliance on the Cheap




The U.S. Senate will vote this week on whether to ratify the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the East to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Senator Trent Lott, the majority leader, promised that the Senate would "not rush to judgment on a treaty of this magnitude." But everybody knows that the Senate will overwhelmingly approve expansion.


NATO expansion is not an exciting issue. Russian politicians all tend to be against it. Western politicians are mostly for it. But the public, on the whole, does not seem to give a damn whether enlargement goes one way or the other.


So the politicians who depend on the public for votes are also not very interested. In Moscow, Washington and most European capitals, they have more engrossing issues to worry about. A genuine hatred for their respective presidents and hopes of an impeachment unite Russian and U.S. legislators more than NATO expansion pulls them apart.


Those really alarmed by NATO's enlargement are historians, political scientists and analysts -- people whose profession is to look into the past and predict the future for periods that extend beyond the next election. Those who are alarmed include people such as George Kennan, a veteran diplomat, scholar, historian and the architect of the U.S. policy of containment of the Soviet Union, who in the '40s understood and predicted the course of the future Cold War. Kennan believes that NATO expansion is the West's worst policy mistake since the end of the Cold War.


But, as often happens in a democracy, those who understand do not make political decisions, and those who decide the future do not understand what they are doing. The main question today seems to be the issue of cost. The Pentagon says the United States will pay no more than $400 million over 10 years. Critics say the price may be $100 billion during the same period.


The argument is ridiculous. Expansion will cost as much money as NATO members are ready to pay. The price can be either $100 billion or $1 billion. In any case, NATO cannot be defeated in battle, since no external military threat exists. For decades to come, Russia, against whom NATO is supposedly expanding, will not have any significant offensive military capabilities.


European NATO members have already said they do not have any extra funds to spend on enlargement, especially now that the single European currency is being launched. No one will squander resources to beef up Czech defenses when unemployment is high and no one is threatening any attacks.


The new member states have pledged to spend more on defense, but will hardly be able to deliver on these promises without putting unbearable strains on domestic politics. The United States will have a budget surplus and money to spend, but won't have the political will or internal consensus to drastically increase foreign aid.


So the price of expansion will be low. Since it will be declared a success in any event, the "second wave" of NATO enlargement may begin as soon as the first wave ends. Herein lies the main danger. An expanding military alliance with an uncertain mission, uncertain mandate and no clear geographical limits or specified foes is likely to create strategic unpredictability rather than stability.


The coming century is unpredictable enough without NATO expansion. The political futures of China and Russia are uncertain. The future of Europe is even more uncertain. If the euro fails, the European Union will be greatly undermined. If the monetary union succeeds, if part of Europe gets a single currency for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, then the new superstate that could be formed could create an entirely different geopolitical landscape.


In this world of complete uncertainty, the "old" NATO of 16 nations could have been an anchor of predictability, stabilizing not only the West, but also Russia in a time of change. But this is no longer an option. A cheap unlimited expansion that turns NATO into an empty shell, a political talking shop with different groups of nations pulling in different directions, seems almost inevitable.


In February 1992 the late Secretary General of NATO, Manfred Worner, told me: "NATO expansion would be a disaster. It's hard to keep 16 nations in one pack. Twenty will make NATO ungovernable." But Worner was a common politician. He changed his judgment fully and without remorse.


Pavel Felgenhauer is defense and national security affairs editor of Segodnya.