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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fit Russia Into NATO

The United States should state explicitly that at some point in the future even Russia's membership in NATO might make sense.

Following the Senate's vote to ratify the expansion of NATO, the next historic task for the Euro-Atlantic community is to engage Russia. This will take time, but success will signal the resolution at last of the fateful dilemma that 20th century Europe was unable to solve on its own: how to deal with the rise of German and of Russian power, respectively.

The problem posed by Germany was put to rest by the founding of NATO some 50 years ago. That act wedded America's security to that of the then-vulnerable Western Europe -- and it made possible the ensuing progress toward European unification. It is no exaggeration to say that, without NATO, there would have been no German-French reconciliation and, without that reconciliation, there would be today no European Union. It was America's physical presence in Europe, confirmed by the North Atlantic Treaty, that gave the Europeans the sense of security needed to permit the full restoration of West Germany to the European club. Later on, it was also that fact that enabled the Europeans, especially the French, to accommodate themselves to the emergence of a reunited Germany as the leading power of Europe.

The expansion of NATO into recently freed Central Europe similarly provides the needed confidence for the continuing German-Polish and German-Czech reconciliation. That reconciliation is remarkable in its political pace and social scope. Public opinion polls show that Poles now rank Germany almost as favorably as America, with Polish fears of a powerful Germany diluted by Germany's firm anchorage in the Euro-Atlantic alliance.

As important to Europe's future is the prospect that NATO's expansion into Central Europe will next prompt genuine reconciliation between the Russians and their Central European neighbors. Once in NATO, the Central Europeans will no longer fear that closeness to Russia can mean a mortal embrace -- a fear deeply rooted in painful historical experiences.

By the same token, the Russians must be made to feel that the expansion of NATO into Central Europe is neither an intentional nor an unintentional means for the exclusion of Russia from Europe. It must be made evidently and credibly clear to the Russians that the expansion of NATO and of the European Union are open-ended historical processes, with neither fixed geopolitical nor time limits, and that eventually a more formal association with both is on Russia's political horizon.

Admittedly, in the longer run, inherent in the continued expansion of NATO beyond the first three new Central European members is the prospect of NATO's gradual transformation from an alliance into a wider but still allied Euro-Atlantic security mechanism. The much larger NATO that could emerge in the course of the next two decades would then reflect (and institutionalize) the new reality of expanded European security and of Europe-wide political reconciliation. That should not be perceived as an undesirable outcome. After all, NATO was never an end in itself but a means for achieving a worthy goal: a truly secure and reconciled Europe, permanently linked to America.

Accordingly, the United States, as the leading power in NATO, should state explicitly -- and not just hint, as it occasionally has -- that at some point in the future even Russia's membership in NATO might make sense both for NATO and for Russia. Once (and if) Russia's democracy has been consolidated, once Russia itself makes the subjective choice in favor of membership, and once it fully satisfies the several objective criteria for membership, the case for withholding access becomes less justifiable, especially following both NATO's and the European Union's further eastward expansion. A clear statement to that effect would in the meantime also reinforce the case for the gradual inclusion in NATO of such European states as the Baltics or even Ukraine.

A major speech by the U.S. president, outlining how the United States envisages the longer-range relationship between America and Europe and Russia, would have the added benefit of projecting a longer-term strategic vision that Russia currently lacks. The Russian public does not have a clear notion of where in the global scheme of things a post-imperial, stably democratic and modern Russian might truly fit. The sudden collapse of the old empire and of and Moscow's status as a world power has prompted politically minded Russians to actively debate such basic issues as "what is Russia and where is Russia?''

However, many thoughtful Russians do not share the violently anti-NATO perspective propagated in America by various members of the old Soviet foreign policy establishment, and mindlessly echoed by their American supporters. A case in point is the sober and thoughtful analysis contained in the authoritative Russian journal "SShA'' (U.S.A.) written late in 1997 by Yury Davidov of the Russian Federal Academy of Military Sciences. Davidov ridicules "the hysterical propaganda'' that the Kremlin conducted against NATO's expansion.

Davidov writes: "One can feel however one wishes about NATO, the United States and Western Europe, but at the same time one cannot but recognize that in the postwar period through their efforts a broad Euroatlantic zone has been created in the world. States of a liberal-democratic persuasion, its constituent parts, have never waged war against one another and do not intend to in the near future. ... It is in Russia's interest to become an organic part of this zone in one form or another.''

One can only add: It is also in the West's. In brief, NATO's expansion should not be viewed as a defeat for Russia but as a major step toward a truly reconciled Europe.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to President Carter. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.