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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When NATO Backfires

The U.S. Senate finally made irreversible a provocative move that jeopardizes Russia's rapprochement with the West.

At the end of April, the U.S. Senate approved the inclusion of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in NATO. In ratifying NATO enlargement, the institution charged by the founding fathers to provide prudential oversight of U.S. foreign relations gave its blessing to what many of the country's pre-eminent strategists consider an act of folly.

What went wrong? Democracies are supposedly more peaceful than other states because public deliberation exposes bad ideas and produces moderate, centrist policies. But the Senate made irreversible a provocative move that jeopardizes Russia's rapprochement with the West and saddles America with unnecessary defense commitments. Why has the country's repository of political wisdom and restraint failed to fulfill its charge?

Domestic politics are a big part of the explanation. Voters of Central European extraction have, since 1993, been pushing for the inclusion of their motherlands in NATO. And they happen to be concentrated in such must-win states as New York, Michigan and Ohio. The arms industry, eyeing a lucrative market in Central Europe, also helped build domestic support by spending millions on lobbying and political contributions.

But more worrisome in the long run is the haphazard and irresponsible manner in which the Senate handled the issue, effectively ignoring it until last month. Whether because of the country's current bounty or simple lack of interest, the Senate has squandered precious commodities: U.S. power and purpose. The costs are not just to the U.S. taxpayer. If U.S. foreign policy loses its prudent character, countries that now trust the United States and follow its lead will come to question American intentions and take their own paths. A wayward America risks undermining the cooperative and stable order it has worked so hard to put into place.

A small group of enthusiasts brought NATO enlargement to life during the first Clinton administration. Anthony Lake, national security adviser during the first term, led the charge and ensured that Clinton was on board. With the help of a few other supporters -- Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and then Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke among them -- Lake deftly outmaneuvered the strong opposition in the Pentagon and State Department.

After Clinton decided in 1994 to go ahead with enlargement, a chorus of diplomatic historians and foreign-policy experts from across the political spectrum joined forces to oppose NATO enlargement. George Kennan, the father of containment during the Cold War, spoke for many of his colleagues when he called enlargement the most fateful error of U.S. policy in the entire post-Cold War era.

Such staunch opposition stems from the simple assessment that costs far outweigh benefits. Yes, Poles, Hungarians and Czechs will sleep better knowing that NATO members are bound by treaty to defend them. But these countries face no external threat today. Indeed, the main hurdles they face are economic. By forcing new members to spend scarce resources on weapons they do not need, NATO only worsens their fiscal plight.

Even if NATO enlargement was important to Central Europe's stability, the benefits would still fall well below the main cost: jeopardizing the West's relations with Russia. Having had a bigger NATO forced on him, President Boris Yeltsin has had no choice but to indicate that he can live with it. But excluding Russia from Europe's emerging security structure violates a key lesson of history: the need to embrace defeated adversaries.

After 1945, a defeated Japan and Germany were incorporated into the West. That is one reason both countries are now stable democracies. In contrast, the Versailles Treaty after World War I imposed a punitive peace on Germany, engendering resentment and economic hardship that contributed to the rise of Nazism. Russia will again become one of Europe's great powers. Its exclusion and alienation makes no strategic sense.

Enlargement also breeds a host of new problems. The Baltics, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia are now also hoping to be in the next wave of enlargement. But are Americans prepared to keep pledging their lives to defend countries they could not find on a map? Who will pay for successive waves of enlargement? Is Russia supposed to stand by as every country on its western flank joins an opposing military bloc? There are no good answers.

Had it pushed harder, the Senate would have found the administration's rationale for enlargement riddled with inconsistencies. For example, Clinton claimed to be "erasing Europe's dividing lines," but enlargement does just the opposite. NATO membership is supposed to dampen arms races in Central Europe, but prospective members are jacking up military budgets to meet NATO standards.

Lack of interest also played a role. Without the Soviet Union, foreign policy no longer draws a captive audience. The administration launched a major campaign to sell enlargement, but most Americans were not listening. After four years of presidential speeches and summit meetings, only 10 percent of the public could name even one of the three countries about to be granted a U.S. nuclear guarantee. Americans and their elected representatives are not growing isolationist, they just don't care.

The absence of a more searching Senate debate was by design. The conservative branch of the bigger-NATO coalition views enlargement as a military instrument for redividing Europe and keeping the Russians permanently out. The liberal branch is using NATO as a political tool for building a united Europe, one that might include Russia. Exposing these different objectives would have imperiled that coalition. So much for the marketplace of ideas.

Bouts of excess, such as NATO enlargement, are destined to give U.S. power a different character. Worried that caution and benign intent no longer inform U.S. policy, opposing coalitions will form to restrain America. Today's comfortable unipolarity may soon give way to a competitive multipolarity.

Charles Kupchan is a professor of international relations at Georgetown University. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.