1. Archive

White lies are at heart of NATO expansion

So it's all okay now?

That's the word from the Clinton folks. They got the mood music they were looking for in Helsinki: The Russians will complain about NATO expansion, but Boris Yeltsin will accept the goodies the United States offered him to tolerate NATO's moving closer to Russia's border.

Therefore, we will have the best of all worlds: NATO expansion to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, vague assurances to the Balts and others left out that they can join later and even some progress on arms control thrown in to boot. As one U.S. official quipped to me, referring to my own criticism of NATO expansion: "When do we get to see the headline "Clinton Right on NATO Expansion, Critics All Wrong'?"

Not yet.

To be fair, if Clinton is able to achieve this best-of-all-worlds scenario, it would indeed merit real praise. My priority is that the arms control treaties with Russia be implemented and the reform process there be enhanced. That is what would really secure European stability. If the administration can deliver both, while also pursuing its dubious, politically inspired NATO expansion scheme, then it would be churlish to oppose this Helsinki package.

But we are a long way from drawing that conclusion. To begin with, many of the key issues involving NATO expansion remain unresolved: What will happen to all the countries, particularly the Balts, that don't get into NATO now? How will the U.S. Congress react when it discovers that Clinton's Helsinki package comes with a price tag of at least $40-billion, and a U.S. military commitment to defend the Polish border? How will the Russian parliament react to this deal?

But beyond these unanswered questions, I remain a skeptic because this Helsinki "success" is based on two white lies. The first is that while the Russians don't like NATO expansion, they've decided to make the best of it. In truth, that is not what Helsinki demonstrates. What it shows is that "Russia has concluded it is simply too weak to stop expansion," notes Johns Hopkins University foreign policy specialist Michael Mandelbaum, a leading critic of NATO expansion.

And the problem with expanding NATO on such terms, Mandelbaum argues, is that up to now "the entire post-Cold-War security structure in Europe, whether the unification of Germany or the conventional and nuclear arms control treaties, has been based on Russian consent. NATO expansion will be a departure from that. After NATO expands, the new European order will rest not on Russian consent, but on Russian weakness."

In other words, what Helsinki proves is that we won the Cold War. But we knew that. The question is, are we making the most of it? Should NATO expansion be a priority, even if it weakens Yeltsin or diminishes Russian cooperation elsewhere, such as against Iran?

The other white lie is the Clinton argument that expanding NATO will stabilize democratic reform in Central Europe and be good for Russia, because NATO has changed and Russia has changed. In truth, the way to strengthen free-market democracy in Central Europe is by bringing these nations into the EU common market, not by giving them NATO nukes.

But more important, the very reason Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic want to join NATO is that they think NATO has not changed _ that it is still an anti-Russian alliance _ and because they feel that Russia has not changed _ that it is still the Soviet Union. (Never mind that Russia now has a cabinet led by economic reformers more progressive than half the nations now trying to join NATO.)

What Clinton said to Yeltsin in Helsinki was: We will pay you to pretend that NATO expansion is something other than what it is. We will pay you to forget that NATO is expanding because you're weak and because we still see you as the main threat to European stability, not as an equal member of the club. For now, Yeltsin is willing to be bought because he has no choice. But we should have no illusions: Clinton's "New Europe" is being built on white lies.

Mamma always said: When you don't call things by their real name, you get in trouble. That's what's going on here. I don't know when or where, but this sort of diplomacy will lead to trouble. So pardon me for sticking with the headline: "Clinton Still Wrong on NATO Expansion, Critics Still Right."

New York Times News Service