Friday, 7 January 1994


New Statesman & Society leader, 7 January 1994

It now seems clear that next week's summit of Nato heads of government in Brussels will reject not just Lithuania's much-publicised last-minute plea for membership of the alliance but, more importantly, the idea of immediately expanding the alliance eastwards to incorporate the westernmost former Warsaw Pact countries.

US President Bill Clinton has been persuaded that allowing Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary into the Nato fold at once would send all the wrong signals to the military and the nationalist far right in Russia. The British and French governments have long been implacably opposed to immediate enlargement of Nato – John Major and friends because they fear further dilution of their already weak influence on Nato, and the French because they still harbour dreams of making the European Union the primary basis for a new European security order. So, despite the German government's enthusiasm for bringing its eastern neighbours under Nato's wing, it is almost certain that the summiteers' final communique will agree in principle to expanding the alliance eastwards at some time in the future – but will offer nothing more concrete to the former-communist countries of east-central Europe than the promise of greater co-operation in the so-called Partnership for Peace scheme. Crucially, there will be no mention of dates for east-central European entry into Nato.

In the context of the success of the neo-fascists led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the Russian general election last month, it is perhaps understandable that the west should tread carefully. Russian democracy is extraordinarily fragile, and it is not inconceivable that the far right would attempt to make political capital out of an eastwards expansion of Nato, claiming it as evidence for its claims that Russia is surrounded by enemies. Russian nationalists among the military top brass might even try another coup. Rather than encouraging Russian nationalism, it is important that the west does all it can now to ensure that democracy does prevail in Moscow.

Nevertheless, the east-central Europeans have a right to be disappointed. It is now four years since the collapse of their communist party-states, since when the westernmost former-communist countries have all managed to put functioning (if imperfect) pluralist democratic systems in place. Yet they have been systematically spurned by the west. They have been denied membership of the emerging European Union because of their relative economic underdevelopment and the immaturity of their democracies – a sharp contrast with the treatment of Spain, Greece and Portugal when they applied to join what was then the EEC. And they have been offered only the most meagre guarantees of their security. Nato's refusal of the membership that they so covet is not only a snub but, they believe, a de facto acceptance of the notion, enshrined in the Yalta agreement of 1945, that east-central Europe is a legitimate Russian sphere of influence. From the east-central European point of view, Nato's position, far from discouraging the far right in Russia, is little short of capitulation in advance of its rise to power.

All of this should provoke some serious thinking on the part of the western establishment about the way that it has approached European security since the end of the cold war. For the past four years, the line has been that Nato should remain the basis for security arrangements. No matter that it has proved utterly incapable of formulating anything approaching an adequate response to the Serbian aggression against Bosnia. No matter either that, in terms of military strategy, no one in the bloated Nato hierarchy has been able to come up with a Nato role to replace that of deterring a Soviet sweep across the north German plain. The politicians and generals have passed up no opportunity to tell us that Nato has the capacity to evolve gradually into an alliance covering the whole continent of Europe.

In the past few weeks, however, it has become clear that such thinking is just as wishful as the left said it would turn out to be. The truth is that Nato is obsolete in the post-cold-war world. It cannot form the basis for European security unless it loses nearly all its defining characteristics.

Put simply, if Nato is to become a continent-wide security system, it has to expand east: otherwise, it will continue to exclude more than half the countries in Europe. Yet any expansion east, unless it includes Russia, will inevitably be seen as a threat by Moscow – and for good reason. Nato was set up by the US and Britain, and then run by the US, as an anti-Soviet military alliance. Its entire organisation and military strategy even now are predicated on the continued existence of an enemy (or potential enemy) threatening Europe to the east. And this is precisely why Nato is not prepared to take the leap and invite Russia on board: it cannot believe with certainty that that Moscow will never again turn against the west.

The problem, in short, is that Nato by its very nature preserves the international relations assumptions of the cold war into the post-cold-war period. It deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history along with the tanks, strike aircraft and nuclear missiles that are now universally recognised to be surplus to requirements. In its place, something quite different is needed – a collective security arrangement encompassing all of Europe as well as Russia and the US, guaranteeing all international borders and committed above all to the defence of democracy and human rights. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, for all its failings over former Yugoslavia, remains the best existing organisational basis for such a scheme – but there is no reason for not starting absolutely from scratch. The one thing that is certain is that relying on Nato is a recipe at best for encouraging Russian paranoia.