The Atlantic alliance stands at the threshold of a historic decision to open itself to the new democracies of Eastern Europe. The NATO enlargement debate has focused on the question of which countries should be offered membership in the first round. Yet equally important is how the alliance deals with countries left out in that round -- the so-called have-nots. Those countries have read the writing on the wall, and it makes them uneasy. They are pressing for assurances that the enlargement process will eventually include them. If they feel shut out, a destabilizing backlash could materialize, undercutting support for reform and strengthening nationalist forces within these countries. At the same time, Russia is seeking to keep the door closed. If the enlargement of NATO cannot be stopped, Moscow would like to ensure that the first new members are the last.

Before the alliance can move forward with enlargement, it must formulate a strategy toward the have-nots. This is a true test of NATO's ultimate intentions; if the talk of an open door is to be more than empty rhetoric, such a strategy would make the pledge credible. Since the debate began in 1993, very different views on the scope and pace of enlargement have coexisted within and among NATO members. Although there is a consensus on extending membership to a handful of select countries in the first round, the alliance's enlargement study, completed last year, established some broad guidelines but papered over disagreement on who should be in and how to handle those left out. Now that the process is moving from declarations of intent to action, members must forge a clear policy toward the have-nots if NATO is to achieve its post-Cold War goal of security integration and cooperation in Europe.

NATO'S THREE-WAY DIVIDE

The alliance is split three ways on how far enlargement should go and how to get there. The first group wants an open door policy based on self-differentiation: countries' aspirations and their ability to meet the standards the alliance sets for new members would determine enlargement's extent and pace. Enlargement, proponents of this stance declare, is the cornerstone of a new security architecture in Europe -- one open in principle to all participants in NATO's Partnership for Peace, the U.S.-proposed program of military cooperation that more than two dozen countries, including former Soviet republics and long-neutral European states, have joined since early 1994. NATO, therefore, must not impose its preferences in enlargement, and should refrain from preselecting candidates or denying other countries the right to seek membership. To be sure, one of the hurdles candidates face is obtaining the support of all 16 NATO members in the vote on accession. Nevertheless, the political message is that the door is open -- at least in theory -- to all PFP partners and that it is up to would-be members to establish the speed and extent of their transition to full NATO membership.

This approach is the official policy of the Clinton administration. Washington does not want the benefits of security integration and cooperation limited to a handful of countries. Moreover, it sees self-differentiation as the best way for NATO to avoid an internecine fight over whose favorite candidate makes or misses the short list. The strategy also leaves the door open to both Ukraine and Russia, mitigating their sense of isolation from the West and, the administration hopes, softening Moscow's opposition to enlargement.

Opponents insist that the approach would prevent NATO from keeping the enlargement process consistent with its own priorities. How would the alliance ensure that the right countries got in and the wrong ones didn't? The strategy, critics say, would also raise expectations among aspiring countries that the alliance could not fulfill. Moreover, there is the so-called "numbers problem." Irrespective of the merits of the candidacies of individual countries, NATO could end up enlarging to the point where it became another overlarge, toothless Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

A second approach to enlargement can be termed parallel expansion. It holds that the list of NATO candidates should be the same as the list of current and potential members of the European Union. NATO enlargement, proponents declare, is part of the process of unifying the continent to produce a single Europe "whole and free." Proponents insist that the list of EU candidates covers what the majority of Europeans consider "Europe'' and excludes countries, like Ukraine and Russia, that are not, at least not in the same way, and which they do not want as full members in such core institutions in any case. The approach would not require EU members to join NATO, but current and potential EU members would have a de facto right to seek NATO membership. Having acquiesced to the EU's enlargement, the thinking runs, Moscow will find it more difficult to fight NATO membership for such countries if enlargement is portrayed as the logical extension of European integration led by the EU.

Many in Europe support parallel expansion, including leaders of NATO members, Eastern European countries, and the Baltic states. The approach has been rejected, however, by the United States and some European countries, which do not want to openly exclude states like Ukraine and Russia or fear that the strategy might allow the EU to dictate NATO policy. Finally, parallel expansion, like an open door policy, comes up against the question of how big is too big for NATO. The EU, which is already experiencing decision-making difficulties with increased membership, is eventually expected to include 25 or so countries. Would an alliance that size lose its strategic direction and suffer from the same lack of cohesion the EU now faces?

A third view holds that NATO should limit enlargement to a few countries, based on strategic criteria, and then cap the process. NATO's assessment of its own strategic interests, rather than the broader vision of Europe's future or an EU list, would determine what countries are or are not candidates. Proponents believe in granting membership to only a handful of countries in east-central Europe deemed crucial for geopolitical reasons -- for instance, Poland, the Czech Republic, and perhaps Hungary. Most NATO countries, they insist, do not have vital interests in the Balkans or the Baltic states and should not be expected to offer security guarantees there.

Proponents of capping argue that admitting a few select countries to NATO is worth the risk but that the costs and hazards of further enlargement rise while potential benefits to core Western interests dwindle. Whereas Moscow may acquiesce to a limited enlargement to east-central Europe, they argue, it will regard an open-ended approach as "rolling encirclement," leading to protracted confrontation between Russia and NATO. Capping is thus both the only way to keep from overburdening the alliance with new commitments and destroying its cohesion and the best strategy for minimizing conflict with Russia over enlargement. While no NATO member officially articulates this view, it has considerable support behind the scenes.

Opponents declare that enlargement to only a handful of states would be politically impossible to justify, could destabilize rejected countries, and in moral terms would amount to a "new Yalta." The approach could also divide the alliance as members jockeyed to advance their favorite candidates. Moreover, it would run counter to the rhetoric the alliance has employed up to now when making the case for enlargement.

THE BRIDGE BEFORE ENLARGEMENT

NATO is not going to resolve these differences in the near future. It will have to live with them and try to bridge the divide. The objective must be to achieve convergence on tactics for dealing with the have-nots in the short term while accepting divergence in longer-term strategic views.

One possibility is a tacit alliance between proponents of a cap on enlargement and proponents of an open door based on self-differentiation. While at first glance the two camps appear diametrically opposed, they share a desire not to alienate Russia. Moreover, some who profess support for an open door actually favor a very long pause after the first round of enlargement; for them, the rhetoric of self-differentiation is political cover. Russia may discreetly back this unholy alliance. Some in NATO would see it as an elegant way of sidestepping both a fight with Moscow and internal divisions. While officially open, the door would be closed for the foreseeable future.

Such a disingenuous strategy, however, could result in the worst of both worlds. By raising Eastern Europeans' expectations while offering little if any real prospect of their fulfillment, it would spawn a running guessing game about the alliance's intentions -- hardly a recipe for maintaining either NATO's credibility or regional stability. Unscrupulous powers have misled and lied to Eastern Europeans too often in the region's tumultuous history. As the alliance of Western democracies, NATO must do better.

More constructive is a potential compromise between the proponents of self-differentiation and those supporting parallelism between NATO and EU membership. Those two groups disagree on several key issues, particularly whether the door should be left ajar for Ukraine and Russia, but their lists of future candidates are similar. Moreover, NATO has already acknowledged a loose link between EU and NATO membership, in the 1995 enlargement study. The two schools should thus be able to agree on a common tactical approach.

Two elements could create a narrow band of common ground on which a consensus on enlargement could be built: an "open door" proclamation affirming that the first new NATO members will not be the last, without naming next-round candidates; and a recognition of the self-differentiation that has already taken place among NATO aspirants not included in the first round. The alliance could recognize countries that have formally declared their intention to join the alliance, have achieved real progress in meeting the criteria and goals laid out in the enlargement study, and have sufficiently demonstrated their commitment through participation in the Partnership for Peace. Those countries would be placed in a special category that could be termed "recognized aspirants" -- a category of their own making, not NATO's. The category would remain open to other countries that might, down the road, opt to seek NATO membership by meeting the same standards.

NATO could sign "Atlantic Agreements" with the recognized aspirants to parallel the Euro-Agreements many of them already have with the EU. These agreements would not preselect candidates but would recognize the aspiration to join NATO, the progress made toward membership, and the alliance's willingness to further deepen its cooperation with these countries as it opens its door to other new members. Or the alliance could simply upgrade its dialogue and dealings with the recognized aspirants. Either course would allow for more meaningful consultations between NATO and these countries.

NATO should make its intentions plain, but it should also openly acknowledge that enlargement is a political process with no watertight guarantees. Enlargement will not proceed automatically. It will start with countries for which the consensus for membership is strongest, both within the candidate state and among NATO members. If a country does not have the 16 votes, it will not get in.

The alliance must present a vision for its future, establish steppingstones that are as well-defined and open to scrutiny as possible, and provide tangible cooperation and integration to keep aspiring countries on the right track. The recognized aspirant strategy does just that. It would clear the way for creative diplomacy to begin addressing the political concerns of the have-nots.

EASTERN EUROPEAN FEARS

The primary objective of a NATO strategy toward the have-nots is prevention of a destabilizing backlash in those countries seeking membership but not included in enlargement's first round. What are the potential have-nots worried about? Many of the countries unlikely to be in the first wave of new NATO members are also unlikely to make the first round of EU enlargement, now looking like a longer wait than previously expected -- a double whammy of exclusion. In addition, they fear that the cooperation under the Partnership for Peace process will be weakened when the most active partners join NATO or are placed on a fast track for membership. All the alliance's protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, this development could turn the have-nots into a new buffer zone between East and West. Fears of such an eventuality feed on Moscow's obvious desire to cap enlargement and the knowledge that some in the alliance may not be entirely opposed to the idea.

The risk for the long term is that if NATO does not extend its security umbrella to all of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, the destructive nationalism and geopolitical maneuvering that made the region so unstable in the past could be rekindled. But in the short run the danger is less that the have-nots will be driven to an agonizing reappraisal of their basic strategic choice for the West than that the impetus for reform and integration will simply lose steam. That may well happen if elites and ordinary people in these countries conclude that the chances of joining the West are remote and the sacrifices required too great.

For all those reasons, aspiring countries want the firmest possible promises that the door will remain open and that they will eventually get through it. If they cannot have guarantees, they want explicit signals that will reassure them and their people that they are on the right track and success is only a matter of time and hard work. NATO, however, cannot nonchalantly make such guarantees, nor should it pretend it can. Certain countries' internal problems or location in dangerous neighborhoods make some NATO members nervous, hindering the states' candidacies. The way out is for NATO to provide long-term perspective and for those countries to address their weaknesses and, whenever possible, clean up their regional neighborhoods so as to help overcome Western reticence and contribute to building the Western coalition in support of their eventual membership.

CREATING STRATEGIC HOMES

Defining the future steps in the enlargement process is only part of the answer to the problem of the have-nots. The other key is NATO's reorganization of the Partnership for Peace to expand defense integration and cooperation not only to new members but to countries not included in the first round. Internal reforms at NATO begun after the end of the Cold War have already created the tools for doing so. Changes in defense planning and command structures, along with reforms that allow the alliance to better plan for missions beyond its borders, present new opportunities for countries in the Partnership for Peace to build contacts not only in Brussels but at the regional level. They also allow the countries to participate more fully in preparations for missions beyond NATO's borders even before becoming full members of the alliance.

The alliance must employ these tools to create "strategic homes" in its new post-Cold War structure for Partnership for Peace members. The trend in NATO reform has been to retool the alliance to handle regional crises on and outside its borders, as opposed to deterring a theater-wide Soviet threat. Planners should conceive of NATO enlargement, too, in a regional setting, with three subregions, each calling for a specifically tailored political and military strategy.

Enlargement to east-central Europe involves Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and, potentially, Slovakia or Slovenia. Of the areas NATO is considering, this is the most important strategic neighborhood; alliance members agree that vital interests are at stake there. With the exception of Slovakia, this subregion's countries have all clearly indicated their intent to join NATO, have backed up the commitment in real terms, and suffer from few of the internal weaknesses or regional problems that hamper others' prospects.

Enlargement to northeastern Europe would potentially include the Baltic states and perhaps Finland and Sweden if they eventually sought membership. While Finland and Sweden are solid democracies with modest but modern military capabilities, they are still rethinking their attitude toward the alliance and are likely to sit out the first round of enlargement. Membership for the Baltic states remains controversial.

Enlargement to southeastern Europe would involve Romania and possibly, at some point, Bulgaria. Support for enlargement to that subregion is weakest, given the lack of strong lobbying by major NATO allies, the fact that political and economic reform in Romania and Bulgaria lags behind that in the two other subregions, and many NATO governments' aversion to becoming more deeply involved in the Balkans.

By matching the alliance members most interested in pursuing each of these enlargement components with the appropriate regional command structure and the corresponding Partnership for Peace countries, NATO can construct strategic homes where new members as well as have-nots build a relationship with the alliance. Ideally, potential members would link up with a NATO command that would be their presumed strategic home if and when they joined the alliance. That would allow Partnership for Peace participants to cement ties at the regional level that could further their political case for accession as well as to build military ties with allies that would presumably play a key role in carrying out new security commitments if and when such commitments are extended.

Such thinking is beginning to be applied in northeastern Europe. NATO members such as Denmark and Germany have, with U.S. support, started to build various forms of regional military cooperation bringing together Poland, which is likely to become a new NATO member; the Baltic states, which eagerly seek membership but whose prospects remain uncertain; and such former neutrals as Finland and Sweden, while leaving room for Russia to join in such cooperation if it chooses. This is a very specific example of NATO managing a strategy on the have-nots issue while keeping the enlargement door open. It creates a strategic home through a new regional command for northeastern Europe where countries would fit in if and when they acceded to the alliance. This command would be responsible for security in the region as a whole, not only at NATO's borders. Now the alliance needs to think about how to implement this model and apply it to the enlargement process on a broader scale. NATO must also increasingly involve have-nots in preparations for new missions, which are likely to be central to the alliance's future.

None of this would supplant NATO efforts run from Brussels or Mons. In addition, Partnership for Peace countries not currently seeking NATO membership, above all Ukraine and Russia, would have the opportunity to define their evolving relationship with NATO not only through traditional structures but also through NATO's decentralized, regionally focused command structure.

A FINE LINE

Recent statements by Russian officials suggest that Moscow may have accepted the idea that Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic will enter NATO. However, as the alliance moves closer to naming names, Russia is likely to attempt to prevent a second round of enlargement. Thus both the have-nots and Moscow will try, in their different ways, to force NATO's hand and win the assurances they seek. The alliance must have its priorities straight, and stick to them.

In doing so, it will have to walk a fine line between keeping open the possibility of further enlargement and addressing legitimate Russian security concerns. The way to accommodate Russia is not for NATO to undercut its principles and offer to compromise on who is in and who is not. Instead, NATO must go the extra mile and offer Russia its own, more attractive relationship with the alliance.

The compromise strategy suggested in this article provides a way to manage the dilemma without ceding to Russia a real or shadow veto over enlargement. It meets the minimum demand of the have-nots -- an open door plus some form of differentiation from Russia and other countries that do not aspire to NATO membership -- while not discriminating down the line against current non-aspirants. Overall, it lends credibility to the West's open door policy.

As action on enlargement draws near, NATO must lay out a vision for its new security structure in Europe, establish clear steps toward that goal, and reassure countries that may feel threatened or abandoned by the process, while retaining needed flexibility for the alliance. The solution recommended here does all that.

Developing a strategy toward the have-nots is far from a side issue in the NATO enlargement debate; it is front and center. Over the next few years there will be no more visible barometer of the alliance's true priorities and leadership -- or lack thereof.

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