Europe's Eastern Promise

Rethinking NATO and EU Enlargement

Courtesy Reuters

In the early 1990s, after the Iron Curtain lifted, Western leaders seized a historic opportunity to open the doors of NATO and the European Union (EU) to postcommunist central and eastern Europe. By consolidating democracy and ensuring stability from the Baltics to the Black Sea, they redrew the map of Europe. As a result, the continent today is more peaceful, democratic, and free.

This accomplishment was the result of a common U.S.-European grand strategy that was controversial and fiercely debated at the time. The goal was to build a post-Cold War Europe "whole, free, and at peace"; to renew the transatlantic alliance; and to reposition the United States and Europe to address new global challenges. But as successful as the strategy of enlargement has been, the world has changed dramatically since it was forged. The United States and Europe face new risks and opportunities on Europe's periphery and need to recast their strategic thinking accordingly for a new era.

Current policy toward Europe's periphery is increasingly out of date, for three reasons. First, the West has changed. The 9/11 attacks pulled U.S. attention and resources away from Europe and toward the Middle East. The reservoir of transatlantic goodwill and political capital accumulated during the 1990s has evaporated in the sands of Iraq. In Europe, enlargement fatigue has set in thanks to stumbling institutional reforms and the mounting expense of integrating new EU members. It was widely assumed that the western Balkan states (Albania and the former Yugoslav republics) would all eventually join the EU and NATO, but even that can no longer be taken for granted. Turkey's chances of gaining EU membership are fading. Indeed, the window of opportunity to expand the democratic world that opened with the end of the Cold War is now at risk of closing.

Second, the East has changed. The challenge of the 1990s was to consolidate democracy in central and eastern Europe along a north-south axis from the Baltics to the Black Sea.

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