Learning from past experience of admitting new members into NATO

Now that NATO is about to negotiate new protocols of accession, it is important to consider what should be the content of those protocols. For this, the experience of past accessions provide invaluable lessons which have not yet been assimilated.

The protocols of the past have been brief, almost pro forma; their substance has rarely gone beyond the extension of the Article 5 geographical area. Such brevity may not be appropriate in the present and future. Substantive protocols may be more fitting for a new expansion whose purposes are more political, and whose dangers include overcommitting NATO to ethnic and border disputes, underempowering NATO for resolving those disputes, and overloading NATO with unit vetoes.

There is a wealth of experience to learn from past cases of expansion of NATO membership. There are also misleading analogies to be avoided. In the past, criteria for admission have sometimes been applied, sometimes not. When applied, they have been treated as matters to be completed prior to accession, ignored in the protocols, and so in effect forgotten. This is not appropriate for the future, when societies are making transitions from a depth of non-Western structure that it will require decades to overcome completely. Accession of these societies requires inclusion in the protocols of provisions for managing relevant problems.

The need for a comprehensive review; avoiding the wrong lessons

The experience of the admission of Spain is often cited in NATO debates as an argument for laying down a number of rigid criteria for admission of new members in the East. However, it would be wiser to look at all past cases of membership in NATO.

Two quotations are pertinent on this:

"[For] establishment of criteria for the eastward expansion of NATO ... the criteria applied to Spanish membership would be useful to study... The addition of Spain as a NATO partner in 1981 was viewed by many as something more than just another security arrangement. It signalled the acceptance of Spain, after decades of dictatorship, into the union of democratic and civil governments that had formed in Western Europe since the end of World War II."

-- "The United States, NATO and Security Relations with Central and Eastern Europe," Atlantic Council of the United States, Policy Paper, September 1993 (Raoul Henri Alcalà, Rapporteur), p. 24

"With respect to establishing criteria for admission, NATO should review the experience and conditions that led to admission of each member nation, from the earliest days of NATO to the present, and not concentrate solely on the relatively recent admission of Spain..."

-- Gen. William Y. Smith (former Chief of Staff of SHAPE and Director of Policy Plans and National Security in the office of the Secretary of Defense), comment in Ibid., p. 32

Here we have what became the dominant and dissenting views. The preparations for expansion came to take a course of an emphasis on prior fulfillment of criteria for accession. Whatever its uses as a prod for countries in a sort of "beauty contest," this was never entirely logical, and is no longer appropriate now when it comes time to prepare the actual protocols of accession.

The Spanish case is misleading, because it had peculiar features which are not applicable to the former East today:

1) It was handled during the cold war, at a time when NATO was facing intense political opposition in Western Europe and was constantly and bitterly being accused of rightism, militarism and warmongering.

2) NATO would have suffered political de-legitimation if it had admitted a Spain that still could be depicted as fascist, militarist or Francoist. The criteria had to be rigid for this public relations reason, irrespective of all other considerations.

3) The objective need for Spanish membership in NATO was not so intense or immediate. The cold war was still on, and was in its later years, with its "freezing of history" and its "era of stagnation." Iberia was a relatively safe corner of Europe. Admission could be delayed without much danger.

Other cases of NATO expansion are much more pertinent. Let us consider what can be learned from a few of them.

Four cases and their very specific lessons for new accessions

(1) Italy, 1949. The invitation for Italy to join the initial group of NATO members was controversial among the original core group of negotiators. Italy was not an Atlantic seaboard country. Its democracy and its market economy were of questionable quality. But it was decided that it was strategically safer to include it than to exclude it. This proved a sound judgment politically as well: it helped to consolidate the orientation of Italy toward the West, to "Atlanticize" the country, and to lay foundations for stabilization, economic growth, and reform. Even today, turmoil in Italy indicates that the country still has a way to go, but makes it all the more impressive how far it has come. Italy did not de-Atlanticized NATO; rather, NATO Atlanticized Italy.

Lesson. Today, the Eastern countries, like Italy, are not "Atlantic" geographically. But, like postwar Italy, they are almost all "Atlanticist" spiritually; that is, they are oriented toward the civilization that grew out of the Enlightenment on the two sides of the Atlantic, and are in process of assimilating to its norms. The lesson of Italy is that exclusivity is not necessarily needed to preserve the Atlantic culture; inclusivity can often better protect that culture, by expanding it.

(2) Portugal, 1949. Portugal was not democratic at all when it was included in NATO from the start. It was not even required to commit itself to a schedule of democratization. It was enough that it was willing to sign on to the project of the defense of the Western democracies, including Article 2 of the NATO Treaty with its commitment to democratic values, and thus to renounce any ideological cold war against democracy. It was judged on this basis to be safer for the strategic needs of Western democracy to include Portugal than to exclude it. This proved true not only strategically but politically: the "anchoring" of Portugal in NATO was one of the factors that led it, after the collapse of the dictatorship, to settle into a democratic path in the 1970s.

Today, virtually all of the ex-Communist countries are better qualified than the Portugal of 1949 in terms of democratic practices. They are also better qualified in terms of commitments to further democratization.

However, Portugal was just a single small state within an otherwise-democratic alliance in 1949, with an important strategic location, and was brought in under urgent cold war conditions. These conditions do not apply to the Eastern countries today.

Lesson. Possibly it would have been better to have created from the start a category of "associate member" for undemocratic Portugal. But this wasn't done in the initial period of the formation of NATO. The main lines of the alliance had to be laid down and brought forcefully into being. The mission was simpler then, and complications of structure were avoided. Today it can be done.

Today an "associate membership" would make good sense for comparable cases of regimes with a pro-Atlantic-democracies strategic orientation but without democracy. A requirement might be added that the associate members present a schedule for democratization.

Paul Goble has pointed out that there are paradoxes of reform in former Communist states, especially in Russia, where the imperatives of democratizing reforms may entail strong executive leadership at the expense of the anti-democratic majority in the Duma, leading to an executive regime oriented toward democracy rather than a functioning democracy. In such an event, few things could be more important than preserving the pro-democratic orientation of the regime. In the absence of adequate internal anchors, the most effective anchor might be an external one, such as "associate membership" in NATO with a schedule for democratization.

(3) Greece and Turkey, 1951. These two rival countries were admitted simultaneously into NATO. They were the first "new members" of NATO after 1949. In a simple "Protocol to the North Atlantic Treaty on the accession of Greece and Turkey," the geographical reach of the Treaty was redefined to include the new members. The Protocol had to be accepted by each of the existing members, after which Greece and Turkey were formally invited to accede to th Treaty as modified by the Protocol. The preamble to the Protocol stated accurately the only legal criterion for membership: "Being satisfied that the security of the North Atlantic area will be enhanced by the accession of the Kingdom of Greece and the Republic of Turkey..."


(a) Greece and Turkey met basic democratic standards in 1951, to a degree perhaps like most of the Eastern countries today. They continued to do so for some years after. Nevertheless, in later decades, they both lapsed seriously from democracy. This shows that the meeting of a democratic standard, even if prolonged for more than a decade, is no guarantee of perpetual democracy. This helps us understand the issue in the case of the Easterners today: the point is not to wait until it becomes possible to imagine that their democracy is "irreversible" (a standard that has often been proclaimed in the post-1989 discussion of membership criteria), but to be prepared to manage the likely contingency that reversals will occur.

Even during the worst periods of dictatorship, both Greece and Turkey kept a pro-Western democratic orientation, and so met the base-line standard for being allies. Expulsion from the alliance would have been a self-defeating response to their relapse; inclusion in the alliance continued to anchor them to a Western democratic perspective and to keep them en route to redemocratization. It would have been good for NATO if it could have demoted them to being "associate members" pending redemocratization. But no category of "associate member" was in existence, and none was invented at that time. NATO went on, embarrassed but not severely damaged by the lapses from democracy.

In the future, in the cases of the Eastern countries, the lapses could be much more damaging. It will be much more important to have an option of shuffling lapsed democracies down into a category of "associate member."

The process of admitting the Easterners is almost ideally made for inventing a category of "associate member," whether as a transitional stage or as a home for those countries which genuinely do not yet met base-line democratic standards. Unfortunately NATO's rhetorical planning for enlargement has made it harder to do this: instead of preparing the ground for flexible transitions in and out of full membership in the case of lapses, membership has been treated as an irreversible certification of good democratic housekeeping. The rhetorical emphasis has been on how all new members must have all the same rights and responsibilities as old members have hitherto had, instead of on how both new and old members should be manageable by the alliance in a more flexible way than in the past. While this rhetoric was not intended to deal with the issue of what to do in cases of lapses from democracy -- it has been directed against other proposals for limiting NATO's ability to act in the new member areas -- the absolutist language takes its toll on the ability to prepare for this problem.

Nevertheless, it would not be difficult for this to be dealt with in a brief paragraph written into the protocols of accession that are to be negotiated with each new member. The protocols might provide that:

The NATO Council has the authority to demote the entering country to associate member status, or suspend it, if it lapses from alliance standards; and conversely, to restore it to full membership.

(b) NATO is justly proud of its role in dampening the conflict between Greece and Turkey. Without their membership in NATO, the conflict over Cyprus and other islands would almost certainly have been much worse. However, NATO was clearly not successful in preventing armed conflict altogether between Greece and Turkey. When the two countries were admitted in 1951, this was not the main concern: it was defense against Russia that was the main concern. Devices that might have helped -- and that would be appropriate in the Eastern countries today, where internecine conflict is the main concern -- include:

* settlement of the worst outstanding disputes prior to or simultaneous with accession, with a NATO guarantee of the settlement;

* commitments to peaceful processes for resolution of further disputes; and

* acceptance of binding NATO mediation of these commitments.

These commitments would need to be written into the protocols of accession in order to empower the alliance to manage the problems and protect the alliance against damage from the problems.

(c) Decision-making in NATO has been damaged by the inclusion of Greece and Turkey. Often NATO decisions are held up by one or the other country. Greece or Turkey does this by denying consent to decisions and threatening to veto them. (There is no legal right of veto in NATO, but such a right is often asserted in NATO rhetoric. In practice, an informal privilege of veto has usually been extended by the members of the North Atlantic Council to one another.) The veto threat is in most cases made, not because of the country's interest in a particular decision, but as a form of blackmail -- to try to extort some other concession from NATO, usually concerning its quarrel with the other neighbor. Due to these antics, even the budget of NATO has sometimes failed to be properly decided, and has had to be carried over by the equivalent of the "continuing resolutions" which the U.S. Congress passes when it isn't able to reach agreement with itself or with the President.

This shows the danger of bringing quarreling countries into NATO and allowing them a veto, even if only informally or illicitly as is done on the North Atlantic Council. No meeting of standards in advance can suffice to eliminate the danger, which can recur in any year or decade in the future. With a number of new member countries in the former East, establishment of a veto-free decision-making process will be essential for NATO.

This needs to be written into the protocols of accession that are to be negotiated with each new member. At maximum, the protocols could provide for a voting procedure in NATO, implying the end for all members of NATO of the old informal privilege of the unit-veto. At minimum, the protocols could provide for the entering countries to renounce the veto. (This would leave it to the Council to arrive at an implementing procedure, which might consist of weighting the countries and taking straw votes. The old members might still keep for a while an informal privilege of veto, but this would probably be more and more frowned upon, restricted by requirements such as giving serious justification, and might ultimately be phased out if voting works well.) This could be done with such simple language as:

The entering country cannot veto decisions in the North Atlantic Council, and cannot veto further new memberships.

Without this legal renunciation of the veto, new members would be bound to end up using and abusing the veto. This is true no matter how well-behaved they may be in the period when they are preening themselves for membership. Later, they will face routine political pressures from domestic interest groups. These groups will demand that they use their veto. If Hungary is a NATO member with veto powers while Slovakia and Romania are not, it will use its veto to get support for the Hungarian minorities in Slovakia and Romania; the pressures from nationalists at home and ethnic Hungarians abroad would be irresistible. If all three countries become members-with-veto, they will all abuse the veto in order to try to bend NATO policy to their side, the way Greece and Turkey already do.

(4) Germany, 1954. A Protocol to the NATO Treaty was used, with the same procedures as in the case of Greece and Turkey.

(a) Before joining, Germany had first to make a declaration in which (as noted in the Protocol of accession), it had accepted the obligations of Article 2 of the UN Charter and had "undertaken upon its accession to the North Atlantic Treaty to refrain from any action inconsistent with the strictly defense character of that Treaty..." This provides a model of the membership commitments that will be needed in the case of the Eastern countries, although perhaps too simple a model. The future commitments may have to be more elaborate. In some instances a commitment to abide by NATO arbitration will be needed, and serious lapses from the commitments should set into motion an expeditious process of demotion to "associate membership."

(b) Germany actually made many more detailed commitments for its own restraint, but they were made through side-agreements, side-declarations, and through the WEU. NATO membership was in practice tied to these commitments, without the commitments formally appearing in the NATO protocol. The NATO emphasis was thus kept on being an alliance against an external power. It may be advisable in the future for the commitments to be explicitly a part of NATO; this would be natural in light of the increasing emphasis on collective security functions, and it would also reassure current members about the conditionality of their Article 5 commitment in cases of quarrels started by new members.

(c) France was bitterly opposed to letting Germany, the former enemy, become a member of NATO -- and a heavily armed member at that. It conceded the point only in face of strong persuasive pressures from America. Nevertheless, in the decades since 1954, France has slept much more soundly thanks to the fact that the German army has been a part of NATO. If Germany had not been allowed into NATO, it would have eventually redeveloped a national military identity in any case, but that identity would have been separate from the West and would have been linked to dangerous neo-romantic themes of Mitteleuropa.

This provides a model for thinking about the resistance that will occur to membership for those Eastern countries which are still viewed as a potential threat, notably Russia. If we were to wait until after they cease to be perceived as a potential threat, we would have to wait forever and in fact would force them back into the role of an adversary and potential threat. However, if we proceed bravely and draw them into NATO despite the fears, we can thereby make them less threatening in reality and gradually overcome the fears. And to do this, strong persuasive pressures (or "American leadership") will have to be exercised against those allies which lack the size or vision to be able to imagine incorporation of the former enemy into the alliance.

To be sure, Russia will be different from Germany. Its army, which has not been defeated militarily by the West, cannot be expected to accept the degree of near-total subordination to the NATO Command which the German army has accepted. Germany had no pretensions to a great power role after 1945, it accepted the Atlanticist perspective unconditionally, and it needed to rehabilitate itself internationally; so it was not feared that it might use or abuse a power of veto in NATO, as it is feared today of Russia.

Nevertheless, participation in NATO can make Russia significantly less threatening to its neighbors than exclusion. In the case of Russia, as in the case of Germany, the devil is in the details of how it is included -- with what form and degree of integration, with what form of decision-making and what way of avoiding dangerous vetoes, with what commitments, and with what reservations on either or both sides. Done wrongly, it could indeed fail to contribute to Western security. But done rightly, it could contribute as greatly to Western security as has the inclusion of Germany.

What can be learned from the EU's experience with expansion

The EU has also had considerable experience with expansion. Since the EU and NATO are the two essential institutions of the Euro-Atlantic community, it is important to look at its lessons.

Neil Datta has done a remarkable study on the several enlargements of the EC/EU and its learning curve on how to do it. The debate on the relation between "widening and deepening" (enlargement of membership, and internal reform so as to be able to meet original intentions even with a wider membership) has been much more serious in the EC than in NATO. In fact, the debate has gone on almost without interruption ever since 1960s, since enlargement has always been on the EC's idealistic agenda; the debate has only crested in the actual enlargement periods. With every new enlargement, the debate has been more sophisticated, and by and large, the methods of managing the enlargement have grown more effective.

Bad mistakes were made in the first enlargement, to Britain and several smaller countries. There was a reliance on technocratic deepening and enhancement of the roles of the unreformed Council. The result was a constipation of decision-making in the early 1980s. It was learned from this experience that the only form of deepening that really helps with widening is the streamlining of decision-making -- i.e. more use of majority voting -- although other forms of deepening may also be needed alongside majority voting.

The next enlargement, to Spain and Portugal, was accompanied by the Single European Act which provided for the end of the unit-veto and the use of 2/3 weighted voting for a wide range of economic decisions. This got the EC out of its constipation and into a renewed phase of integration -- one which, incidentally, helped motivated the eastern countries to make their turn away from Communism in the hope of getting into the European integration process while there was still time.

For the post-1989 enlargement needs, the EC negotiated the Maasttrict Treaty of Union. This included a limited further extension of voting in place of vetoing, and a major technocratic commitment to a common currency. Among the major EC powers, only Germany represented the interest of the Easterners in widening, and in such deepening as is relevant to broadening (i.e. voting instead of vetoing across the board, including in foreign policy matters, and with democratic legitimation through a greater role for the European Parliament). France preferred tecnocratic deepening (a common currency). Britain, which posed as a champion of widening and of the Easterners, opposed all forms of deepening, especially those which Germany favored and which the Easterners needed. Both France and Britain succeeded in framing the debate negativistically in terms of "widening versus deepening." This led to a less-than-optimal result at Maastricht: Germany, which still had to rehabilitate itself as a good cooperative European power, caved in and lost on almost every count, France got its common currency commitment, and Britain got an opt-out. EC enlargement was delayed by a number of years, since the reforms relevant to enlargement were not carried out; they were relegated for discussion in a 1996-7 Intergovernmental Conference -- long after the wave of enthusiasm for the revolutions of 1989 had subsided, and with it, the spirit of taking action commensurate with the scale of changes, dangers and opportunities.

The underlying source of the EC's mistake was that it carried out its debate on internal adaptation on the new era as a purely intra-EC negotiation, rather than including the Easterners in the negotiation in some organic fashion. So the EC countries got caught up in their own interests and their old debates and agendas, and were unable to focus sufficiently on the needs of the new era and the aspirant member countries. Hänsch Resolution of European Parliament proposed to correct this error in the future, by associating the prospective new members in the 1996-1997 round of IGC negotiations on restructuring the EC/EU. The governments did not implement this proposal, which is one of the reasons why the IGC was in the end distracted by the problems of the common currency and failed to arrive at adequate reforms. The political reforms were once again relegated to the next round of negotiations, putatively to take place simultaneously with accession applications and negotiations. This may finally provide the requisite impetus for reform; it will be too late if it does not.

If NATO is to avoid the same mistakes, it will have to draw more accurate lessons than has hitherto been done from its own past experience and from the experience of the EU about the importance of voting; it will have to associate the Easterners -- all of the relevant Easterners -- closely in the intra-NATO debates on widening NATO; it will have to associate the Easterners closely also in the intra-NATO debates on restructuring NATO internally; and it will have to avoid the temptation of dividing these into rigidly separate stages. It is tempting to say that "deepening" must completely precede "widening" or that NATO must "first" decide on its new missions before it takes up the question of new members. It would be NATO's right (in the legal sense) to do this, but it is not the right thing (practically) to do. Dividing the issues may seem to simplify the issues and make it easier to think about them, but in fact it renders them more muddled. Neither of them can be properly thought about separate from the other, and neither can be adequately settled without the pressures and corrections from the other.