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The Real Problem With NATO Expansion

Every new member gets a veto over alliance decisions. Are the Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians up to that?

One would think NATO would be celebrating. It won the cold war, and now it's inviting Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary to join. But NATO is badly divided. President Clinton is laying down the law. He is casting a veto against the majority in NATO, which wants still more new members.

Sandy Berger, the national security adviser, explained on July 2 that the reason for keeping out any more countries is because "there's no exit door from NATO." Once they're in, we're stuck with them, no matter how much trouble they make. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott inadvertently added the reason why they would be able to make trouble: because decisions in NATO aren't made by a majority vote but by "consensus."

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That was a polite way of saying that the US was vetoing the majority - something that has already brought a lot of resentment. "Blackmail" and "the tyranny of the minority" are other descriptions that have been used for the veto procedure. It is easy to see the dangers of giving this power of veto to an unreliable country. Thus it follows that only the reliable ones can be let into NATO - although there is the slight logical problem that all countries are inherently unreliable and susceptible to abusing the veto.

Legally, it is not true that there is a right of veto in NATO. But, in practice, members are allowed the privilege of vetoing NATO decisions. And Mr. Berger is right that there is no way to expel a member. Even if a country falls under a dictatorship - as Greece and Turkey have at times - it remains a full member, with full privileges of vetoing NATO decisions and throwing monkey wrenches into the works.

Each new member means a new veto, making it harder for NATO to reach decisions. This turns the plan to expand NATO into a plan to ruin NATO. Secretary of Defense William Cohen may go on giving emphatic assurances that the new members will strengthen NATO because they have been carefully selected, but in practice they cannot help but weaken NATO.

Not their fault

This is not the fault of the Eastern Europeans. It was not their choice. They wanted to join a strong NATO and get integrated deeply into the West. Some of them actually proposed that NATO start using a voting procedure so there would be no problem. But NATO rebuffed them, and, as supplicants to enter the club, they were in no position to argue back.

Now, instead of adjusting its own procedures, NATO is projecting the entire burden of adjustment on the Eastern Europeans. It is asking them to prove themselves so reliable that they can safely be given a veto and let in the one-way door. The result is to set unrealistically high standards of reliability and then fudge the standards nervously.

This is why we see such a rigid method of expansion. It is divisive and demoralizing. The Eastern Europeans are kept on hold for years and put through a sort of "beauty contest." Existing members fight over whom they want in and whom it's safe to let in. The stakes of the fight are raised a thousandfold by the veto power and the one-way door. It is feared that what is being decided today is being decided forever - that if a country is let in before it proves itself reliable enough, it could ruin the alliance. On the other hand, if it isn't let in now it might never get in. This sharpens all differences. Threats of vetoes fly in all directions. Arm twisting replaces deliberation.

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A veto invites blackmail. None of the prospective members are reliable enough to be entrusted with that. They won't be for decades to come. Their problems run too deep, and so do their historical disputes with one another and with Russia. They would face irresistible domestic pressures to use their vetoes in NATO to settle scores. Greece and Turkey have already shown how to do this, causing tremendous damage to NATO. Even NATO budgets get vetoed. There are already too many vetoes in NATO. The alliance cannot afford more. The whole veto business needs to be moved away from, not extended.

Remember all the warnings about how it's bad to give Russia any kind of voice because that might be a bit like a veto? But now it is real vetoes that are going to be spread around with scarcely a moment's concern. And the vetoes are going to be given not to just one new member but to three of them. And even more in the next round. And not just for now, but forever, without any exit door.

Creating an exit

But there could be an exit door. There could be procedures for dealing with problem members and limiting the damage they can do. What is needed is to write such procedures into the protocols of accession that are about to be negotiated with each new member. The protocols might provide that:

* The NATO Council can 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.

* The entering country cannot veto decisions in the NATO Council, and cannot veto further new memberships.

The rule for new members should be the democratic right of the vote, not the aristocratic privilege of the veto. Later, the old members might also be brought into line with democratic rules. Meanwhile, an anti-veto protocol is the only way to make it possible to bring in all aspiring new members and avoid destroying NATO at the same time.

* Ira Straus is US coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO.

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