It is not enough to call the offer of NATO membership to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland the first step taken by the US to reorder a Western world torn asunder first by world war and later by cold war. It is not enough to argue that Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians deserve a place in the alliance, because they were abandoned behind the Iron Curtain until 1989, and have built market democracies since.
From the American point of view, the only argument for NATO enlargement is the national interest of the US. NATO enlargement meets this test because it strengthens the institutions that keep the Western world peaceful and prosperous.
Russia's reaction has been presented as an argument against enlargement. Yet there is no evidence that NATO enlargement is bringing hardliners to power in Moscow. Since polls show that Russians are indifferent to the issue, it is inconceivable that anti-NATO sentiment will turn the tide against Russia's reformers.
As to Russian elites, NATO enlargement is already having a salutary effect. By not expanding until now, we taught Russian imperialists they have a veto over US foreign policy. By enlarging NATO, we make it hard for imperialists to claim Russia is still a superpower. So Russia is more apt to tend to its own affairs, and less likely to meddle in those of its neighbors. Two recent examples make this clear. Russia and Ukraine just signed an economic agreement revealing that Russia has at last begun to see Ukraine as a sovereign state. In March, the Polish foreign minister, while in Moscow, found acceptance of Poland's choice to join NATO.
These steps taken as the Senate debates ratification of NATO enlargement, are hardly the growls of an angry bear. Moscow now treats its neighbors with more respect. This is in everyone's interest. Russia's major problems are domestic, and reforms can only be delayed by attempts to revive old spheres of influence. And we often forget Russia's two foreign policy problems are the Muslim south and the Chinese colossus. In this context, the Russian debate over enlargement seems inconsequenial.