I will take the problems that come with enlarged NATO over the problems that come from not enlarging NATO any day. All those Russian friends or officials that say – OK, enlarge NATO and the whole thing will collapse – I don’t think they really believe that, and I don’t believe that either.
Threats in the Baltic region are all but banished
Dr. Ron Asmus, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, USA talks to Rita Kasa and Ieva Raubisko of Radio Free Europe
Some 5-7 years ago NATO enlargement seemed unreal, and now it’s become so matter-of-fact. What factors helped to change the situation?
If you go back to the origins of the NATO enlargement debate, most people, who supported the idea, were thinking about Poland. People were thinking about a limited enlargement to Central Europe, and it was really about making sure that the historical problem of Germany, Poland, and Russia didn’t re-emerge. But as we faced the issue of opening NATO’s door to one country Poland, [we asked ourselves]: how far should we go?
If you would go back to 1993 and talk to people who were involved in the debate in the United States and other governments, most of them were thinking about one enlargement round and PfP [Partnership for Peace] to all the other countries. Even enlargement to Poland was very controversial at the time. That vision changed. President Clinton’s administration embraced this. They reached the decision at the realisation that the goal was to do for the Eastern half of Europe what NATO and European integration had done for the Western half of Europe, namely make war impossible. The third factor that was important was making NATO relevant and modern for the future.
The Balts were always a special case. On the one hand, we felt a special moral obligation because of the Hitler – Stalin pact. But they were also the hardest issue to deal with because they had been part of the Soviet Union. I remember this very well. If I speak about myself, I started out thinking about Poland. And it was only when Nordics and Tom Ilves and other Baltic friends of mine came to my office and said, “Listen, Ron! What about us? What’s your strategy for us?”
When did it happen?
In 1994-1995. A number of us started thinking about what was the strategy for the Baltic states. At that point, if you had taken a public opinion poll in the United States and Europe, most people would have said, “I doubt the Baltic states would ever join.” The real breakthrough came in 1996-1997. The decision that the goal had to be to extend NATO was made on June 12, 1997. The Baltic Charter was the first expression of that.
How do you see the role of the Baltic states in NATO? Many think that NATO’s future mission is not very clear at the moment.
The most important thing is that the Baltic states and the Baltic Sea region are now stable. 10 years ago, when think tanks wrote up their potential flash points where things could go wrong in Europe, people used to list the Baltic states as the potential crisis point. Today that is not the case. Part of NATO enlargement was to take these pieces off the table as potential sources of conflict for the future. That’s no small fee.
Second, if you go back to the regional vision, we talked about making Europe whole, free, safe and secure. Underlying that was a belief that as we succeeded in extending stability, the role of the new members would be to continue to reach out further to the East. There are still Belarus and Ukraine; Russia remains an incomplete project.
The big question is, once NATO has succeeded in making Europe essentially whole, free and safe, what is it for? That is the question that will be front and centre at Prague. Prague is not only a summit about NATO enlargement or NATO-Russia. It's about what NATO is going to become. And the question we all face, including Latvia, as it joins the alliance, is, should NATO just remain the manager of peace in a secure and peaceful Europe, or should it think about dealing with the new threats, most of which come from beyond Europe? And I'm, of course, of the view that it should. If you go back to Harry Truman’s first speech on April 4,1949, he talked about NATO as a tool to protect our democratic civilisation.
What are the new threats?
The new threats are quite clear. Where do the greatest threats to Europeans and Americans come from today? It isn’t Russia; it is not even ethnic conflict in the Balkans. The greatest threat of a large number of Europeans and Americans being killed is terrorists using weapons of mass destruction against one of our countries or capitals. These threats come from the greater Middle East [territory from North Africa to Afghanistan, including countries like Iran, Iraq and others]. Today, we, the United States and Europe, have to decide whether we will face this new set of threats, which are concentrated in the greater Middle East together, and whether we cast our institutions and alliances to face that. That is as big a question as the 1949 question of how we face Stalin’s Russia was.
What could be the methods to deal with these threats? Should NATO increase its presence in Central Asia?
I think the first thing NATO has to do is finish the job on consolidating peace in Europe. On of the reasons why the shift and support for the Baltic states happened is that after September 11 a lot of Americans have concluded it is time to finish the job with stabilising Central and Eastern Europe because we face bigger threats.
I think the real question is - and this is a question that goes beyond NATO - as you look at these threats in the greater Middle East - that poisonous combination of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the fact that Saddam Hussein is a modern Stalinist dictatorship in the greater Middle East - we have to realise that, just like the way to deal with communism was eventually a political transformation, the problem in the greater Middle East is also one of political transformation. At the end of the day, it is change; it is movement in the direction of reform, civil society, and democracy. We need to think about working together to help militarily defeat the terrorists, to get rid of saddam husseins there, but [also] to make sure the regimes there ultimately become more democratic, accountable societies.
People today will say that’s a huge problem. But in 1949, if you had talked about democracy in Russia, liberating the Baltic states, people would have said you are crazy too.
But how are you going to achieve these changes? Is NATO becoming more of a political organisation?
The first question you have to answer is do the United States and Europe agree that this is the strategic challenge of our time. Are we going to face it together? Once we reach that decision, the question is how do we adapt our institutions. I always remind people that in 1949 when Harry Truman and his counterparts established NATO, they did not have a common view on how to deal with Stalin. What they did know was that they faced the threat together and that they needed a common strategy. What is not clear today is whether Europe and America are in this together.
The South Eastern part of Europe has been a region of conflicts in recent years. Aren’t you afraid of similar problems in future? Some politicians in Russia, for example, are saying - look, this organisation will collapse!
Well, I will take the problems that come with enlarged NATO over the problems that come from not enlarging NATO any day. There will be issues we will have to deal with. But we will come up with a system to help countries after they join to finish their reforms.
We have succeeded enormously [in Europe]. All those Russian friends or officials that say – OK, enlarge NATO and the whole thing will collapse – I don’t think they really believe that, and I don’t believe it either.
Don’t you think there is still fear lingering in the Baltics that there might be new threats coming from Russia?
I think that the feeling does still exist. There are two pieces of this. I always say to my Russian friends: look, we have succeeded in solving the problem that has bedevilled Russia from the days of Napoleon. For the first time in a century or two, you face no threat on your Western border. You now have a Europe which is more peaceful, more democratic, and more secure and which would be more interested in trading and co-operating with you than ever before. You are not capable of seeing that, perhaps, because Russia still thinks in geo-political terms. But we have solved together the classic Russian dilemma of the threat from the West.
Second, at some point of this process we realised that we were never going to convince the Russians that NATO enlargement was a good idea. So the strategy became to simply to do it recognising that, once you created new facts on the ground, Russia would adjust to the new situation and we would then create the foundation for a new relationship.
Look at Poland today. The Russians fought against Polish membership to the nail, they said it would lead to the World War III. Now Polish – Russian relations are better than they have been in 50 years. I think, the same will happen here in the Baltic states, but it is going to take time.
So you think there is no threat of any conflict coming up in our region?
I think threats in this region have been all but banished. But again - we have to lock in the final pieces. I often say my Russian friends: look, there is a residual Russian imperial temptation, and we are going to remove that. Once you are part of NATO and the EU, they will change the way they think. That won’t happen overnight. But look at the way the Russians now deal with Central Europe. They are creating a new relationship with Central Europe as part of this new Europe. We have to be very careful, and I think a great success will be that we have managed to do this without any kind of real crisis with Russia.
Do you know what Russia wants from the West?
I don’t think Russia itself knows what it wants from the West. Vaclav Havel put it very well last year when he said that you couldn’t base your policy toward Russia on Russia’s psychological needs.
Will there be more NATO expansion rounds after this enlargement is over?
That’s a very interesting question. I don’t know. I think the door is still open. As you know, Ukraine has said that it now aspires to join NATO, there may be other countries of the former Soviet Union that aspire. When I was in the State Department, I often said to my staff: there is a 10-year plan, a 25-year plan, and a 50-year plan. The 10-year plan is Baltics to the Black Sea, the 25-year plan is Westernising and integrating Ukraine, and the 50-year plan is Westernising and integrating Russia. If we ever reach a stage where Russia or Ukraine is like Poland and has been Westernised, become like us, we will have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. That means it’s a different Russia, it’s a different Europe, and then it would be a different NATO. We are still a long way from that.