NATO Finds a Purpose (Uh-Oh)

As Presidents go, Bill Clinton is not much of a driver, but what a hitchhiker! When he sets off on his own to do something bold--to reorganize the health care system, or to allow avowed homosexuals into the military, or to bring China into the World Trade Organization--he can't quite bring it off. But when he hitchhikes, watch out. Hitching a ride with Newt Gingrich's Republican Congress, he signed a welfare reform bill that revoked 60 years of policy and succeeded, at least initially, far beyond his own expectations. Hitching a ride with the economy, he turned unending federal deficits into unending federal surpluses. Hitching a ride with Monica Lewinsky--ah, we won't go there.

One might suppose that a hitchhiking presidency would be an unimportant one. In the Balkans, Clinton and NATO are proving the supposition wrong. Between them, they are now in the process of making a policy footprint in Europe that history may view as Wilsonian. For they are:

1) killing NATO as we knew it for 50 years, and replacing it with a far more ambitious and concomitantly more precarious entity that happens to share the same name;

2) waving aside the ancient doctrine of sovereignty within accepted borders, and installing by its side a competing and only vaguely delimited doctrine of humanitarian intervention; and

3) doing both of these things without the consent or, really, even the cognition of the population on whose support the policy depends.

Not bad for a few weeks' work. And all of this Clinton has done by hitching a ride in a backwater called Kosovo.

In the Bush years, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO began searching for a new mission to justify its continued existence. In the 1990s, with no prospect of an armed attack on any NATO member, the alliance's mission of collective defense against a Soviet threat was obsolete. What to do with all those guns and generals?

One possibility, which received less attention than it deserved, was for NATO to declare its mission accomplished and to go out of business, to be replaced, perhaps, by something newly constituted for a new world. Another possibility was what Georgetown University's Michael E. Brown calls a minimalist NATO. The alliance would stand pat, providing a continued deterrent to a Russia that may one day be resurgent and expansionist, and until then would undertake no exotic missions and bring in no new countries.

Yet another possibility, which I think was the best possibility, was for NATO to turn itself into a nonaggression pact, with mutual enforcement and, crucially, with Russia's inclusion as an explicit goal. By narrowing its mission but broadening its base, NATO would help bring an end to the Cold War notion of "the West'' in Europe. The group's members would stabilize Europe by restraining one another, rather than by putting out fires in other people's kitchens.

All of those options, however, were rather boring, and they seemed to leave NATO's magnificent force structure without enough to do. A recent Brookings Institution policy brief by Ivo H. Daalder, of the University of Maryland, exemplifies the thinking of a more ambitious school: "Collective defense is too restrictive a purpose and provides insufficient grist for NATO's large, dynamic, and increasingly flexible military machine,'' he writes. "Ensuring security and stability throughout Europe is the right focus for NATO in the coming century'' (italics mine). NATO, in this conception, should extend its might outside its own territory to pacify the continent.

This is not your father's NATO, and a lot of people expressed doubts about it. If NATO were to act as self-appointed European police force, what about the United Nations? What about the Russians, who were and are bitterly, and understandably, opposed to a NATO whose notion of stabilizing Europe is throwing its weight around on Russia's doorstep?

That was the debate that was going on until this year, when Clinton and NATO and Slobodan Milosevic abruptly foreclosed the discussion. NATO is now operating, as the jargon goes, "out of area.'' It is doing so with massive force. And it is traducing a neighboring country's borders, for reasons that mix security concerns with humanitarian ones in a not easily digestible stew.

Well, politicians are elected to act, not to argue. In Kosovo, the politicians were presented with two bad choices--stay out, go in--either of which could set a dreadful precedent. They did the best they could, and now it is up to them and the rest of us to make the policy work.

I think, one way or another, the allies will get to something they can plausibly call a victory in the Balkans. The harder thing will be making that victory sensible and sustainable. To justify its Balkan actions, NATO has had to define its core interests in a way that can safely be called expansive. In a speech last week, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said, "We are reaffirming NATO's core purpose as a defender of democracy, stability, and basic human decency on European soil'' (italics mine).

If defending human decency across all of Europe is the core, where, one wonders, is the periphery? Defending decency is good, as is preventing another genocide in Europe. But it is important to distinguish between a morality and a mission. As Georgetown's Brown notes in an incisive article in Foreign Affairs, a mandate to ensure stability and decency throughout Europe will engage NATO in areas and in projects where the allies will often be divided and reluctant, where military prospects will be dicey, where consistency will be impossible (NATO can't save everybody), and where important U.S. interests will not be engaged. "The alliance's leaders have created unrealistic expectations about what they are likely to do,'' he writes. "This will undermine NATO's credibility and weaken its long-term prospects.''

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