The politics of European enlargement: NATO, the EU and the new U.S. European relationship

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the tearing of the Iron Curtain, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the end of the cold war, the main issues in Eastern and Central Europe and in U.S. and European policy toward that area have been achieving peace and stability, building democracy, accomplishing economic and institutional reform, accelerating growth and modernization, and anchoring and integrating the countries into Europe and its two great clubs, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (1) It could be said that the last three purposes listed–democracy, economic and institutional reform, and European integration–were all means to the end of achieving peace and stability in this critical and historically volatile area and of securing a buffer zone on Europe’s eastern frontiers that would also function to limit any future Russian resurgence. But what may have begun in strategic planners’ eyes as a means to an end has since taken on a life of its own.

The formal technical and general criteria for the accession of new aspirant countries to NATO and the EU are quite clear and have been set forth in numerous official documents. (2) For both organizations they are, in short, democratization, economic reform and modernization, institutional reform, and human rights. In addition, the EU requires applicant states to conform to the extensive legal, regulatory, and financial stipulations of the Acquis Communautaire. NATO also has a variety of technical requirements that include the restructuring of civil-military relations according to the Western model, reform of defense ministries and of equipment, armaments, and military systems to achieve interoperability, and the ability to be a net contributor to, not a drain on, NATO forces and functions, including, importantly, peacekeeping in Southeast Europe and now cooperation on counterterrorism.

In the early 1990s analysts and policymakers often thought that the processes of EU and NATO enlargement would go forward in tandem, on parallel tracks, mutually reinforcing each other. (3) But that has not quite happened, as the reader sees in greater detail in the course of the article. In addition, a key argument of my analysis is that although early on the technical criteria largely defined the enlargement process, now as we get close to decision-making time, it is political criteria that are proving decisive. At least at the formal and institutional level, almost all the applicant countries are now at or close to the stage of qualifying for EU and NATO admission. Almost all the countries are now democracies, have undertaken economic and institutional reform, observe human rights criteria more or less, have carried out at least some military reforms, and have adapted their laws to the requirements of the Acquis. Part of this is charade, of course, since both Easterners and Westerners understand that full implementation of those changes will take three to four decades, perhaps generations, not just a few years. But as the applicant countries now reach the end of this qualifying process, the question–and it is a political one–becomes, now what? Once they all qualify or come near to it according to the formal criteria, how is it possible to discriminate further among them, to allow some in while keeping others out? The answer is, increasingly, by political criteria. (4)

In this article I focus on those political criteria, what may be termed the politics of the endgame of EU and NATO expansion. Now that the technical criteria have been for the most part satisfied, what comes next? Who decides who gets admitted, when, and on what basis? I discuss four major actors or sets of actors: the Eastern/Central European applicant countries, the EU and the European allies, Russia, and the United States. In each case I examine the interests and the politics involved and try to reach some tentative conclusions as to how the process of enlargement will now proceed. In a final substantive section building on the earlier analysis, I weigh both the technical and the political considerations operative as the enlargement process nears its decisive moment.


The interests of the applicant countries are perhaps the easiest to discuss: they want in, in almost all cases, to both NATO and the EU. They identify membership in these two clubs as essential to their aspirations to become developed, democratic, European states, tied to the West in all its dimensions, rather than to the East and what they identify as a past of backwardness, underdevelopment, authoritarianism, and oppression. (5)

In all of Eastern and Central Europe, the EU is viewed more favorably at the popular level than is NATO. Public support for the EU in most Central/East European countries is in the 50-70 percent range, whereas that for NATO is in the 30-40 percent range. The difference is largely due to the fact that for most East/Central Europeans, the EU means prosperity, rights, and opportunity, whereas NATO stands for obligations and expenditures. In addition, NATO’s bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia frightened many East/Central Europeans, reminding them of past wars and instability in their own countries. But the leadership and informed public in Central/East Europe recognize that they cannot have the benefits of the EU without also taking on the obligations of NATO. Moreover, they believe that, as in Spain in the early 1980s, once their governments explain and present the case for NATO, they can succeed in bringing support up over 50 percent. In no country of Central/East Europe is there much doubt that they need and want to join both NATO and the EU.

In the early 1990s, protection from Russia was one of the primary reasons for the Central/East European countries to join NATO and the EU, an impetus reinforced recently as Russia put pressure on members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and others to conform to its policies. But in this respect one must discriminate among countries. First, although all of the Central/East European nations are wary of Russia, those countries that share a border with the bear–Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania–are the ones who fear Russia the most. Second, the states that were once members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics–again the three Baltic states, which also have sizable Russian populations within their borders–feel more threatened by Russia than countries that were part of the Warsaw Pact but had at least some nominal independence from the USSR (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania). In addition, Russia has made it very clear that, while it objects strongly to all eastward expansion of NATO, it particularly objects to NATO’s expansion into countries of the former USSR.

NATO means something different, furthermore, to the different countries of the region. The Central/East European countries tend to see it as a collective security agreement that guarantees that the other European NATO members and the United States will come to their defense if they are ever attacked by their neighbors or, especially, Russia. Meanwhile, in seeking not to awaken, and invite a drastic reaction from, the slumbering, sorely wounded, and greatly diminished Russian bear, the United States sought for a time (prior to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack) to make the case to the Russians that NATO was no longer a collective security agreement aimed at them, but more like a political club that even they could eventually join, a sales pitch that the Russians never bought. Meanwhile, the debate continues in academic and policy circles as to whether NATO’s Article 5 really is a collective security agreement calling for an automatic response by the others if one country is attacked, or if it allows them discretion. Naturally, the Central/East European countries, fearing Russia, emphasize the language that seems to support an automatic response, while the United States and the Western countries tend to stress the language implying discretion.

A second, major Central/East European reason for wanting in is economic. The EU and NATO, especially the former, stand for affluence, prosperity, and the good life of which the Central/East European countries wish to become a part. Recall that Eastern/Central Europe, like Southern Europe earlier on, has always been on the poor, underdeveloped, semifeudal periphery of Europe. Joining the EU is seen as a way of overcoming past underdevelopment and entering the rich man’s club. Entering “Europe,” writ large, makes them eligible for aid, transfers, loans, investment, and subsidies on a grand scale. Just as Greece, Portugal, and Spain benefited enormously in the 1980s and 1990s from joining the (then) European Economic Community and receiving massive infusions of investment and aid (cohesion as well as structural funds), so Eastern/Central European countries see joining the EU as giving them an opportunity to leapfrog into the world of the developed or First World nations. Unfortunately for them, there is far less assistance money available for Central/East Europe than there was for Southern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s.

Third, the Central/East European countries see membership in the EU and NATO as guaranteeing their often still-fragile democracies. The countries have had democratic elections, often several of them, which formally qualifies them as democracies. But in terms of becoming solid, liberal, pluralistic, human rights-observing democracies, most of the countries still have a considerable way to go. Only a few of them (the Baltic countries, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, now joined by Slovakia) have begun the “second-generation” reforms (judicial reform, tax reform, budgetary and policymaking transparency, others) necessary to complete and consolidate their democratic transitions. They also need time to change their political cultures–their beliefs and ways of behaving–to conform to democratic understandings and practices. Because their transitions to democracy are still incomplete, the Central/East European countries see joining the EU and NATO as both a “Good Housekeeping seal of approval” for accomplishments so far and an incentive and even requirement to complete the process.

These are all pragmatic reasons to join the EU and NATO that Americans can understand; the fourth reason is more complex. For the Eastern and Central Europeans, joining Europe is about more than butter quotas and military hardware. Historically underdeveloped and on the fringes of Western civilization, Central/East Europe was the butt of cruel ethnic jokes that portrayed it not just as backward but as barbaric and stupid. For a thousand years, Central/ East Europe was viewed as inferior, racially mixed (because of Hun, Tatar, Mongol, and Ottoman invasions), and incapable of European achievement. These patronizing, condescending attitudes bred resentment and some huge national inferiority complexes in the East. So joining Europe is a symbol that Central/East Europe has joined Western civilization, that it is as good as the rest, that after centuries of isolation and underdevelopment its ties to the West have been cemented. Indeed, beyond all the practical reasons for joining NATO and the EU, I would submit that this sociopsychological motive may be the most important. (6)

This consideration also helps explain the ups and downs in the Central/East European public opinion polls regarding joining the EU and NATO. The enthusiasm of Western Europe, the United States, and NATO for bringing more states in has waxed and waned over the years. Currently, public support is ebbing, although both EU officials and leaders of the major European governments believe that, when the time comes, they can turn European public opinion in positive directions.

Meanwhile, there are still some political uncertainties. Although most applicant Central/East European states will soon be in conformity with EU and NATO requirements, some are lagging–especially Bulgaria and Romania–and there is neither great expectation that they will catch up soon nor enthusiasm for admitting them quickly even if they do. Cyprus’s candidacy, which once seemed assured, is hung up on the seemingly intractable issue of still-bitter Greek-Turkish relations. And in recently reformist Slovakia, an election is likely to occur between now and the EU or NATO accession decisions that could bring authoritarian-populist and anti-free market Vladimir Meciar back to power. Meciar’s return would almost certainly torpedo Slovakia’s chances, although present Slovak officials are betting that they can so entrench the country in EU and NATO reform processes before the election that, no matter its outcome, membership will be all but a fait accompli.


The Russian view of EU and NATO expansion has been almost entirely negative, or at best cautious, though it is obvious that Russia is far more opposed to NATO expansion than to the EU.

It is not fully appreciated in the United States, perhaps because U.S. officials and reporters mainly visit Westernized and relatively developed Moscow and St. Petersburg, how far Russia has disintegrated since the collapse of the superpower Soviet Union in 1989-91. Instead of being the leader of the so-called Second World of developed communist states, Russia has sunk to near–Third World levels. Virtually everything has disintegrated: the economy, the armed forces, the educational system, health care, institutional infrastructure, transportation, social welfare, housing, public services, everything. (7) At this stage, therefore, Russia does not pose a threat to any serious power, although it does have a nuclear arsenal (also rusting and disintegrating) that policymakers need to keep under control. It sometimes blusters and threatens in ways that frighten Europeans and reminds them of the cold war, and with its economy now recovering somewhat because of higher oil prices, it is able to put pressure on its smaller neighbors, mainly in the CIS but also countries in the “near abroad,” which includes the Central and East European states.

Russia is interested in Europe and the EU because it would like to acquire European prosperity, affluence, and aid. Russia also desires acceptance by the West, though for political and nationalistic reasons it cannot say this publicly. But both Europe and Russia know that Russia cannot possibly qualify for EU admission anytime soon, or maybe ever. In the early 1990s the vision of a Europe “whole and free,” stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals or perhaps all the way to Vladivostok, had some resonance both in Western Europe and in Russia. However, Europe has its hands full with its present, limited, eastern enlargement, and Russia often has been ambivalent about “joining Europe.” That, of course, is a centuries-long and hotly contested issue in internal Russian politics, and it remains divisive today. Russia wants to be known as a “civilized” country, which to some extent suggests becoming Western, but what precisely that means and how far the country should go are questions that powerfully affect Russian pride, nationalism, and sense of distinctiveness. Russia is divided over these issues and has a bit of a complex (rather like Central and East Europe, only worse) over them. Meanwhile, as Russia has sputtered, declined, and proved enormously corrupt, Europe’s aid, investment, and enthusiasm for assisting Russia have also dried up. Europe is still casting about for some “halfway house” or “associated” status for Russia (not making it an EU member but offering some hope for future possibilities), but even that limited relationship is greeted with ambivalence and considerable opposition on both sides.

Russia has been vigorously opposed to NATO expansion eastward, but it also knows that at this stage it is all but powerless to prevent it. (8) During its decade of disintegration in the 1990s, Russia saw its borders and hence its power progressively reduced, and it is at this stage surrounded and hemmed in by American influence. First it lost its Warsaw Pact allies in East Europe; then U.S. influence expanded in the CIS states of Belarus, Ukraine, and Georgia; now there is a Black Sea Cooperative Council, as well as expanded U.S. and Turkish presence in Central Asia; and finally (not really “finally” because there are other layers as well) the United States is trying to influence what is left (the “rump”) of Russia itself through its invitation to join the Partnership for Peace, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and NATO itself through the Permanent Joint Council signed in 1997 as a way of deepening Russia-NATO cooperation. Central and East Europe continued to view NATO as a collective security agreement, as the United States unsuccessfully tried to convince Russia that it was now more like a peaceful political association for cooperation and democracy. (9) Nor have the U.S.-sponsored efforts to civilize Russia by luring it into these joint military cooperative arrangements been very successful; in fact, they have so far been fraught with tension, Russian absenteeism, misunderstanding, and the absence of Russian cooperation, though under President Vladimir Putin that situation may be changing.

Although Russia is a weak, decimated power, it is now somewhat rejuvenated by new, vigorous leadership in President Putin as well as a suddenly more expansive economy, thanks to swelling oil revenues. It has thus been able to bully, intimidate, and expand its leverage against its neighbors, primarily the CIS countries in Central Asia as well as Belarus, Ukraine, and Georgia. Russia has threatened to restrict energy supplies and has attempted to draw those countries closer into Moscow’s orbit both economically and strategically. The United States has sought, not very vigorously or vociferously, to counter those Russian pressures; Europe has been largely silent. In part it already has a full plate with the ongoing EU enlargement; in part it prefers not to get involved in what seem to most Europeans to be distant squabbles over internal Russian affairs; and in part, despite the Soviet Union’s disintegration and Russia’s decline, Europe remains fearful of Russia. Russia has played on those ancient fears by sounding bullyish and tough (despite its weaknesses), by trying to divide the United States from its European allies on various issues, and by threatening to introduce nuclear weapons into Kaliningrad, that odd, unsupportable, potentially unstable bit of Russian territory on the Baltic, separated from the main Russian territory by Belarus and Lithuania, and thus “within” Europe in ways that the rest of Russia is not.

The main issue for this discussion is Russian reaction to the possibility of NATO expansion to include the Balkan republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Russia is opposed to all NATO expansion eastward, but it has been especially opposed to a NATO enlargement that would include these three countries, for various reasons: first, because alone among the NATO candidate countries, the Baltic states were part of the USSR, not independent countries, and so far Russia even in its weakened condition has not been willing to concede any part of the former Soviet Union to the West. Second, there are significant Russian minorities in each of the Baltic countries (30 percent in Estonia, 34 percent in Latvia, 8.5 percent in Lithuania), and even though the Balts have moved to regularize the legal status of these citizens, Russia continues to raise the issue of minority rights as a way of inhibiting the Baltics’ EU and NATO candidacies. Third, Russia still harbors visions of a restored “Greater Russia” that would include the Balkans and perhaps serve again as an Eastern alternative to the West. Although the Baltic states continue to lobby strenuously for both club memberships, the Europeans, still worried about the dormant Russian bear and unwilling to risk arousing its wrath, remain negative toward the Baltics’ NATO membership. At the same time, the Americans continue to debate whether inviting one Baltic country (probably Estonia) to join is better, on the premise that only one country would not antagonize the Russians overly, or whether admitting all three at once would be better, following the logic that having Russia react vociferously once is preferable to having it react three separate times. A possible U.S.–European compromise that would accommodate Russian interests would be to admit the Baltic countries to the EU but not to NATO, while at the same time giving the Balts some quasi-NATO security through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), enhanced Partnership for Peace (PfP), and/or the Baltic Corporation Council (BCC).


The European Union and the European member states (whose interests do not always exactly correspond) also have a strong stake–cultural, social, political, economic, strategic–in the enlargement of the EU and NATO. (10)

First, the glowing vision of the early 1990s of a Europe whole and free still holds sway. After the two terribly destructive world wars of the last century, Hitlerism and Stalinism, the cold war, the Holocaust, and so-called ethnic cleansing, this implies a Europe at peace, stable, prosperous, and democratic. Recently, however, that ideal has been tempered by the realization of the time and costs involved. Fully democratizing Central/East Europe, especially Russia and the CIS, is increasingly seen as a project that will last two or three generations, not one or two or three years. It is especially significant that the EU’s plans and criteria for expansion were drawn up during this earlier hopeful stage rather than the more tempered, realistic one that followed. The EU agencies in Brussels still believe that their expansionist plans can be promoted through their own and member governments’ positive publicity programs, despite declining support in European public opinion. Moreover, the EU as a central bureaucracy remains committed to the enlargement process and argues that the entire decade-long process is nearing completion and can’t be stopped now, that the wheels are turning and that positive cloture needs to be reached on the issue. Others are skeptical that a Europe that proved so indecisive on Yugoslavia can ever get its act together sufficiently to complete the enlargement process.

Second and related, European enlargement, economically through the EU and strategically through NATO, is driven by a desire to achieve peace and security in Central/East Europe. At the end of the cold war, two major problem areas were seen: Russia and Central/East Europe, that area in the heart of the Eurasian land mass, lying between historical Germany and Russia, that had for centuries been a source of instability and conflict. One solution was to think of the area as a buffer between Europe and Russia; another was to integrate it into the West. And we now know from former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft’s statements that a conscious decision was made to opt for solution two, to solve the historic problem of Central/East European instability by integrating it into Europe through expanding the EU and NATO eastward, knowing that this would antagonize and isolate Russia. (11) Russia correctly saw European and particularly NATO enlargement as a hostile act, exacerbated by the rejection of Russia by the Central/East European countries. Attempts to ease Russian fears through the PfP, assurances that NATO is non-threatening, and creation of a Permanent Joint Council within NATO for Russia did not achieve the desired end and may have increased Russia’s sense of isolation. However, under President Putin, Russia began to warm to its role in NATO, and NATO moved to open its arms wider to Russia. Russia at this stage cannot hope to join either the EU or NATO anytime soon, and this negativity may permanently close the door on their integrating into Europe. Meanwhile, as much of Central/East Europe seems poised on the verge of not just joining the EU and NATO but of being integrated into Europe in a “civilizational” sense, the old buffer has moved farther east to encompass all or parts of the CIS states: Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, maybe (in the security sense) Armenia, Azerbaijan, and parts of Central Asia.

Europe wants protection from the Russian bear, but at the same time it sees the bear as hibernating, and given Russia’s size, resources, and nuclear weapons, Europe does not want to arouse the bear to hostility. Because of its proximity to Russia and its experience of the cold war divide, Europe feels this issue more intensely than the United States does and therefore is more sensitive about which countries to include in NATO. The United States does not want to resume the cold war but it has also been more aggressive than Europe about hemming Russia in through a variety of new eastward-oriented alliance and cooperative programs (not just NATO but also PfP, OSCE, Council of Europe, the Black Sea Cooperation Pact, GUUAM, others). Both views may overstate Russia’s current or future threat potential, because from a comparative politics perspective rather than an international relations one, Russia is a disintegrated, quasi-Third World state that, apart from the potential for careless use of its nuclear weapons, is not really a serious threat at present.

Third, Europe is also in favor of expanding democracy, human rights, and, in some of the more ideologically driven countries, social democracy to Central/East Europe. Quite a number of the Western European countries sought to assist Russia as well as the Central/East European countries in their transitions to democracy. Aid, investment, and much political advice (not all of it wanted) followed. But afterward Russia and much of the CIS proved to be a black hole into which aid and investment go, never to be seen again. On this score, the Europeans have largely come around to the American view, although without acknowledging this evolution publicly. Like the Americans, the Europeans now view democracy in Central/East Europe both as a good in itself and as a means to an end: peace and stability in a contiguous territory not well-known historically for those traits. Russia and the CIS countries are viewed as less hopeful and, in any case, are too large and too poor for Europe to take on at this stage.

Fourth, and continuing in this positive vein, Central/East Europe has begun to prove profitable for West European investments. That was not always the case. In the early 1990s, for instance, when Western investment was going into Russia for the first time and Lufthansa Airlines was opening regular service to Russia’s interior cities, assuming that Western businessmen would soon follow, the expectations of quick or at least eventual profits were high. But, for the most part, Russia and the CIS have not proved very profitable, with the result that Western investments have been quietly redirected toward Central/East Europe, Europe’s “near abroad.” The result is that Scandinavian investments in the Baltics, German investment in Poland and the Czech Republic, Austrian investments in Hungary, and Italian investments in Slovenia have turned around and started to show a profit–in some cases, a considerable profit. These investments plus, of course, ties of culture and history also help explain why some West European states are more interested in some Central/East European states’ accession to NATO and the EU than others. Meanwhile, the redirection of investment to Central/East Europe means that Russia and the CIS have largely been left holding the bag.

But there are strong negatives as well, especially at the popular level, to Europe’s expansion to the east. (12) Foremost, West Europeans fear the loss of jobs and security and the lower wages that eastward expansion implies, comparable to fears in the United States over competition from cheap Mexican labor. Simply put, Western Europe fears it will be overrun by East European immigrants willing to work for less and, therefore, taking West European jobs. Under the EU’s Schengen rules, labor as well as capital is free to move about within the EU borders once a nation joins, but immigration from outside the EU borders will be tightly controlled. Austria, for example, which is literally surrounded by potential new EU members, is particularly worried because a number of Central/East European urban/industrial centers, such as Slovakia’s capital of Bratislava, are located fight on its border; Austria fears what it calls “commuter immigration” from those centers that will cost Austrian jobs. Although abundant sociological evidence shows that most Central and East Europeans prefer to stay put in their own communities even if given a chance to move, (13) West European popular opinion nevertheless fears a large influx. Moreover, that finding does not indicate that Austria’s “commuter immigration” fears will be unfounded. Hence, Austria, now with strong German backing, has proposed a seven-year transition period before the free movement of labor is allowed. Actually, under a provision of a white paper on immigration that is presently being circulated among EU members, there is a two-year EU restriction on the free movement of labor (so that individual members can let in as many immigrants as they want), followed by three years in which the free movement of labor is allowed, but not necessarily in the whole of EU territory, followed by another couple of years of “exceptions.” In this way Austria and Germany can claim that for domestic political reasons they are implementing a seven-year transition, while the EU can say that it stands for the “free movement of labor” and the prosperous countries that actually want more immigrant labor can have it.

Immigration is the key issue, but West Europeans also harbor other fears about eastern enlargement. Among the most important is taxes, which West Europeans foresee will inevitably go up if they are required to provide aid, grants, and subsidies to bring the Eastern economies up to EU levels. Particularly if you’re already paying 40-60 percent of your income in taxes, the last thing you want is for taxes to skyrocket to 50-70 percent. In addition, West Europeans worry greatly about assimilating the Easterners, whom they often refer to as “they” or “the Other,” and whom they think of as different, less developed, often less civilized.

In addition to immigration and higher taxes, Western Europe also sees the East as a source of potential “problems.” Such problems are often vague in the popular mind, and they sometimes evoke images of national and cultural stereotypes and even racism. East Europe is thus often perceived as a source of crime, violence, instability, racketeering, prostitution, drugs, child abuse, and more. And of course, since the Easterners “don’t work very hard” (a contradiction, if one of the arguments against enlargement is that they take Westerners’ jobs), they will be a drag on Western Europe’s already financially strained welfare and pension systems. It is certainly convenient and comfortable, however inaccurate, to blame all such problems on Eastern immigrants, and demagogic politicians such as Jorg Haider of Austria (which really does have a rising crime problem linked to immigration) have been able to exploit this. Even though the racism and cultural bias involved in such stereotyping is off the mark, the ideas do have a powerful popular appeal; and we know that it is what people believe more than what is objectively true that counts politically.

These are the main overall European worries, but individual countries also have specific concerns. First, there are what we might call “front-line states” (Germany, Austria, and Italy) that are closest to East Europe and therefore most strongly affected by it, by immigration, refugees, and “problems.” Second are what we will term the “human rights-sensitive countries” (The Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavia), which are often far from East Europe but are nevertheless especially vigilant about human rights abuses there, particularly with regard to treatment of the Roma. Third are those countries we call “net EU recipients” (Greece, Portugal, Spain): countries that have been receiving EU grants, loans, and subsidies since joining the organization in the 1980s and are now faced with the prospect of seeing many of those subsidies redirected to Central and East Europe. Finally, support for Central/East European enlargement to the east is not uniform across Europe, with opposition strongest in Austria, Germany, Ireland, France, and Great Britain. Hence, the politics of dealing with the issue of enlargement, itself preeminently political, will vary from country to country as well.

The polls tell us that there is declining interest in EU and NATO enlargement, both in the West among member states and in the East among aspirants. The Western countries now tend to see Central/East Europe as less potentially explosive than a decade ago, more stable and more economically viable than expected, and Russia as more disintegrated and less of a near-term danger. They also see expansion as very expensive and as a threat to their jobs, cultures, and ways of life. Support for enlargement in Western Europe has gone from roughly 60-70 percent to 40-50 percent, depending on the country. Both the Brussels bureaucracy and the Western governments believe that they can turn this negative trend around with a large-scale publicity and education campaign.

In the East, sentiment is more favorable because the Eastern countries will be the chief beneficiaries of enlargement. But they also recognize that small businesses and agriculture will go under as a result of enlargement; patronage and opportunities for graft will be reduced; budgets must be kept under control. The capitalistic world out there is often mean and unforgiving. Hence, East European sentiment favoring enlargement has dipped from 80 to 50 or 60 percent. Polls about NATO membership tend to show 20 percent less support than for EU membership, in part because the NATO bombing campaigns in the former Yugoslavia are seen as excessively militaristic, in part because it makes little sense to Eastern politicians to expand military budgets when there is no immediate threat and when popular social programs are threatened by economic austerity, and in part because the Easterners, naturally enough, would rather focus on the advantages of EU membership than the costs (in terms of new military training, equipment, etc.) of NATO. When the chips are down, however, all the Eastern countries can be expected to opt to join both the EU and NATO because for them it is a matter of joining Western civilization.

One final point needs to be made in this section about the differences between the EU and NATO enlargement processes. Contrary to earlier expectations, they are not entirely congruent processes proceeding on parallel tracks. First, the EU has extended formal invitations to the aspirant countries to apply for membership (implying that once they meet the requirements, the EU will have no further reason to turn them away); NATO has only asked aspirants to improve their military situation, meaning that an invitation may come later on. Second, with their Partnership for Peace, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Council of Europe, and other programs, the Western countries have developed a flexible system of halfway houses for aspiring members; the EU has little such flexibility or partway solutions. Third, because the criteria for NATO are highly subjective, they can be relatively easily fudged or glossed over; with the EU, since we’re talking real money, the requirements are much harder to fudge. And fourth, there is a political/financial tradeoff operating here: the United States would much prefer to see the EU expand as quickly as possible so as to modernize the Central/East European societies overall and thus assist them in preparing for NATO membership, whereas the EU would like to see NATO expand first to the east to provide a kind of training ground for EU enlargement. I will return to these themes later in the discussion.


U.S. interest in Central and East Europe is long-standing. It stems from NATO, the cold war, the sense for many years that East Europe was likely to be the cold war’s main venue and the Warsaw Pact armies’ potential invasion route into Western Europe, and repeated U.S. assurances over the years of support for East European freedom and democracy. More recently it has been spurred by Bosnia, Kosovo, and the problems of the former Yugoslavia, and also terrorism. (14)

As the Wall fell, East Europe asserted its independence, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the cold war ended in 1989-91, the United States perceived two key questions for this strategically critical area. The first was what to do about Russia; the second was what to do about those historically unstable states of East Europe lying between Russia and Western Europe. The decision could have been that Eastern/Central Europe would continue to serve as a buffer between East and West. Instead, the George Bush administration, pushed along by its NATO allies, decided to solve the Central/East Europe problem by incorporating those countries into NATO and the EU, which could only come at the expense of Russia. (15) Russia would be hemmed in at one level through an expanded NATO, and at others through the Partnership for Peace extended to CIS members as well as Russia itself, plus a range of new U.S. aid and cooperation measures with Central Asia, the Caucasuses, and the Black Sea area; meanwhile, the United States would seek to manage and control internal Russian political developments through its democratization program, aid and investment efforts, market reforms, programs to control nuclear weapons, IMF and World Bank assistance, and so on. The United States, in short, sought not just to democratize Russia but also to surround it, shrink it, limit its options, and prevent a new Russian threat from arising. EU and NATO expansion into Central/East Europe was one of the primary means of accomplishing those goals.

A second goal of American policy is to democratize Russia. The issue can be looked at in one of two ways: either the United States values democracy in itself (which is useful for rhetorical purposes, and most Americans subscribe to that view), or democracy is a means to an end, in this case, a stabler, less bellicose Russia (note the literature demonstrating that democracies do not go to war with each other). In the long run, however, it doesn’t matter which motive is predominant; in fact, both are undoubtedly operating at the same time. That is, democracy is advanced whether we value it as a good in itself or as the best available means to ensure stability in Russia. In addition, by promoting the democracy agenda, the United States can stand for high moral purpose, rally congressional, media, and domestic support, and serve U.S. national interests at the same time.

Much the same arguments apply to economic development. The United States clearly prefers an economically developed, modernized Russia integrated into the EU, American, and world markets, seeing that as preferable to a poor, underdeveloped, isolated Russia. But once again the questions can be raised: Why do we prefer that solution? Do we value economic development for its own sake or because we wish to expand investment and trade with Russia? Or is it because we see economic development, trade, and European integration as a means to stabilize Russia, help it build a stable middle class, bring peace and security to the area, reduce nationalistic and jingoistic sentiment by diverting popular preoccupations to economic self-advancement, defuse a potentially bellicose Russia by channeling its energies to peaceful economic goals, and “civilize” it by incorporating it into the main European agencies, the EU and NATO? The obvious answer is that both sets of goals may happily be served at the same time. And again, like democracy, the goal of economic development/trade/ integration serves a combination of purposes at the same time: high moral purpose, domestic agreement, and the national interest.

A third goal of U.S. policy, at least initially after the end of the cold war, contemplated a string of buffer states across Central and East Europe, from the Baltics in the north to Yugoslavia and the Mediterranean in the south. The aim, once again, was to deprive Russia of its former Warsaw Pact allies, or satellites, and to shrink its size, power, potential, and forward presence. Many Central/East European politicians and intellectuals, such as Vaclav Havel, contemplated the same vision of an independent and culturally distinctive Central or “Middle” Europe, lying between Russia and Germany-Austria, a bridge between East and West but no longer a pawn in cold war machinations; it was a vision that stretched back a thousand years into the area’s misty (and idealized) past. But many Central and East Europeans reacted emotionally against further ties with Russia, failed to see any advantages in serving as a “bridge” to the East, and, especially as Russia’s debility and impoverishment were realized, they wanted little to do with it. Instead, they were attracted to the West: its affluence, its freedom, and its civilizational influences in an area that was long considered, by others and by itself, on the margins of Western civilization. Recognizing these pent-up aspirations, and in some cases anticipating them, U.S. and Western European policy also shifted away from the notion of keeping Central/East Europe as a buffer area and toward integrating them into the EU and NATO, with the consequences for Russia already noted. Hence, rather than a separate and independent Central Europe, we now have a group of Central/East European states clamoring for admission to Europe. Meanwhile, the “buffer” has moved east, encompassing Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Central Asia, and the Trans-Caucasuses.

Not only did the Central/East European states wish to be included within NATO, the EU, and Western civilization, but their application to join NATO became, after the cold war ended and the organization’s purposes were now openly questioned, a way to resurrect and even save that potentially irrelevant organization. NATO’s purpose in Europe had long been, in the popular expression, “to keep the Russians out, Americans in, and Germany divided.” But the Soviet Union had disintegrated, and Germany had reunified, leaving only the second purpose; but clearly America’s continuing military-strategic presence in Europe–absent the Soviets–required a new rationale. NATO (and EU) enlargement provided a part of that rationale, and then came Bosnia and Kosovo–justified not so much by hard-headed American national interests in Southeast Europe (recall Secretary of State James Baker’s dismissive comment early in the Yugoslav conflict, “We don’t have a dog in that fight”) as, after the intervention had already begun, that the credibility of NATO was at stake, which, of course, meant it had to be supported whether or not any other important interest was at stake. Central and East Europe, particularly the Balkans, in a sense, thus gave NATO something to do, a new mission and objective, at a time when the organization’s continued usefulness and even existence was being questioned.

Over the years, however, as Russia more or less democratized (even while continuing to slide downhill economically) and most of Central/East Europe (even parts of the former Yugoslavia) continued on the democratic, economically reformist path, Central/East Europe as well as NATO and EU enlargement garnered fewer headlines and, therefore, less official attention or public interest. The stakes seemed to be smaller and no longer so important as they had been in the early 1990s; in the fickle, here-today-gone-tomorrow way that American foreign policy deals with most issues, Central/East Europe faded from the headlines, came near to dropping out of public sight, and received less high-level attention than in the past. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary entered NATO in 1998, but other than the celebratory headlines and pictures (of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright dancing for joy), there was almost no public debate about the merits (and demerits) of these three cases and the implications of the decision for U.S. policy. Even NATO and Department of Defense officials readily acknowledge that the decision was made exclusively on political grounds: the U.S. administration decided that it wanted the countries in. Future enlargement decisions will similarly be made on political grounds.

But today the conditions are different: Central and East Europe have stabilized, attention has waned, there appear to be no large or immediate crises in the area, and they are lower on the list of American priorities. In addition, the political conditions are quite different: whereas Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic all had sizable constituencies in the United States and in critical swing states that could be mobilized for political action (recall that in the heat of the 1996 election campaign both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole called for these countries’ admission to NATO), that is not so true of the present applicant countries. There are sizable and activist communities of Slovaks, Slovenes, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and others in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois (all swing states), and their ambassadors in Washington, just like other ambassadors with important U.S. constituencies, have been busily mobilizing their communities for the showdown vote; but it will be a close call and there are many uncertainties as to whether Congress, in its treaty-ratifying as well as power-of-the-purse roles, will go along.

The interviews I conducted at NATO headquarters in Brussels, at the Department of Defense office of European affairs in the Pentagon, and with political officers, ambassadors, and military attaches in U.S. embassies in the capitals of the applicant countries are revealing. First, they show a sharp split between the civilian officials, who almost to a person favor NATO enlargement as a desirable political goal, and military officials, who see applicant countries skeptically as “not yet ready” or as “recipients but not contributors” to NATO, and who therefore are laying the groundwork to blame civilian officials if anything goes wrong or enlargement proves more expensive (almost certain) than presently contemplated. (The mantra is well-nigh universal that it will be a “political” and not a “military” decision; the latter would presumably be more rational or merit-based.)

Second, the DOD officials who must testify on Capitol Hill and make the case for enlargement see themselves as having three main constituencies: Russia, the European allies, and Congress. With regard to Russia, the officials say that the bear is presently in hibernation, and we do not want to do anything to rouse its ire or provoke a renewal of the cold war. But that ignores both how much Russia has changed and how far Russia has disintegrated, and that it is not in a position now or anytime soon to cause big trouble–although it can still bully and threaten and cause some problems. As far as the European allies are concerned, they are far closer to Russia than is the United States, still worried about it, and even more inclined than DOD officials to let sleeping dogs (or bears) lie. Once again they are ignoring or perhaps not fully appraised of Russia’s weak and disintegrated state or not willing politically to risk even the slightest tremor out of Moscow. The worries about Russia, whether exaggerated or not, have major implications for some of the candidate countries, particularly the three Baltic states.

The biggest unknown, however, is the U.S. Congress, both House and Senate, which must approve new NATO enlargements. First, Congress has not yet focused sharply or specifically on the issue (one congressman, on a junket in Vienna, told me he had never been to East Europe and wanted to know if I was in favor of NATO enlargement–obviously not yet a well-defined or carefully considered question). Second, neither Congress nor the public see NATO enlargement into Central/East Europe as the same critical issue it was a decade ago. Third, Congress is not yet sure how the politics and political constituencies will play out on this issue. Fourth, Congress, knowing the costs involved and the continuing problems of the three most recent expansion members, is very worried about the expense of bringing new NATO members up to even minimum levels of military interoperability. Fifth, it is worried about whether the United States, under NATO’s collective security Article 5, will be called on to police every border skirmish, ethnic clash, or sign of instability in East Europe. And sixth, Congress could well go along with NATO’s and the Pentagon’s assessment that none of the applicant countries is yet “ready” for NATO admission.

In addition, not only is isolationism–the sense that the United States should avoid foreign entanglements unless our interests are directly affected–rising in the United States in the wake of the end of the cold war, but so is unilateralism (mainly but not exclusively in the Republican Party), the notion that the United States should avoid almost any treaty or alliance, including NATO, that constrains U.S. action or limits American sovereignty. We saw a manifestation of that sentiment most recently in the abrupt, unilateral abandonment by the George W. Bush administration of the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, and although the administration views NATO much more favorably than the Kyoto Treaty, we may well see some of the same sentiments expressed in the debate over NATO enlargement. We will have to wait to see the effect of the antiterrorism campaign on the debate. However, all these reasons and others still to be expressed may well be enough to kill or indefinitely postpone NATO’s further enlargement; almost certainly it means there will be no “big bang” admission of all the new NATO applicants but rather a more selective gradual process (which again shows how far off the mark the congressman’s question to me was: the issue is not yes or no but when and who).


There are two kinds of criteria for admission to the EU and NATO, technical and political. In general terms, the criteria for both organizations are similar: what a country accomplishes in attempting to qualify for the EU will also help it get into NATO, and vice versa. But there are subtle and interesting differences that help explain why the enlargement processes in these two large European organizations have not run exactly parallel. In addition, although an applicant country must meet the technical criteria to qualify for admission, the political criteria are more interesting and ultimately will determine who gets admitted and who does not. Hence, in this article I devote more attention to the political factors involved, although before I do so we need to have an understanding of the technical processes.

Technical Criteria

The collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the disintegration of the Soviet Union unleashed the process of integrating Central and East Europe into the EU and NATO. Fearing instability and/or chaos in the Central European area and wishing to prevent the countries of the area from falling back into the Russian orbit, the United States and the European Community sought ways to integrate those nations into the stable, affluent, democratic West. Enlargement of the community and of NATO was seen as a key means to achieve that goal.

As early as 1991 the EU had signed European Association Agreements (EAAs) with Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. (16) EAAs were signed with Bulgaria and Romania in 1993, the Baltic states in 1995, Slovenia in 1996, and Slovakia in 1998. Cyprus and Malta also signed EAA agreements, bringing the total to twelve. The EAAs established a framework designed to support the gradual integration of these countries into the EU through harmonization of regulatory structures, technical standards, competition laws, opening of services, free trade, and such. Criteria for social, political, and cultural convergence with the EU were also adopted.

At its 1993 Copenhagen summit, the European Council, which was put in charge of managing enlargement, defined the political and economic criteria to be considered for EU accession. In 1994 in Essen the council requested the design of a strategy for the accession of new members. In 1995 at Cannes the council identified the key legislative, regulatory, and institutional aspects required for accession. Under the PHARE program (originally Poland and Hungary: Assistance for the Reconstruction of the Economy, but later extended to include twelve more countries), the EU designed a plan to bring EU members and applicant countries together to provide information on community matters, to assist the reform efforts, and to provide preaccession assistance funds. In 1996 the European Council meeting in Luxembourg required regular reports from its staff reviewing the progress of each applicant according to the Copenhagen criteria. In 1997 Agenda 2000 provided a comprehensive statement of accession criteria, obligations of membership, and the strategy of enlargement. This document, together with the EAAs, constitutes the core of the institutional requirements for enlargement. More recently a meeting in Nice reopened what appeared to have become a stalled enlargement process.

The criteria for EU enlargement now include the following: at the political level applicant countries must establish democracy and the rule of law, must respect human rights, and must demonstrate respect for minorities. The economic criteria include the existence of a functioning market economy and the capacity to withstand competitive pressures and market forces within the European Union. Other obligations of membership include acceptance of the aims of political, economic, and monetary union, adoption of the Acquis Communautaire, and the administrative and judicial capacity to apply the Acquis. Each of these main categories is then broken down into further subcriteria, or chapters, to which the applicant countries must also adhere.

To help promote as well as to monitor the process of conforming to the criteria, the EU has established an office in each of the EU candidate countries. The offices are well staffed with professional technicians and observers whose role is to assist the applicant countries in meeting the requirements but also to oversee the process and issue some sharp and often quite critical periodic reports on progress so far. (17) The applicant country is then invited to respond to the reports, offer its own point of view, but also make corrections. Several conclusions emerge from a systematic examination of these offices: (a) they are staffed by highly competent EU officials who are independent of and objective toward the countries to which they are assigned; (b) their reports are detailed, exacting, perceptive, and surprisingly frank (for an international agency) about their specific country; (c) the criteria used and reports issued are more exacting and systematic than the parallel NATO reports on candidate countries (perhaps explainable by the fact that the EU offices are largely staffed by lawyers, social scientists, and trained observers, whereas NATO reports are mainly done by military attaches whose analyses tend to be more impressionistic); and (d) one cannot conceive that the EU would staff these offices with thirty or forty persons in each country unless the EU was convinced their candidacies would in the final analysis be successful.

In 1996 the so-called first-wave countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia) were invited to begin negotiations for accession. These were the countries already considered by the EU to be “best prepared.” At the Helsinki Council meeting in 1999, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovak Republic, and Romania were also invited to begin accession negotiations, as were Cyprus and Malta. Among several countries in the second group, a race began to catch up with those in the first group since the EU determined that merit and the meeting of the EU’s enlargement criteria are to be the measures used, not the order of the invitations issued to apply. Turkey was added to the EU “eligible” list mainly at the insistence of the United States, thinking more in strategic than in economic terms.

Of course, there is a world of difference between the enactment of all this legislation and its actual implementation, which certainly will take two or three generations, not years. Herein enters a political problem, for the EU cannot hold the applicant countries at bay for that long, and the candidate countries are impatient and cannot wait that long. In addition, once a country meets all eighty thousand criteria and completes negotiations on all thirty-one chapters, what additional criteria could the EU use for keeping it out? The EU says that the chapter negotiations are completed only “provisionally,” but denial of admission to an applicant country on the basis of that formality would constitute such a lame excuse at this late stage of the game that it would be almost impossible to sustain politically.

NATO’s criteria for admission were never so formally, elaborately, and mechanistically set out, which gives NATO maximum flexibility in either accepting or rejecting new members; nor did NATO ever issue formal invitations for countries to become candidates, thus avoiding the trap that the EU fell into, that once a country meets all the criteria, the EU has no further basis for excluding them. NATO may eventually find itself in the same position of “inevitability” (not “if” but “when”) as the EU, but at least for now NATO maintains the posture that through the Partnership for Peace, the Military Action Plan (MAP), and other programs it is asking countries to bring themselves up to NATO standards, after which a membership invitation may or may not follow, and in any case the country in the meantime will have vastly improved its economic, political, and security structures.

As with EU enlargement, the conception and criteria for NATO enlargement have evolved over time. (18) As early as July 1990, with Mikhail Gorbachev still in power and the Soviet Union still intact, NATO heads of state extended a “hand of friendship” to the East. Later that year the first eastern “enlargement” took place through the unification of East and West Germany, the latter a NATO country. Then, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and its NATO allies, not wanting to dilute NATO by expanding it, focused on strengthening the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (renamed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, in 1994), whose membership soon grew to fifty-three nations. The OSCE included Russia and the new CIS countries as well as NATO members, but without an enforcement mechanism it was essentially toothless. In late 1991 the United States created the North Atlantic Cooperative Council, also including Russia and CIS, as a further institution for consultation and cooperation on security issues. But the council was similarly a consultative rather than decision-making body.

As these early, partial steps indicate, initially there was little support in the U.S. government or among the allies for NATO enlargement. A handful of U.S. strategic thinkers supported expansion of the organization to the east, (19) but it was really Germany’s initiative in early 1993, aimed at stabilizing its eastern border as well as the economies of the Central/East European countries, that triggered the NATO enlargement process. U.S. senior officials at the State Department and the National Security Council (not the Department of Defense) acknowledged that a U.S.-led NATO enlargement process could stabilize the Eastern countries, demonstrate that the United States and not Germany was the key driving force, also demonstrate the continuing relevance of NATO, and, not coincidentally, serve some politically important ethnic constituencies in the United States in the runup to the 1996 election. But because there were still many reservations (cost, worries about Russia’s response and whether an enlarged NATO could still be an effective NATO, the preparedness of the potential new members), the United States and its NATO allies in 1994 produced a new compromise, the Partnership for Peace.

The PfP agreement said that NATO would “expect and welcome NATO expansion that would reach to democratic states to our east, as part of an evolutionary process, taking into account political and security developments in the whole of Europe.” NATO invited the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and North Atlantic Cooperative Council countries to participate in PfP, defining their own role and scope in the program in negotiations with the sixteen NATO members (later nineteen when the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined). NATO would establish consultations between individual PfP countries and each NATO member concerning reform of the PfP country’s military institutions through permanent partner offices (like a small, self-enclosed embassy) at NATO headquarters in Brussels and at a military planning unit in Mons, Belgium. In other words, countries (including Russia and CIS) were free to join PfP or not and could participate more or less in accord with their own capabilities, wishes, and interests. At the same time, NATO was in a strong position to link partnership and eventual membership with specific reforms and norms to which the country had to agree if it aspired to membership. PfP was an inspired, even ingenious idea that has worked out better than expected–a rarity in policymaking; some of my interviewees suggested its authors should get the Nobel Prize. MAP was a later, more detailed, more elaborate program to help applicant countries reform their military structures, in many ways comparable to the EU’s Acquis Communautaire.

NATO’s rhetoric still proclaimed it a collective security organization, and that is how the aspirant Central/East European countries seeking guarantees against Russia’s future or potential expansionist proclivities continue to see it. But in fact the processes of the first enlargement to include militarily unprepared countries tended to minimize the strategic purpose in favor of vague and less-strict political criteria. This posture in turn alienated U.S. military officials who want to maintain the strategic emphasis of NATO, who recognize the severe military limitations of the three new member states, and who emphasize that further enlargement will impose additional costs and immense organizational efforts on the alliance, in a time of declining defense budgets, personnel, and public support. However, the Central/East European countries’ cooperation in the war against terrorism will boost their chances of NATO admission.

Although NATO’s criteria for admission of new members are nowhere near so detailed as the EU’s, there are criteria; like the EU’s, they have been spelled out more clearly over the years, making it politically more difficult to deny an invitation of membership to a country once it meets the criteria–unless NATO is willing to risk the fall of the elected, democratic government that worked hard to meet the criteria, thereby precipitating the very instability and conflict in Central and East Europe that NATO wants to prevent. The basic criteria are

* democracy (although not clearly defined);

* a market economy (but again without clear definition);

* civilian control of the military (but without degrees and gradations recognized);

* a responsible foreign policy toward its neighbors (i.e., no post-NATO membership claims on its neighbors’ territories);

* a credible PfP track record of upgrading and reforming the armed forces and the defense ministry;

* building NATO-compatible military forces and interoperability (which may mean only a single elite unit);

* a willingness to participate in NATO activities (such as assisting in Bosnia or Kosovo or in the war on terrorism);

* being a net contributor to NATO and not just a recipient of NATO assistance; and

* the strategic importance of the country.

These often vague standards were, as with the EU, soon supplemented by more detailed criteria. The first step in the PfP program was thus for the applicant countries to sign “framework agreements,” similar to EU Association Agreements. The country would then prepare “presentation documents” that identified its objectives, particularly if it sought NATO membership or a more limited role. Each “partner” would next submit an Individual Partnership Program identifying its assets and how it would work with NATO. The PfP countries were subsequently required to list steps taken toward meeting these goals, again similar to the EU’s closings of “chapters.” A Partnership Work Program was established to indicate NATO activities undertaken to meet their partnership goals, and a planning and review process helped to guide PfP states toward NATO compatibility. These and other steps through PfP and MAP indicate that the NATO enlargement process has become approximately as formal and elaborate as the EU accession process, leading to elaborate bureaucratic procedures and mountains of paperwork. This in turn creates a certain “inevitability” of expansion because, once the great wheels of the process start turning, it becomes almost impossible politically and bureaucratically to reverse them. The negative consequences of doing so (instability, government failure, chaos, Russia’s stepping into the vacuum of a NATO veto on membership) would be far worse than admitting a country whose strategic performance by NATO standards was far from perfect.

At first the countries that were serious about joining NATO saw the PfP as another strategy of postponement. To this NATO was forced to respond that participation in PfP would indeed lead to NATO membership; what would be the logic of a country going through all the reforms and expenditures of improving its military (including raising the defense budget at a time of both budgetary austerity and pressing social needs) only to be turned down in the end? These assurances to the applicants from the East had the effect of alienating the Russians still further; they subsequently reduced their PfP cooperation and all but stopped participating in the Joint Council at NATO headquarters that had been created especially for them. And as Russia’s uncooperative attitude, bellicose posturing, and blatant pressures on its CIS neighbors increased, the desire of the Central/East European countries to achieve protection under the NATO umbrella increased. Meanwhile, their continuing technical and procedural efforts to meet the NATO criteria made it harder and harder for NATO either to turn them down or keep them on the string indefinitely. President Putin’s cooperation with the West in the antiterrorism campaign reduced the tension over NATO and its enlargement to the east, though there still may be a cost to pay for Russian cooperation.

Political Considerations

We are now nearing the endgame of the enlargement processes. Everyone recognizes that the day of reckoning is coming. (20) Decisions cannot be put on hold forever without its jeopardizing the very purposes of the twin EU and NATO enlargements: peace, stability, pros perity, democracy, reform, and security in Central and East Europe. Both the EU and NATO would prefer to draw out the process, both because the applicant countries are, in fact, not yet fully prepared and because they know that once admission is finally granted, all incentive for further reform from the applicants is lost. But decision time is at hand. NATO has a meeting scheduled for fall 2002 at which it must decide something (it could decide to postpone enlargement decisions, although that now seems less likely), and the EU accession process will similarly be all but completed by the end of that same year, calling forth decisions from that body as well. Although the final results of both processes are still unknown and unknowable, here is a summary of some political variables that will help shape the outcome:

1. Both EU and NATO enlargement have by now acquired a momentum of their own; once that momentum gains force, it is very hard to reverse it. Moreover, as the process moves further along, the possibility of turning countries down is increasingly complicated. The events of 11 September may have accelerated the enlargement process. Because Russia seems to be more cooperative, the terrorist threat has helped to bring more countries closer together, and the United States has reemphasized its strategic and international interests.

2. Both the EU and NATO have a history of encouraging the new prospective members and of promising enlargement; given the expectations that raised, it would again be difficult to change course. In his June 2001 speech in Warsaw, President George W. Bush went on record as favoring NATO enlargement from the Baltic to the Black Sea, thus encouraging a large number of potential new members.

3. There is a certain economic and security logic in enlargement to include the Central/East European countries in “completing Europe” up to the strategic border of the CIS/Russia (in the case of the Baltics), or to the sociocultural-economic-religious-political border of Western civilization. This seems to conform to what most currently see as the “natural” border of Europe.

4. The applicant countries were invited to apply; once they meet the criteria, by what additional reasoning could their admission be further postponed or denied? Recall, this logic applies more strongly to the EU than to NATO, but it is not absent in the latter. Decisions could still be postponed, but not indefinitely. Once a country is invited, it is hard to then turn it down.

5. By the end of 2002 almost all the applicant countries are likely to have met the criteria for EU admission—at least formally. But once nearly all qualify in this way, how can the EU further discriminate among the qualifiers? The answer: It can’t, not without severe damage being done to the organization and the applicant countries. Therefore, as regards EU enlargement, one might expect a “big bang” in which nine or ten countries are admitted at once. (The EU all but said as much in its November 2001 report on the progress of the candidate countries.) Among the twelve current candidate countries, Romania and Bulgaria probably will not qualify; Cyprus is a question mark because of lack of progress on the island’s internal divisions. NATO has more flexibility and can be expected to be more discriminating in selecting new members.

6. Although the decision to enlarge is fraught with difficulties, the decision not to enlarge may be even worse. Most of the Central/East European countries’ governments have put enormous time and resources into their efforts to join NATO and the EU, making it their number-one priority. If they should now fail or be turned down after so much effort, several of these governments would undoubtedly fall, producing the very chaos, instability, and threats to democracy that enlargement was designed to ensure. In other words, admitting countries that are still incompletely prepared may well be better than not admitting them and risking even worse consequences. To which NATO hard-liners retort, if they’re that unstable, they shouldn’t be in NATO in the first place. That is a macho answer, but it does not solve the dilemma posed.

7. The logic of enlargement is compelling, but numerous large practical problems remain to be settled (the common agricultural policy, the issue of regional development funds and whether current EU member access to them will be transferred to the new members, the question of immigration and borders, whether capital and labor can move freely, the internal organization and voting within the EU, the costs involved, the effectiveness of a significantly enlarged EU or NATO, whether the EU can actually reach consensus on a decision of this magnitude, etc.). But enlargement advocates argue that these problems, or at least many of them, need not all be finally settled before enlargement occurs.

8. Some of the EU applicant countries have already established bilateral or multilateral customs unions and other agreements among themselves. Admitting one part of an existing arrangement like that could not be done without admitting the other(s).

9. Slovakia is a pivotal country for both the EU and NATO. Although its democracy is still uncertain and its preparedness for NATO incomplete, it brings other assets to the table that may enable it to enter both of the European clubs regardless. For NATO, Slovakia provides a land bridge (around neutral Austria and Switzerland) linking the north and south of Europe, it completes the previously postponed Visegrad process (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia), it completes NATO’s borders up to the CIS, and it provides a logical defense perimeter: in other words, it is far easier to patrol a seventy-mile border with the Ukraine with Slovakia in NATO than a nine-hundred-mile border with Slovakia still outside NATO.

For the EU, much the same logic applies: having Slovakia in completes both the Visegrad Four and Europe’s expansion to its easternmost limits, Slovakia is already strongly integrated culturally and economically into Europe, and it is again far easier in terms of border patrols enforcing the Schengen immigration controls to have only a seventy-mile rather than a nine-hundred-mile border.

10. The terms of reference are changing: In the early 1990s several West European governments thought the Eastern countries would be economic basket cases that they would have to continually bail out. Now quite a number of countries are making large profits from their trade with Central/East Europe, and they anticipate even more.

11. The United States has long favored European enlargement to the east, as a way of both stabilizing the area and keeping Russia in check. Although there is less attention to the area now than in the previous decade, less sense of crisis, and a growing inclination not to be bound by treaty obligations, this is NATO, after all, the foremost collective security agreement of the last fifty years and maybe of all time. It still has impressive political support, and it is doubtful if the United States would at this stage go back on its commitments.

12. For a considerable period now, there has been a little dance going on over enlargement between the United States and its European allies. The United States wants the EU to expand faster and first because the economic development, political democracy, and governmental reforms that the EU insists on for admission also help prepare countries for NATO and ultimately make NATO enlargement cheaper for the United States to bear. At the same time, in this “after you, Alphonse” two-step, the EU wants NATO to expand first because the same conditions that NATO insists on (democracy, economic and administrative reform) are also the requirements for EU accession and make enlargement cheaper for the EU. While this dance has provided an interesting political dynamic and rivalry between the United States and EU, now the ball is winding down, the orchestra is playing the last chords, and both organizations will have to come to terms with the fact that the reason they went to the dance in the first place was to integrate new partners.

13. The Baltic countries provide a special dilemma: they were part of the Soviet Union; Estonia and Latvia have large Russian ethnic minorities; and Russia has in the past said it will draw the line to prevent NATO expansion here, a threat that Europe has viewed more seriously than the United States has. But the Baltics are also predominantly Western; they want to join the EU and NATO and are among the most eligible candidates. The United States cannot allow Russia–particularly an enfeebled Russia–to dictate the borders of Europe. The United States has a certain long-standing moral obligation to the Baltics to help preserve their independence, and the constituencies of the Baltic countries in the United States are influential. Various formulas are being discussed: admit one “Balt” at a time (so the Russians scream three times), all three at once (so the Russians scream once but loudly), or make some kind of grand compromise in which the Baltics withdraw their application to NATO in return for guaranteed admission to the EU. The latter is just the kind of compromise, however, that gives veto power to Russia that we earlier said we could not allow. Meanwhile, Russia’s “mellowing” toward NATO could result in all three Baltic countries’ coming in at once without major opposition.

14. The rhetoric and mythology of this process suggest that, on these parallel paths to European integration, the United States can largely dictate NATO expansion while the European countries decide on EU enlargement. But that is a polite fiction. In fact, the United States is also extremely influential on EU enlargement, and although it has not so far put pressure on Europe to expand, its views in favor of enlargement are well known to European foreign ministries. That is why, at U.S. insistence and over European objections, NATO member Turkey became an EU candidate–although its accession may be far off or never occur at all. Nonetheless, the United States wanted Turkey listed as a potential member to help stabilize that divided nation and to offer it hope for the future. Similarly, if the United States insists that some countries or all be admitted to either NATO or the EU, it is unlikely that Europe will be able to say no.

15. The result is as follows: as regards EU enlargement, the three Baltic states, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Malta are all likely to be admitted to the EU sooner rather than later, either in one big bang or more gradually as groups of countries; Cyprus may or may not come in depending on progress toward solving its internal divisions; and Romania and Bulgaria will have to wait for a new round. Croatia and Serbia will become candidates soon; Russia, the CIS states, Bosnia, Croatia, and Albania will stay out at least for the foreseeable future; Turkey’s candidacy will be postponed but nevertheless encouraged at least rhetorically; and new prospects Israel and Morocco are likely to be given some form of associated status eventually.

As regards NATO enlargement, there will probably not be a big bang (too expensive, too difficult administratively, too time-consuming for NATO’s limited resources), but there will likely be two or three new admissions: Slovenia for sure (it provides a land bridge to the former Yugoslavia that bypasses difficult Greece, it is already wealthy almost at EU levels and therefore not costly to NATO, it is cooperative on U.S. policy in Bosnia and Kosovo, it is thoroughly “Western”); probably Slovakia (for the reasons cited in number 9 in this list); and perhaps one or more Baltic countries. On security or geostrategic grounds, Romania and Bulgaria present strong cases, but they (as well as Albania and other potential candidates) are so far behind on political and economic criteria that their candidacies are likely to be held up. Other PfP countries will have an even longer wait.

16. Two quite distinct logics are operating here. As regards NATO, the first logic is that, since NATO is primarily a defense alliance, a military collective security arrangement centered on Article 5, no candidate that is unqualified or not fully prepared, or that fails to contribute substantially to the collective defense, should be taken in. Much the same logic applies to EU enlargement, but substituting EU criteria for NATO’s strategic criteria. The opposite logic suggests that the present moment provides a unique opportunity for enlargement to the east. There are no credible threats in that region at present and few risks, the potential gains are large, and the costs are modest. So we should seize this unique opportunity to expand both NATO and the EU, guarantee and monitor their development, and assist and envelop them in the Western European community, as a means of serving their interests and ours. The second logic appears to be the more compelling.

17. I make no final prediction here as to the precise order or timing of European enlargement. I have suggested here that it is likely we will see the EU enlarge all at once, a slower or partial process for NATO. But at this moment the precise order of admissions and the timing are still unknown and unknowable. In short, the enlargement of the EU and NATO to the borders I indicated in point 15 seems highly likely in the longer term, but the short term may still be subject to the vagaries of the political processes I’ve described in this article.


I have already presented quite a number of specific conclusions about the candidate countries and their possibilities for EU/NATO accession. Here let me review some of the more general conclusions:

First, it is striking how political the enlargement process is. Both the EU and NATO have quite specific technical criteria that they apply to candidate countries, but in the end it is preeminently political criteria and political decision making that will be decisive.

Second, it is striking how the logic of EU/NATO enlargement has changed over the years. The fears–and rationale for enlargement–of the early 1990s, of a resurgent Russia and a destabilized Central and East Europe requiring massive bailouts, have not materialized. The logic and justifications for enlargement now (consolidating democracy, profits on investments, immigration controls and, hence, border patrolling, drug and crime control, etc.) are quite different from what they were a decade ago.

Third, even though there is less of a sense of crisis about Central/East Europe and, hence, declining interest in the area in both Europe and the United States, the wheels of the accession process continue to turn and it is hard to see how the process could now be halted, let alone reversed. At this stage, the negative consequences of not moving ahead with enlargement are graver than the obvious problems of moving ahead with states that are not meeting all the criteria.

Fourth, one is repeatedly struck by how much EU/NATO enlargement is tied up with cultural and civilizational issues rather than strictly technical economic or political criteria. From the beginning the Europeans have had a very clear definition of where Europe ends (at the borders of the CIS); developments since the early 1990s have only confirmed and reinforced that they drew the dividing line almost precisely where European and Western civilization, regardless of the criteria used, terminates. Significantly, in my research, the “softer” criteria that determine where Europe ends correspond almost exactly with the empirical and technical criteria reported here.

Fifth, the civilizational issues are now also good, pragmatic reasons for moving ahead with EU and NATO enlargements. The two tracks of enlargement are not the same in all cases, and different logics and rationales may apply. Some degree of declining enthusiasm, public and governmental skepticism or even opposition in some countries, and no sense of impending crisis probably implies an incremental process of enlargement, especially in NATO’s case, and some compromises, rather than an all-at-once big bang.

Sixth, even with enlargement, Europe will not be “whole and free.” The political and economic situation (democracy, free markets) in the Central/East Europe is much better than before, but we must also recognize that new barriers, new “curtains” are going up in the east. Although change is in the air, Russia, CIS, parts of the former Yugoslavia, the Trans-Caucasus, Central Asia, and Turkey are still being excluded. But it is precisely because they are being excluded from Europe’s–and the globe’s–powerful economic engines and trends toward democracy, prosperity, and social justice that these countries are dangerous. (Ukraine may now be the crucial state in the area, no longer Central or East Europe; the fact that the locus of political crisis has now moved farther east may tell us more than anything else about Central/East European progress in the last decade.) There is a crying need to offer them hope, possibilities, aid, and future affluence, democracy, and security lest they be drawn back into the pit of poverty, instability, authoritarianism, foreign domination, and even terrorism. For unless our attention is drawn to this new eastern frontier, we and Europe will be inviting the very instability, chaos, and economic and political hopelessness that EU and NATO enlargement was designed to alleviate. We have seen with horrendous consequences what poverty combined with alienation, frustration, and hopelessness have led to in some Middle Eastern countries. Let us ensure that we avoid the same or similar outcomes in Russia and the CIS.


(1.) The information and materials in this section were based in considerable part on interviewing of NATO and EU officials in Brussels and Washington and government, foreign ministry, and U.S. embassy officials in Spain, Portugal, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary.

(2.) Agenda 2000: For a Stronger and Wider Union (Brussels: European Commission, 1997) is the key document spelling out the rationale and criteria for enlargement; see also the detailed and remarkably frank (for an international organization) reports by the EU assessing individual applicant country progress. For NATO the best studies are edited or authored by Jeffrey Simon, including NATO: The Challenge of Change (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1993), NATO Enlargement: Opinions and Options (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1995), and NATO Enlargement and Central Europe (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1996).

(3.) Martin A. Smith and Graham Timmins, “The EU, NATO, and the Extension of Institutional Order in Europe,” World Affairs 163 (fall 2000): 80-89; Ronald Tiersky, “Europe Today: The Integration-Security Link,” in Europe Today, ed. Ronald Tiersky (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 42799; Sabina A. M. Crisen, ed., NATO and Europe in the 21st Century (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, 2000); Sean Kay, NATO and the Future of European Security (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998).

(4.) As becomes clear later, I reached this conclusion based largely on the interviewing, as above.

(5.) Richard Rose and Christian Haerpfer, Trends in Democracies and Markets: New Democracies Barometer, 1991-98 (Glasgow: University of Strath-clyde, Center for the Study of Public Policy, 1998); Christian Haerpfer, Cezary Milosinski, and Claire Wallace, “Old and New Security Issues in Post-Communist East Europe: Results of an 11 Nation Study,” Europe-Asia Studies 51, no. 6 (1999): 9891011.

(6.) See especially Lonnie Johnson, Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

(7.) Based on my field research in Russia in 1992 and 1996.

(8.) Hans Binnendijk and Richard L. Kugler, “NATO after the First Tranche: A Strategic Rationale for Enlargement,” Strategic Forum 149 (October 1998): 1-4; Sean Kay, “NATO’s Open Door: Geostrategic Priorities and the Impact of the European Union,” paper presented at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, DC, 17 January 2000.

(9.) I was once asked by the U.S. government to tour Russia to present this picture in a series of lectures. Naturally I accepted the invitation, actually gave the Russians a more honest assessment than the United States wanted, but nevertheless I was shoved aside, my lecture was interrupted, the microphone was seized, and I was even roughed up by Russian (mostly older, Communist Party, secret police, and military) officials who objected vigorously and at times violently to even a balanced, even-handed discussion of NATO.

(10.) The information and materials in this section are based on the interviews cited in note 1, as well as my participant observation while living as a Fulbright scholar in Vienna and Budapest in 2001.

(11.) Brent Scowcroft, “Whither the Atlantic Community,” Issue Brief 01-02, The Forum for International Policy, Washington, DC, 21 March 2001).

(12.) See the data presented in Rose and Haerpfer, Trends.

(13.) See the results of the research carried out by Claire Wallace and her colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study, Vienna.

(14.) My Washington research institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has had a long-time research and action agenda for EU and NATO enlargement. Some of the materials in this section are based on my involvement in these programs as well as interviews at the Department of Defense and with U.S. embassy officials and military attachees, and NATO and OSCE officials in the field.

(15.) Scowcroft, “Whither.”

(16.) The history is traced in the EU’s Agenda 2000.

(17.) Based on interviews with EU officials in these “field offices.”

(18.) One of the best studies, maybe the best, is by Erich Reiter, The Effects of NATO and EU Enlargement (Vienna: Landesverteidigungsakademie/Militarwissenschaftliches Buro, 1999).

(19.) See George Grayson, Strange Bedfellows: NATO Marches East (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1999).

(20.) The materials and analysis in this section rely heavily on the interviews described earlier.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Heldref Publications

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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