NATO and the United States

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In the early 1990s, the opening of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, and the collapse of the Soviet Union brought to an end the bipolar system, which had shaped the world for almost half a century. Foreign policy makers in the United States were confronted almost overnight with fundamental and unexpected changes in world affairs, with a new and quite different global environment. After forty-five years of superpower confrontation, U.S. officials were faced with the task to reassess America’s national security needs and to identify new foreign policy goals and strategies. This was particularly difficult since the contours of the new post-Cold War world were yet unclear.

While President Bush in 1991 had proclaimed a “new world order” which would draw together diverse nations in common cause, his administration had been unable to fully define the United States’ future role in world affairs. Since the U.S. as the sole remaining superpower had a central role to play in shaping international relations in the new era, a new grand strategy, new coherent guidelines for U.S. foreign policy were required.

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The task to develop them fell to the Clinton administration. When the new administration took over in early 1993, it was confronted with the need to respond to conflicts in different parts of the world, and with the larger questions of identifying foreign policy priorities and defining U.S. interests in the new strategic environment.

Absent the Soviet threat, which had served as the main organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy for almost half a century, U.S. foreign policy makers were faced with a wider range of options but also with new uncertainties, new challenges, and new questions. Why is the United States still in NATO and what is it in the interest in the United States to remain in NATO? Should the new U.S. administration focus on domestic politics or should it seek to actively shape its international environment? Given its new position as predominant power, what should be its grand strategy guiding foreign policy actions? This paper seeks to answer these questions and argues that the main motivation for U.S. to remain in NATO is its strategy to NATO enlargement. Finally, the paper provides some conclusive remarks regarding these issues.

Considerations Regarding NATO’s Future

The difficulties of devising a new U.S. foreign policy had become particularly apparent with respect to the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Established in 1949, NATO had been the institutional link of the transatlantic security partnership and a central pillar of the postwar international security system. During the Cold War, it had not only provided a collective Western defense against a Soviet military threat but also linked the United States to Europe, and helped integrate West-Germany into the Western community of nations.[1] With the collapse of the bipolar order and no need to counter a Soviet military threat, the Clinton administration had to decide whether it was going to define a new mission for the Atlantic alliance to justify its continued existence or to stand back and allow for its slow disintegration.

In the early 1990s, the integration of former Warsaw Pact members into the Atlantic alliance ran counter not only to public expectations and recommendations of strategic experts but also to the stated U.S. goal of establishing a new and more cooperative relationship with Russia. What then was the Clinton administration’s motivation for deciding in favor of NATO enlargement?

Initially, the extension of the Western alliance into East Central Europe was no primary foreign policy concern for the Clinton administration. Elected in November 1992 as the first true post-Cold War president, Clinton, in accordance with a general shift in policy priorities, had decided to focus on domestic issues and on bolstering the U.S. economy.

Regarding security policy, Clinton administration officials in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union aimed at establishing an improved relationship with Moscow. Much like the Bush administration before it, the Clinton administration emphasized that the U.S. and Russia shared common interests, such as preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and establishing a common nuclear security management.

Consequently, the Clinton administration initially continued its predecessor’s “Russia first” approach which, by supporting the Yeltsin government’s domestic reform program, aimed at stabilizing the principal Soviet successor state. Accordingly, many administration officials initially opposed NATO enlargement fearing that it would not only run counter to attempts at establishing the intended security partnership with Russia but also undermine Yeltsin’s position by strengthening Russian nationalist and conservative forces. However, the U.S. position towards enlarging the Western alliance changed significantly over the course of only a few years, and in 1994 President Clinton declared that “the question is no longer whether NATO will take on new members, but when and how.”

At the time, the future of the Atlantic alliance was not a central concern of the U.S. administration. In fact, foreign policy issues had played only a minor role in the 1992 U.S. presidential elections, and Bill Clinton was determined to focus on domestic problems instead. The issue of NATO expansion did not appear on Clinton’s foreign policy agenda until the spring of 1993, when the new president met with Czech President Vaclav Havel and Polish President Lech Walesa on the occasion of a ceremony marking the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Both Havel and Walesa argued that the security vacuum in Central Europe needed to be filled and appealed to Clinton to integrate their countries into the Western security arrangements.

Initially, the new U.S. administration tried to postpone any decisions on NATO enlargement. Top-level foreign policy makers including Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, and Ambassador-at-Large to the New Independent States, Strobe Talbott, opposed extending any security guarantees to former Warsaw Pact members.

Rather than concentrating on the future of the Atlantic alliance, the Clinton administration, much like its predecessor, focused on establishing a cooperative relationship with Moscow that would allow for a common nuclear security management and arms reduction. Aiming to ensure stability in Russia, the new administration supported Yeltsin’s reform program, and Clinton backed the Russian President’s attempts to persuade the newly independent states to give up their strategic nuclear weapons and to transfer them to Russia in order to assure their central control.

When the Clinton administration finally began to discuss in more detail the future of the Atlantic alliance which found itself deprived of a common enemy and its long-standing mission, the Republican opposition also weighed in on the issue. In early August, Senator Richard Lugar, ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gave a much-noted speech arguing that NATO had to adapt to Europe’s changed security environment in order to retain its relevancy and held that “NATO must either develop the strategy to go out of area or it will go out of business.” Insisting that the alliance needed new members as well as new missions, Lugar called for the speedy admission of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary.

As a result, NATO’s eastward expansion had turned into one of the most important foreign policy initiatives of the Clinton administration, and was seen by some as the issue for which this administration would be remembered best.

NATO and the United States before and after September 11

Both U.S. national identity and US role in international affairs have been redefined by the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. While the administration of President George W. Bush had favored a unilateral approach to foreign policy already upon assuming office, this tendency was dramatically reinforced by the attacks on the American homeland and the new quality of terrorism which deeply affected the administration’s strategic thinking.  Clearly, the terrorist attacks had provided a new focus for the Bush administration’s foreign policy, which as Michael Cox put it, before September 11 “had appeared to be floundering about without purpose in the wider world.”

After the attacks, the administration “was playing a most active leadership role directing a loose but surprisingly obedient alliance of states in an ill-defined but very real war against something called international terrorism.” Central foreign policy goals of the Bush administration continued to include the promotion of international stability and U.S. security by encouraging democratization and marketization as well as by preventing the emergence of hostile powers and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. However, the war against terrorism now dominated all other foreign policy decisions.

While the new grand strategy emerged in direct response to the terrorist attacks it also involved a broader view about the U.S. global role and international relations. After September 11, administration officials viewed the U.S. as leading the Western world in the war against terrorism and subordinated all other concerns to this goal. Given the attacks on the American homeland, the question as to whether or not the U.S. should play a leadership role in international affairs had become undisputed.

The Bush administration clearly opted for a unilateral approach to foreign policy; multilateral international organizations would play less of a role in world affairs than they had in the past. In waging war against terrorism, President Bush welcomed the support of the U.N. and that of its NATO allies, but it made clear that neither was essential in U.S. efforts to pursue its goals.

The Bush administration’s strategic thinking thus differed markedly from that of its predecessor. It called for “American unilateral and preemptive, even preventive, use of force, facilitated if possible by coalitions of the willing—but ultimately unconstrained by the rules and norms of the international community.”

The fact that there was a new quality to strategic considerations became clear when President Bush spelled out his views in his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002. He held that the United States had to “prevent the terrorists and regimes who seek chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons from threatening the United States” and insisted that he would not “wait on events while dangers gather.” The same emphasis of preventive and preemptive action became clear at a West Point Commencement speech on June 1, 2002 where President Bush argued that the United States had to “take the battle to the enemy … and confront the worst threats before they emerge.”

The new administration thus insisted that the definition of what represented a serious threat was up to the U.S. It also expected that its Western allies would join the U.S. in what it perceived as a struggle of good against evil.  The central tenets of the Bush administration’s strategic thinking were codified in a new National Security Strategy issued by the White House on September 17, 2002, which again focused on the war against terrorism and the means of prevention and preemption. The new ideas were not endorsed by all strategic experts since, as Ikenberry notes, at “the extreme, these notions form a neoimperial vision in which the United States arrogates to itself the global role of setting standards, determining threats, using force and meting out justice.”

Thus, America in the new post-9/11 world seemed to depend less on the cooperation of its allies and less bound to international rules and institutions. This became apparent in an analysis of the elements of the new grand strategy. While the notion of maintaining a unipolar world and preventing the rise of peer competitors had already surfaced briefly during the Bush senior administration, it now had become one of the central goals of U.S. foreign policy. Strategic thinking had changed fundamentally and the Bush junior administration indicated that the changed nature of global threats required a new approach to military strategy.

According to the new thinking, security could no longer be ensured by a strategy of deterrence. Rather, administration officials argued, U.S. military power now needed to be used preemptively and preventively, and terrorist networks needed to be destroyed. This was deemed necessary even if it entailed the intervention in sovereign countries harboring terrorists.   Moreover, in its efforts to wage war on terrorism, the Bush administration did not want to be constrained by international rules or by international organizations and would not rely on the cooperation of allies.

Remain? Enlarge!

While the global role differed significantly from that of the Clinton administration, its policy toward NATO enlargement seemed to continue that of its predecessor. During his first trip to Europe, President Bush in a speech in Warsaw in June 2001 asserted that “all of Europe’s democracies from the Baltic to the Black Sea and all that lie between” should have a chance to join European institutions and expressed his belief “in NATO membership for all of Europe’s democracies that seek it and are ready to share the responsibilities that NATO brings.”

Bush added that at a NATO summit in Prague in 2002, the “United States will be prepared to make concrete, historic decisions with its allies to advance NATO enlargement…The expansion of NATO has fulfilled NATO’s promise. And that promise now leads eastward and southward, northward and onward.”

The new strategic situation after September 11 enabled the Bush administration to realize the “big bang” option of NATO enlargement, bringing in seven new members including not only Slovenia and Slovakia but also all three Baltic states as well as Romania and Bulgaria, an option it had favored since early 2002.

Support for this decision came from various groups with conflicting interests including proponents of hedging against a potential future Russian threat, advocates of enhancing stability in Europe, from policy-makers intending to decrease NATO’s relevance by integrating a large number of military weak new countries and from those arguing that NATO enlargement had to be completed in order to be able to focus on the more pressing issues of terrorism and Iraq.

The seven East Central European states were formally invited to join the alliance at the NATO summit in Prague on November 21, 2002. While the new members added little to the alliance in term of military capabilities they added other assets that were considered useful in the Bush administration’s war against terrorism, such as airspace enabling NATO bombers, transports, or spy planes to operate freely across Europe.

In addition, the new members also signaled that they supported U.S. policy. They issued a statement saying that they were “prepared to help” in efforts to confront the threat in Iraq. The non-controversial nature of the second round of NATO enlargement became apparent also in May 2003, when the U.S. Senate voted unanimously 96-0 in favor of ratifying the decision to integrate Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia into the Atlantic alliance, a marked difference to the controversial debate and the 80-19 vote in 1998.


NATO enlargement thus was accelerated by the events of 9/11. Rather than naming candidates and requiring them to meet certain criteria, the Bush administration had opted for a rapid and far-reaching enlargement. The emphasis was no longer on the promotion of democracy in the new member countries. Supporting political and economic transitions in the new member states played no major role and the leverage that the U.S. had developed during the NATO of enlargement by having the candidate countries meet various criteria regarding their internal organization and their external relations was all but abandoned by quickly admitting a large group of new members. The focus of the Bush administration’s NATO enlargement policy and of its overall international engagement was not on promoting international stability and enhancing U.S. security by promoting democracy, but on increasing U.S. security by preventing new attacks on the American homeland.

Rather than emphasizing the democratizing functions of NATO membership, Bush administration officials focused on the contributions that future NATO allies could make in the common effort to wage war on terrorism. Given the new nature of international threats and the new definition of U.S. national identity and international role by the Bush administration, the Atlantic alliance had become less relevant and NATO enlargement served primarily to consolidate the area in order to move on to more pressing foreign policy concerns.

In the global fight of good against evil, the focus had shifted from East Central Europe— which had been a central concern in the aftermath of the Cold War’s end—to “rogue states” and states harboring terrorists which were viewed as potential future threats to U.S. security. The Clinton administration’s belief in democracy promotion as the adequate means to stabilize international relations and enhance U.S. security had been replaced by a belief in the need to fight a global war on terrorism to achieve this goal.


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