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International Security 25.4 (2001) 41-67

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Why NATO Enlargement Does Not Spread Democracy

Dan Reiter

The debate over the costs and benefits of enlarging the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that preceded the March 1999 inclusion of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic retains policy relevance in the twenty-first century. Nine more countries have formally applied for membership, requesting entry in 2002. 1 Supporters of enlargement have argued that it would help to stabilize Eastern Europe in at least three ways. First, a strong Western commitment to former communist states in this region would deter any future Russian aggression. Second, enlargement would reduce the likelihood of conflict among NATO members, ameliorating security dilemmas and forcing them to accept current borders and pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes. Third, it would further democratization in the region, which in turn would help to stabilize the area because democracies are unlikely to fight each other. As former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick explained, "There is . . . only one reliable guarantee against aggression. It is not found in international organizations. It is found in the spread of democracy. It derives from the simple fact that true democracies do not invade one another and do not engage in aggressive wars. . . . Preserving and strengthening democracies in Central and Eastern Europe should be the United States' central goal and top foreign policy priority in Europe, in [End Page 41] my opinion. Membership in NATO will help to achieve those goals and strengthen the alliance." 2

Critics of NATO enlargement worry about its risks and costs. Their principal concern is that expansion may jeopardize relations between Russia and the West, pushing Russia away from cooperating on issues such as strategic arms control and peacekeeping in the Balkans, and perhaps turning it back toward belligerence and even ultranationalism. Critics also express concern that the financial costs of enlargement will weaken NATO's military power and complicate decisionmaking within the alliance.

The claim that NATO enlargement will spread democracy has been underexamined in the public debate and deserves closer scrutiny. If true, it would be the strongest argument favoring enlargement. Hence the decision to expand should hinge on whether increasing NATO membership will indeed spread democracy. If enlargement furthers democracy, then this would be an important reason to support it. If it does not, then the costs and risks warn against further expansion.

My central argument in this article is that NATO membership has not and will not advance democratization in Europe. The empirical record during the Cold War is clear: Inclusion in NATO did not promote democracy among its members. Further, enlargement did not contribute much to democratization in the three East European states admitted in 1999, and the promise of NATO membership is unlikely to speed democracy within any of the nine countries currently awaiting a decision on their request for membership. The weakness of the democratization argument, coupled with the costs and risks of further enlargement, caution against pursuit of this policy in the near or medium term. Instead the West should rely on the European Union (EU) to spread democracy, an approach that is more likely to foster democratization yet less likely to alienate Russia.

This article proceeds in five parts. First, I present some background on NATO enlargement. I then lay out the principal reasons for supporting expansion, contending that the democratization proposition (if valid) would be the strongest argument favoring an enlarged NATO. In the second section, I discuss the theoretical logic of the proposition that increasing NATO's membership will spread democracy. In the third section, I explore whether NATO expansion fostered democratization during the Cold War, focusing on the cases of Turkey, Spain, Portugal, and Greece. In the fourth section, I examine NATO [End Page 42] enlargement in the 1990s, exploring whether the carrot of NATO membership significantly advanced democratization in Eastern Europe, and whether it will spread democracy among the current round of applicants. Finally, after comparing the weak arguments favoring NATO enlargement against its potential costs and risks, I conclude that enlargement will not spread democracy in Europe and that the West...


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