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  • Europe Moves EastwardNATO’s Peaceful Advance
  • Zoltan Barany (bio)

Over the last decade and a half, international organizations have played a vital role in fostering economic and democratic development in Eastern Europe. Notable among these have been the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. By far the most influential, however, have been the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). For since the end of the Cold War, it has been a consistent and principal foreign-policy objective of the region's states to join the two organizations, a prospect that has given the EU and NATO tremendous leverage over these states' domestic and foreign policies.

While NATO membership may not promise the kinds of tangible, long-term economic benefits that EU membership does, NATO accession is nevertheless a democratic milestone for the countries of Eastern Europe. Indeed, insofar as democratic consolidation depends on the stability afforded by robust security arrangements, full membership in the Atlantic Alliance is actually, from the perspective of democracy, a more important objective than EU integration. 1 And because a number of East European states perceived (accurately) that an invitation from NATO would be more readily forthcoming than one from the EU, they focused their early postcommunist efforts on satisfying NATO's less rigorous membership criteria.

NATO enlargement has been one of the most important events in post-Cold War international affairs. In less than a decade, countries that were ardent and strategically crucial enemies of the Alliance became its newest members. How and why did this happen?

The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War brought [End Page 63] dramatic changes to East European security. Soon after the March 1991 dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, Eastern Europe found itself in a security limbo, as politicians, military elites, and national-security experts widely recognized at the time. Moscow's forces were gone, but the Polish, Czechoslovak, and Hungarian militaries were simply not capable of guaranteeing their own national security. Initially, this did not seem to be much of a problem, as the new governments' priorities lay in democratization and economic reform rather than the improvement of their security environment. In fact, there was a major public debate in Czechoslovakia during the early 1990s on whether the country any longer needed a military establishment at all.

Three developments, however, soon compelled Eastern Europe's leaders to turn their attention to security matters. The first was the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, a country bordering on three former Warsaw Pact member states (Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania). Although the actual threat posed to these states was modest—even taking into account the Hungarian government's clandestine delivery of surplus infantry weapons to Croatia in 1991—the war in Yugoslavia clearly exposed their poor defensive capabilities. For example, during the war, Croatian and Serbian aircraft frequently violated Hungarian airspace. In one incident, a Yugoslav National Army fighter jet—representing the Serbian side—accidentally dropped a bomb on a Hungarian village, causing no casualties and only minor damage. From the subsequent public inquiry, it became clear to Hungarians that their skies were now virtually unprotected.

Second, Eastern Europe's leaders had come to understand that they had more to fear than conventional, or "hard," security threats. Liberalization and open borders subjected the region to many new "soft" security threats, as well—ones long known to Western democracies, such as international trafficking in refugees and contraband.

The third, and most momentous, development prompting the region's elites to pay more attention to their security situation was the all-out collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This was accompanied by the emergence of political parties of all hues, but predominant among these was the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, whose ultranationalist leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, promised to reinstate the Soviet Empire and to redraw the map of Eastern Europe in Russia's interests.

After the Warsaw Pact, What?

Although the states of Eastern Europe did establish a number of new regional security organizations, including the Visegrad Four and the Central European Initiative, none of these had any substantive military-security profiles—in part due...


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