Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed May 1998
Copyright ©1998 by Stuart Gottlieb and Martin Malin

Buy Now, Pay Later: The Non-Debate over NATO Expansion

By Stuart Gottlieb and Martin Malin
Stuart Gottlieb teaches international politics at Brown University in Providence, R.I. Martin Malin teaches international politics at Columbia University, New York.

"In an age in which markets trump militarism and pursuit of peace dividends reigns supreme, how is it that one of the largest expansions of American military commitments since World War II passed almost without comment?"

What do campaign finance laws have to do with April 30's vote in the Senate approving the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)? More than they should. NATO expansion easily passed in the Senate not because it makes such good foreign policy sense - this extension of United States defense commitments to Eastern Europe is at best risky - but because a lopsided coalition, led by powerful special interest groups that spent tens of millions on campaign contributions and lobbying, ensured that ratification of the NATO treaty amendment would sail through quickly and quietly. This story of the great foreign policy debate that never was speaks volumes about what is wrong with the American political process.

The expansion of NATO, approved by an overwhelming 80-19 Senate vote, will stand as a landmark of American foreign policy for years to come. The new treaty obligates the United States to send its citizens to fight in defense of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Five other countries - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Romania - have been invited to apply for membership next year. Proponents of NATO expansion have argued that it will bring stability to Eastern Europe in a period of economic and political transition, strengthen the transatlantic link between new and established democracies, and extend a defense umbrella to those most concerned with a potential threat from Russia. Opponents respond that NATO expansion will provoke the very threat from Russia it is meant to guard against, weaken the alliance's military effectiveness, and burden the United States with the costs of upgrading Eastern European militaries.

Although both sides make arguments worthy of careful consideration, opponents of NATO expansion were scarcely heard from on the Senate floor. The bipartisanship on this issue raises an interesting question: In an age in which markets trump militarism and pursuit of peace dividends reigns supreme, how is it that one of the largest expansions of American military commitments since World War II passed almost without comment?

The answer is that powerful interest groups with enormous stakes in the issue of NATO expansion, together with an administration bent on placing profits above strategic prudence, and a Congress flush with soft-money contributions from pro-expansion lobbyists converged to push the policy through. They produced the strategic rationale for expanding NATO - the military alliance is touted as a tool for entrenching democracies and market economies - that has anesthetized the public and prevented a careful accounting of the potential costs. Opponents simply have not had the money, power or organization to make their arguments heard.

Foremost in making the case for NATO expansion were lobbyists representing American weapons manufacturers, who stand to gain billions in arms sales to new NATO members. The New York Times reports that the largest military contractors have spent $51 million on lobbying campaigns over the last two years, mainly to promote the issue of NATO expansion. These firms have also helped finance the lobbying efforts of Eastern European governments and sympathetic American ethnic groups. In addition to lobbying, industry advocates have been generous contributors to Congressional candidates - dozens of arms-related companies have contributed over $32 million since 1991 - and major soft-money donors to Republican and Democratic election committees. By comparison, the tobacco lobby spent $26.9 million in campaign contributions over the same period.

However, unlike Big Tobacco, which confronts enormous opposition, no organized opposition to NATO expansion exists. As a result, the political calculations of government officials were simplified: Support for NATO expansion assures the Clinton administration of credit for being pro-business while preserving American jobs; the Pentagon gets new missions and weapons for years to come; and lawmakers get the financing they need for reelection. The Eastern Europeans, meanwhile, will pay for modernizing their Warsaw Pact-vintage hardware and military infrastructure with the help of loans and grants from the U.S. government.

Public deliberation of weighty issues by elected officials is a cornerstone of American democracy. Debate educates voters about the likely costs and benefits of prospective policies, brings new ideas to light, and makes prudent choices more likely. This process can be short-circuited under the current rules of lobbying and campaign finance. When powerful groups coalesce on an issue but face no opponents with comparable money and political muscle, dogma tends to replace debate and the public is largely excluded from the policy-making process. Indeed, the Pew Research Center recently reported that only one in ten Americans could name even one of the three new NATO members, and only 5 percent of the public follow the issue "very closely." With public opinion quelled, and organized opposition non-existent, the coalition of expansion proponents had their way.

Though the merits of NATO expansion are debatable, we can all agree that the process by which the decision was reached is flawed. Reforming campaign finance laws to limit soft money contributions and the influence of wealthy groups with narrow interests is a vital step toward protecting public debate and promoting sound domestic and foreign policy.