Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 24
8 March 1999

B E T W E E N   T H E   L I N E S:
NATO-ing the Line?

Sean Hanley

Interrupted only by a whistling anarchist, President Vaclav Havel signed on live TV the Ratification Agreement for the Czech Republic to join NATO. Try as I might, I didn't feel suddenly safer. In a few days, in a final ceremonial act signed in Missouri, the Czech Republic, along with Hungary and Poland, will finally become a fully-fledged member of the North Atlantic Alliance. Then, I suppose we should all breathe a collective sigh of relief, knowing that Central Europe is safe from the prospect of a surprise attack by the Russians rolling across Ukraine and Slovakia, attracted no doubt by the rich pickings of the Czech Economic Miracle. Strange, however, that smaller and richer states in the same part of the world such as Austria and Finland are not falling over themselves to join NATO...

Well, not strange at all, in fact. The military rationale for joining NATO for small states in Central and Eastern Europe is, frankly, non-existent. And who in their right mind would commit themselves to a costly, long-term programme of military expansion and modernisation in the current economic climate just for the pleasure of sporting one of the badges of the Western club. The answer, of course, is most of the political elites and, when they can be bothered to think about it, most of people in East Central Europe.

When you have been invaded, annexed, bargained over and dominated for so long by powerful, aggressive neighbouring states, the attraction of NATO's relatively benign embrace and the temptation of joining the Big Boys on something like equal terms is obvious. But it comes with a price-tag.

Every new Eurofighter flying off to the Gulf in Czech, Polish and Hungarian colours to teach some future Saddam Hussein, a lesson or bomb the parties in some future Kosovo into peace talks will mean poorer schools, worse hospitals and rawer sewage, or higher tax bills for the incipient Central European middle classes.

It might, of course, turn out to be money well spent. A Russian military threat to East and Central Europe might seem now to be as likely as snowstorm in July, despite the authoritarian and nationalist drift of Russian domestic politics. But twenty or thirty years down the line, who knows what dreams take hold in the Kremlin? "Russia shall be great or she shall not be at all", as one of the Tsar's more able ministers once put it. And this is a sentiment shared at some level by even the most liberal of Russians. If your country had produced Tolstoy, defeated three quarters of Hitler's armies and put the first man into space, you would probably feel the same. But "greatness" and walking tall on the international stage implies projecting your country's power in some arena. Were I sitting in the Ukrainian, Lithuanian or Kazakh foreign ministry, I might feel somewhat queasy contemplating the next turn of the wheel of history.

But, if the post-Yeltsin Russia turns out to a more peaceable creation, reliant upon banks rather than tanks for its Great Power ambition, or if it merely stews in a spiral of Latin American-style stagnation, the next generation of Czechs, Hungarians or Poles may curse leaders like Havel for sleepwalking their countries into an expensive military irrelevance. In setting aside utopian ideas of dissolving military blocs once held as a dissident, Havel has, like so many others, allowed himself to be hypnotised by past historical agonies and overpowered by an absurd reverence for the status quo.

Only time will tell if changing sides in the Cold War when the Cold War is already over will turn out to be an act of accidental foresight, or merely another piece of post-Communist foolishness.

Sean Hanley, 8 March 1999


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