NATO Enlargement (NSC)

Educator Overview

Case Overview

Set in January 1994. In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the role and purpose of NATO increasingly came into question. Some claimed that the organization, formed in 1949 to counter the Soviet Union and its nuclear weapons, was now obsolete. Others argued for a renewed and reinvigorated NATO in a post–Cold War world. Others still fell somewhere in the middle, acknowledging the importance of NATO’s role in European security, but urging caution in dealing with a newly subdued Russia. 

The president has called a meeting of the NSC in advance of an important NATO summit in Brussels. He plans to make an announcement detailing his administration’s views on the prospect of NATO enlargement and has convened NSC members to advise him on the matter.

Decision Point

In a few days, President Bill Clinton plans to attend a NATO summit in Brussels and to make remarks elsewhere in the city. Administration officials have agreed to coordinate with NATO allies to announce the PfP at the summit. However, allied leaders and those from central and east European states hoping to join the alliance expect the president to announce U.S. views on NATO’s eventual enlargement as well. The president has therefore convened National Security Council (NSC) members to advise him on the matter. Two options are under consideration:

  • Commit the United States to a policy of expanding NATO to central and east European states in the near future. Expansion would not be immediate; countries wishing to join would need years to meet various criteria, and some would likely be ready before others. Under this policy, however, the president would announce clear support for enlargement, along with the criteria and timeline, in Brussels. 
  • Avoid committing the United States to such a policy. Under this approach, the president would announce the PfP at the summit but not articulate clear support or criteria for NATO enlargement.

Learning Goals

CFR Education simulations use a variety of pedagogical tools to create an effective, meaningful, and memorable learning experience for students that builds their global literacy. Students will develop crucial skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Students will complete authentic assessments that feel relevant: instead of five-paragraph essays and book reports, students will write policy memos and participate in a role-play of a meeting of a foreign policy–making body. There are no right or wrong answers in actual policy deliberations, and there are none here, either; students will walk away from this experience with an appreciation for the complexity of policy questions.

In this simulation, students will learn about the National Security Council, as well as meeting these learning outcomes specific to this simulation:

  • Students will understand the origin and purpose of NATO during the Cold War, including its function as both a military and political alliance.
  • Students will consider the debate that ensued following the collapse of the Soviet Union regarding the role NATO should play in a post-Cold War world.
  • Students will evaluate policy options related to the enlargement of NATO into former Eastern bloc countries.

Concepts and Issues

Concepts 

  • Alliances 
  • Great power rivalry 
  • Balance of power 
  • Political and economic ideologies
  • Multilateralism 
  • Negotiations 

Issues 

  • Post–Cold War expansion of the European Union and NATO, and Russia’s relations with these institutions
  • U.S.-Europe and U.S.-Russia relations 
  • Balance of power in Europe 
  • U.S. support for democratic governance
  • Current and future challenges in NATO and the European Union 
  • Collective defense obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5

Policy Options: Educator's Guide

This section presents context, potential benefits and drawbacks, and other information about the policy options outlined in the case that you may find helpful as you guide the role-play and assess students. 

Once in office, President Bill Clinton prioritized forming a strong relationship with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. He encouraged Yeltsin’s efforts to reform Russia’s economy and government, aiming to help the country build a stable democracy. In March 1993, newly appointed Secretary of State Warren Christopher called supporting Russia’s transition to democracy the “greatest security challenge of our time.” Later he would write, “Our assessment was that America’s national interest lay squarely in supporting the process of reform—and that this was the key payoff of the end of the Cold War.”

The Clinton administration’s desire to consolidate the Cold War victory was not limited to Russia, however. On April 21, 1993, Clinton met several central and east European leaders in Washington. Among them were Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, both giants of the resistance to Soviet rule. At a press conference in June, Clinton recalled, “Every one of those presidents said that their number one priority was to get into NATO.” The encounter, only three months into Clinton’s presidency, left him favorably disposed to enlargement. However, enlargement was far from a sure thing as the Clinton administration settled in.

Opinion on NATO enlargement within the administration was not neatly divided. On one end of the continuum were those, such as National Security Advisor Tony Lake and several State Department officials, who supported enlargement as soon as possible. Those supporting prompt enlargement believed that outlining a timetable and criteria at the Brussels summit was essential to keeping Central and Eastern Europe on the path of democratic reform, even if it took time for new members to fully join the alliance. Others favored enlargement, or at least were open to it, but wanted a slower approach that did not include an early membership plan. This framework would leave time to solidify democratic reforms and address Russian concerns about NATO’s expansion.

Opinions varied even among those unfavorable toward enlargement. Many officials, mostly leading figures in defense, did not want to close NATO’s door forever, but did not want to consider the question anytime soon. Most notable among them were Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili. Aspin and Shalikashvili believed that from a military perspective, expansion would reduce NATO’s effectiveness by making operations more unwieldy and consensus harder to forge. They also thought that extending a security guarantee to central European states did not serve U.S. interests. 

Many opponents of enlargement in the immediate future also feared “jeopardizing the West’s relations with Russia,” as the scholar and former NSC staff member Charles Kupchan puts it. Moscow was too weak to prevent NATO enlargement, but it remained a nuclear power. Maintaining good relations was important. Doing so would advance Clinton’s priority of supporting Russia’s democratic reforms; a Russia angered by NATO expansion would be more likely to resist U.S. advice. Furthermore, some policymakers argued, enlargement would foster nationalism and resentment in Russia that could prove dangerous when the country became stronger down the road. Meanwhile, enlargement could undercut Yeltsin, a reformist leader who was building a warm relationship with Clinton. Finally, some opponents of enlargement said that adding new members to NATO over Russian objections would rebuild the dividing line that afflicted Europe throughout the Cold War. The new line would merely be further east. Proponents of enlargement countered that such a line would at least reflect the contemporary reality, not that of 1945. 

Supporters of enlargement did not dismiss the need for constructive U.S.-Russia ties. Rather, they believed the administration could minimize and manage Russian apprehension by reassuring Moscow that NATO expansion was not a threat. As noted, some proponents believed a relatively long timeline for enlargement would help. Some also contended that enlargement would prevent a “security vacuum” from forming in central and eastern Europe, a vacuum both Russia and Western powers could be tempted to fill. By avoiding this competition, NATO enlargement could “in fact benefit Russia’s relationship with the West,” as Kupchan recounts.

Proponents of enlargement also argued that fully integrating former Warsaw Pact states would boost their movement toward democracy and prosperity. The clear prospect of NATO membership could prove an incentive for reforms over time. It would also, in some supporters’ eyes, strengthen the Cold War triumph of American ideals and reinforce Washington’s continued leadership and influence in Europe. 

Amid these competing arguments, an idea called the Partnership for Peace (PfP) became the focus of debate within the Clinton administration. The proposal originated in the Department of Defense, whose leaders supported PfP as a useful initiative that could postpone discussion of NATO’s enlargement. It was a military-to-military program intended to allow NATO countries to build defense ties with the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, including post-Soviet states such as Russia. These ties would operate between NATO and each country, not through the North Atlantic Cooperation Council. PfP would focus on military cooperation, joint exercises, defense reform, and cooperation on science and environmental issues. Many experts saw PfP as a win-win alternative to immediate NATO enlargement. The partnership would not be a military alliance, thus allowing Russia to come into the fold and reassuring it that NATO would not be a threat to its security. Because each relationship would be between an individual partner country and NATO, old enemies such as Hungary and Romania would not have to work together. And, more important, some proponents saw PfP as an eventual path to membership for those countries that did the most to upgrade their militaries, consolidate their democratic institutions, and strengthen their relationships with NATO countries. 

Detractors, however, saw the partnership as a weak attempt to placate Russia. Many, including both U.S. and European politicians, thought it would either be ineffective at establishing peace and security or indicate that the Americans were too weak to stand up to Russia—or both. Despite these arguments, the Clinton administration came to a consensus on PfP over fall 1993. Officials agreed to advance it as part of the U.S. position at the Brussels summit in January 1994. However, doing so did not settle the disagreement within the administration over NATO expansion. Was PfP a substitute for enlargement in the coming years? Or should a clear path to NATO membership exist alongside PfP? As the summit approached, the debate churned on.