The last year of a president's term can be a moment of opportunity. Liberated from political constraints, a president can do something controversial but right. But he can also cut corners while trying to score a final success and make a mistake.
In the coming weeks, the Bush administration will decide whether to push to enlarge NATO again at an alliance summit this spring. It is President Bush's last hurrah on the transatlantic stage. The administration is proposing to extend invitations to Albania, Croatia and Macedonia. I was one of the earliest proponents of NATO enlargement, but I believe such a move would be a mistake.
NATO enlargement must strengthen the alliance. That is why in the 1990s, in close consultation with the Senate, we set clear and high criteria for future members. By those criteria, perhaps one of the candidates under discussion -- Croatia -- is ready for membership. Albania and Macedonia clearly are not. We learned over the past decade that our leverage in pressing candidate countries to complete reforms falls considerably once these countries join. We need them to get as much reform done as possible beforehand. Thus, new members must meet the criteria before receiving an invite, lest enlargement weaken the alliance.
The other benchmark set in the 1990s was that enlargement had to advance NATO's strategic interests and stability in Europe. Enlargement today could address two key strategic issues: One is to stabilize the Balkans. The other is to reach out to new democracies in Georgia and Ukraine and keep NATO's door open to them. The challenge of the past decade was to secure democracy in Europe's eastern half, from the Baltics in the north to the Black Sea in the south. The challenge today is to extend security further east -- into Ukraine and across the wider Black Sea to the southern Caucasus, which is caught between an unstable Middle East and an increasingly assertive Russia.
Unfortunately, the administration's proposal is strategically shortsighted and does not meet this second benchmark either. Coming immediately after what is likely to be a messy declaration of independence by Kosovo, the admittance of weak, unqualified candidates threatens to bring regional instability into NATO rather than the other way around. It ignores the real prize -- getting Serbia to embrace a westward course. It also does nothing to connect the Balkans and the wider Black Sea region and would make it harder, if not impossible, to bring in Georgia or Ukraine down the road.
Enlarging NATO entails logrolling. There are pressures to include more countries to keep all allies happy. The temptation to bend criteria is real. But what is good politically can be bad strategically. A decade ago, some European allies pressured the United States to embrace a bigger first wave of enlargement including Romania and Slovenia, two countries we judged not yet qualified and whose inclusion could have buried any chance of eventually bringing the Baltic states into the alliance. Recognizing those dangers, President Bill Clinton held his ground. The United States fought a dramatic political battle at the Madrid summit to limit that initial round. The result: Romania and Slovenia, while disappointed, redoubled their reform efforts; the Baltic states grabbed their chance to catch up and qualify and did so; and we laid the foundation for a later but ultimately successful enlargement that redrew the map of Europe. Being firm on criteria and thinking strategically about the long term paid off.
The same philosophy should guide U.S. policy today. Enlargement should be limited to those countries that actually qualify. We should wait on others until we are convinced they are ready. In the meantime, we should solve Kosovo and work to get Serbia on a pro-Western track. We should start to link the Balkans and the Black Sea and signal to Georgia and Ukraine that this is their chance to catch up and join a larger enlargement round in two or three years. This is not as politically attractive today, but it could lay the basis for a better strategic result in the future.
The administration will argue that it is okay to lower NATO's standards or that this move is needed to stabilize the Balkans. I disagree. The administration should make its case for enlargement in public -- and critics should have the chance to respond.
Thus far, the administration has not been asked to testify by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or other relevant congressional committees. A decade ago, enlargement decisions were made after public debate and in close consultation with Congress. The result was a better policy and a stronger consensus when it came to winning Senate ratification. The worst thing that could happen is for the Bush administration to put forward an ill-conceived enlargement package and have the Senate, after closer scrutiny, vote it down. That is why we need to have this debate now.
Ronald D. Asmus, deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs from 1997 to 2000. His essay Eastern Promises: Rethinking NATO and EU Enlargement appears in the January-February issue of Foreign Affairs.