Updated: 15-Apr-2002 NATO Review

No. 2 - Apr. 1992
Vol. 40 - pp. 27-31


Professor Otto Pick

The following article, which is intended to contribute to the debate on the Alliance's role, especially in relation to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, expresses the personal views of the author.

Stable political and economic developments in the countries of the defunct Warsaw Pact continue to be at risk. The collapse of the former hegemonic power has added to the difficulties and problems of Central and Eastern Europe. In military terms, Russia remains as the region's strongest power, but it is highly unlikely that anyone in Moscow would have the inclination, or even the time, to consider taking military action anywhere outside the territory of the former USSR. The pressures of the economic situation are simply too great to permit this. It is, of course, possible that Russian forces could be drawn into some of the ethnic conflicts which have become endemic in the former Soviet Union, but this would not necessarily cause too much concern in Eastern and Central Europe. Yet the risks of conflicts of this kind spreading uncontrollably cannot be overlooked.

The future deployment of nuclear arms, stationed in at least four of the Commonwealth states, is much more alarming, because it is feared that they could fall into the hands of an irresponsible nationalistic militia or a rogue military commander. The system of controls set up by Marshal Shaposhnikov, which stood the test of the failed coup in August 1991, appears to be reliable and fears of unrestrained nuclear proliferation would seem to be groundless. But threat perceptions are rarely governed by logic and experience.Developments in the Ukraine could present a much more acute problem. Uncertain signals about the new republic's military intentions have come from Kiev for some time. Even if the Ukraine does give up its nuclear weapons, it will still be a major conventional power with an army of some 400,000 men. Although it is again very unlikely that it would be prepared to throw away its chances of economic rehabilitation by indulging in military adventures, the present strength and violent history of Ukrainian nationalism must be taken into account, as the country is locked into several irredentist disputes with Poland, Lithuania, Moldova and possibly also with Russia.

Perhaps the major worry of the authorities in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and to a lesser degree Poland, is the prospect of large numbers of uprooted hungry and angry refugees surging westward from the former USSR to escape from economic misery and possibly more direct physical danger. Civil strife and the collapse of orderly government in any of the Soviet successor states could set off such a calamity. Even though the likelihood that a large-scale migration of desperate refugees could be stopped by the use of acceptable military means seems more than remote, all the Central European countries have deployed troops from their western frontiers to reinforce their eastern border controls.

The German question is also on the agenda. Logically, it should have been exorcised by the 4+2 Treaty, theinclusion of the now unified Federal Republic in NATO and the conclusion of the German-Polish Friendship Treaty. Above all, the Kohl government's continued support for the ideal of European political union should have reassured most Europeans. Yet the bickering, which complicated the negotiations for a treaty between Czechoslovakia and the Federal Republic, showed that the ghosts of the 1930s had not all been laid to rest. Germany is by far the most powerful external influence on the Czechoslovak economy, and this helped to raise the spectre of a new Drang nach Osten.

The demands of the Sudeten German organizations in Bavaria for recognition of German rights to property forfeited after 1945 were predictable. The depth of anti-German feeling in Bohemia and Moravia, cleverly exploited by the Communist Party there, was much more surprising. In the event, Chancellor Kohl came to Prague to sign the disputed treaty on 27 February, but it still remains to be ratified.

The burden of insecurity

People in Eastern and Central Europe feel insecure. The causes are not to be found predominantly in perceptions of external threats, but are deeply embedded in the social, political and economic structures of all the East European countries. They have little or noconnection with military factors, but as the transition from centrally planned to market economies exacts its price in rising numbe rs of unemployed and mounting inflation, the basic fabric of personal security begins to disintegrate. The collapse of the old trading patterns has made matters worse, especially as economic relations with the West have not come up to expectations. Disenchantment and fear of the future have become widespread. This personal insecurity, which affects most people in the area in varying degree, has made them more vulnerable psychologically and the need for reassurance has come to dominate their lives.

Insecurity of this kind breeds frustration, and this can be one of the major influences encouraging the growth of political radicalism, including extreme nationalism and racism. The tragedy of Yugoslavia has shown that the end of the East-West confrontation has, if anything, increased the danger of local wars with their dreadful potential for escalation. As criminality throughout the area is seen to increase, the clamour for strong regimes, dedicated to the maintenance of law and order, will become louder. Ultimately, internal instabilities related to perceived economic failure, could put the concept of societal pluralism and democratic government at risk.

A new European order

There is very little the rest of the world can do to help remove the social causes of insecurity - these problems can only be solved by the peoples of Eastern Europe themselves. Yet much more could have been done to assist the process of economic transformation. The expected flow of Western investments has been little more than a trickle. It is obvious that investment is discouraged by instability, but the economies of Eastern and Central Europe are locked in a vicious circle, where they fail to attract funds because they cannot get their economic reforms to work, and they cannot do this without obtaining large inflows of capital. The Association Treaties negotiated recently by the European Community with Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary have not been unduly generous, especially as the EC feels that it has to protect its farmers from the agricultural surpluses produced in the East.

It is said that the hope of returning to Europe which characterized the revolutions of 1989 has been disappointed. In many ways, the feelings of isolation and rejection have destabilized the political scene in a more profoundly disturbing manner than any physical manifestation of discontent. Apathy and lethargy may do more harm than violence or anti-democratic conspiracies - the low turn-out in the recent elections in Poland and Hungary was not a good omen.

Even though it may be difficult to identify realistic external threats, there is a perceived need to find shelter under some umbrella of credible international guarantees, simply for the sake of reassurance. In this respect, the European options have proved to be disappointing. The European Community continues to debate its defence identity. It seems to be facing considerable difficulties in sorting out its procedures and affiliations in a West European context and would appear to be reluctant to complicate matters further by indulging the East Europeans. The Western European Union (WEU), hopeful as always, is standing by to provide some of the necessary structures if and when required. The CSCE is seen, even in Prague, as a worthy but not yet very useful institution. It has no teeth, it is too unwieldy and for students of history it has an aura of predestined weakness reminiscent of the worst days of the pre-war collective security system.

The bloody conflict in Yugoslavia has concentrated people's minds. While it is unlikely that ethnic quarrels and nationalistic confrontations elsewhere in Eastern Europe could deteriorate in the same way, there are areas of concern - the fate of the large Hungarian minorities in Romania and Czechoslovakia, the Czech-Slovak question, the disputes among Poles, Lithuanians and Ukrainians, Moldova's tendency to seek a closer alignment with Romania, the presence of large Russian populations in the Ukraine and some of the Baltic republics, the Turks in Bulgaria and the residues of German minorities almost everywhere else. There is enough explosive material around to alarm even the most optimistic politician. This is one of the reasons why a purely regional collective security arrangement faces great difficulties.

There has been talk of a tripartite security pact in Central Europe, incorporating Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. This was rejected, ostensibly because it could have been regarded by the USSR as a provocation, but nothing much has been heard of this project since the Soviet Union began to disintegrate. Bilateral agreements on defence cooperation have been concluded among the three Central European states, but they have carefully steered clear of putting up any multilateral structures. The uncertain future of the Czech-Slovak relationship and the possible dissolution of the Czech and Slovak Federation complicates matters further.

The Yugoslav experience has also demonstrated the relative impotence of European institutions. While the European Community has tried hard, and without doubt the decision to recognize Slovenia and Croatia (and subsequently Bosnia-Herzegovina) played an important part in persuading Belgrade to adopt a more conciliatory attitude, it was the intervention of the United Nations, using the services of an American mediator, that broke the deadlock. In the East European perception, crises can be managed more easily if the United States can be involved. In this context, the lessons of the Gulf War are self-evident.

The NATO option

In this confusion of problems and impractical solutions, NATO stands out as the only credible security arrangement to have survived the Cold War. Defence was naturally always the first priority of the Alliance but reassurance has always been one of its principal functions. German rearm-ament after 1955 was made more acceptable by making the Federal Republic part of NATO and after unification, all Europe, including what was then still the USSR, was reassured by Germany's clear and unequivocal decision to stay in the Alliance.

Irrespective of the German issue, the existence of NATO has helped to create a feeling of security in the minds of many people in Europe, not least because it represented, and continues to represent, the principal institutional link between North America and Europe. As Secretary General Manfred Wörner argued convincingly in Brussels last January, "a collective security organization cannot be based solely on political commitments and legal procedures. It must be based on common values, the practice of very close cooperation and, above all, on a demonstrated capacity to uphold the security of all its members, even in the most difficult circumstances. By this yardstick, the only collective security system in Europe today and tomorrow is NATO." (1)

It is not very surprising that the post-Communist states in the Eastern half of the continent want to share in this successful arrangement. In the words of Lubos Dobrovsky, the Czechoslovak Defence Minister, "The countries of Central and Eastern Europe must achieve their stability and find their place in Europe within the framework of European institutions and by means of bilateral agreements. Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary are very serious in applying for membership of NATO, but NATO hesitates, sets conditions and time limits and generally carries on as if the whole thing were a misunderstanding, regardless of the fact that we, like Poland and Hungary, have made it unequivocally known that we regard NATO as an important stabilizing element in Europe. It would be helpful if the internal NATO structures could be treated more flexibly. As long as this is not done, Europe will continue to be divided into thosewho have the opportunity and capability to defend their democracy, and those who stand in danger of losing it." (2)

The Czechoslovak diplomatic approach to NATO has been blunt, to say the least. It might have been better to have concentrated in the first instance on seeking the diplomatic support of some of the smaller states in the Alliance. The Hungarian method seems to have been more subtle, although equally unsuccessful. The NATO response, however, is seen by many people in Central Europe as being cosmetic rather than substantive. This may be unfair, because to some extent it ignores the fact that the preoccupations of Central and Eastern Europe do not necessarily figure at the top of NATO's current agenda, especially now that the disintegration of the Soviet Union has raised more urgent and vital issues, such as the disposition of the nuclear arsenal or the coordination of urgent economic aid to the former Soviet Union.

The Alliance has set up the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), of which all East European members of the former Warsaw Pact were founding members. The NACC certainly goes some way towards meeting the need for reassurance in Eastern Europe - at least there is now a visible link with NATO, although it may be difficult to define exactly what the NACC is supposed to do. Perhaps this is irrelevant. What matters at this stage is that it exists. A useful range of bilateral and multilateral activities is being developed under the aegis of the NACC, including multiple military contacts and regular meetings with NATO committees. For example, there have been meetings of a High Level Working Group, consisting of representatives of all the NACC member states (including the CIS republics) to discuss the ratification of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. None of this is very dramatic, but reassurance can be built up by a succession of small steps, linking former adversaries and working towards a broad consensus on questions of common concern. The process is essentially an incremental one. (3) The North Atlantic Assembly also fulfils a useful purpose, "acting as a model for the further development of formal ties ... and providing practical assistance to the Central and East European countries in the development of parliamentary democracy." (4)

All these initiatives make a considerable contribution towards creating a more relaxed environment, and the inclusion of the successor states of the former Soviet Union in NACC is perhaps a useful step in this direction. Surely, but very slowly, and despite the arguments put forward in Central Europe, a climate of reassurance countering to some degree the uncertainties and conflicts of the post-Communist turmoil seems to be developing. It can only be of tangential help in relation to the economic difficulties and social unrest in Eastern and Central Europe, but it is obviously useful in turning at least some people's thinking towards cooperation rather than confrontation. At the moment, these are the limits of NATO's mandate as defined in Rome last November.


(1) In a speech to the "Grandes Conferences Catholique" (NATO Press Release, 27 January 1992).

(2) Mezinarodni Politika (monthly) Prague, December 1991.

(3) See also "NATO takes up its new agenda", G von Moltke, NATO Review, No.1, February 1992, pp.3-7.

(4) Simon Lunn, Deputy Secretary General of North Atlantic Assembly, writing in NATO Review, No.1, February 1992.

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1992.