No. 1 - Jan. 1997
Vol. 45 - pp. 12-14

The American public, Congress and NATO enlargement

Part II
Will Congress back admitting new members?

Jeremy D. Rosner
Senior Associate at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace
in Washington

Jeremy D. Rosner
Now that NATO is about to extend formal invitations to Central European states to enter the Alliance, there will be increasing focus on whether each of the 16 current allies will ratify the addition of these new members to the North Atlantic Treaty. Ratification must overcome especially high hurdles in the United States. While most of the allied governments only need to obtain majority votes in party-disciplined legislatures, the US needs a two-thirds vote from its famously independent Senate, and this at a time when the electorate has just returned a Democratic President to face a Republican Congress.

Partly due to these dynamics, many of the allies may wait to pursue ratification until they see whether the proposal is adopted in the US. That may mean the Senate would need to vote before the new, 105th Congress adjourns, probably in late summer or autumn 1998, if NATO is to admit the new states by the 1999 target - NATO's 50th anniversary - that President Bill Clinton recently set. But will the Senate ratify the addition of the new members?

As part of the Project on Attitudes Toward the Transatlantic Community, the Carnegie Endowment conducted a series of round table dialogues on NATO enlargement with members of Congress and key staff. The picture that emerges from those conversations, and from analysis of Congress's past actions on the issue, is similar to that provided by the polling data cited in the preceding article: support is broad but fairly thin, and while ratification seems likely, certain dynamics could yet cause US ratification of NATO enlargement to go awry.

There are several reasons to believe Congress would ratify NATO enlargement. The first is the string of favourable congressional actions on the issue. In 1994, Congress enacted the NATO Participation Act, which authorized the administration to provide excess defence equipment and other assistance to prospective NATO members. During the 1994 election, House Republicans included NATO enlargement in their "Contract with America", the manifesto that helped usher in the first Republican majority in decades.

In 1996, following votes of over 80 per cent in both the House and Senate, the 104th Congress adopted the NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act, which again endorsed the concept of enlargement and authorized US$60 million in aid to help prepare new members for participation in the Alliance. All these actions establish a record of broad and bipartisan congressional support for the initiative.

The second reason that ratification seems likely is electoral politics. There are nearly 20 million Americans of Central European descent in the US, and they are most heavily concentrated in 14 states accounting for 194 electoral votes - more than two thirds the amount needed for a majority in the presidential elections. Many of these states, such as Michigan, Ohio, and New Jersey, are pivotal, "battleground" states in American politics. These electoral dynamics help explain why both President Bill Clinton and Senator Bob Dole stressed their support for NATO enlargement during the recent presidential race - indeed, the issue was the centrepiece of the President's only major foreign policy speech out on the general election hustings. Participants in our dialogues on Capitol Hill noted that concern over this electoral bloc also helps explain Congress's recent actions, including both the inclusion of NATO enlargement in the Contract with America, and the lopsided votes on the issue this year in the House and Senate.

Third, congressional advocates of NATO enlargement will benefit from the dynamics of a ratification vote. In particular, by the time the Senate votes, the initiative is likely to have even more momentum than it does now. NATO's heads of state will have given the green light to enlargement and accession talks with prospective members will have been concluded. These events will enable the White House and allied capitals to tell Senate critics that "we cannot go back on our word now". Moreover, it is important to bear in mind that the ratification bill itself will not directly confront many of the more contentious issues surrounding enlargement, such as its cost and the potential deployment of US troops to defend the new states. Funding will come out of the annual defence bills; defending the new states from attack is, at this point, a distant hypothesis. As a result, political passions on both issues during the ratification fight may be somewhat muted.

A fourth reason that ratification will probably clear Congress is that political opposition to the idea seems diffuse and disorganized. While enlargement advocates on Capitol Hill have steadily advanced the issue with the support of a national ethnic coalition, opponents have lacked the backing of any major organized group and have been split between various factions: from libertarians who would disband NATO, to liberals and centrists worried about the impact on Russian politics, to conservatives who worry that the addition of new members will dilute the Alliance's military strength and political cohesion. Moreover, NATO enlargement's most articulate and influential critic in the Senate, Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn, is retiring, along with other Senate sceptics such as Republican Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, and Democrat Bennett Johnston of Louisiana.

Despite these favourable signs for ratification, other trends suggest Senate ratification of NATO enlargement is far from assured. The first danger sign is that congressional opinion on the issue is still very much in the formative stages. In one of the discussions we convened, a group of members of Congress estimated that only five to ten per cent of their colleagues had likely thought about the question in great depth. One congressman in our discussion in September said he could not recall which way he had voted on the enlargement resolution in July (he had voted for it). Moreover, participants in these discussions noted that the enlargement resolutions involved only general expressions of support, small amounts of money, and little political risk. They were, in a sense, "free' votes, and some believed that the lopsided tallies on the measures need to be discounted somewhat as a result.

More generally, congressional behaviour on foreign affairs in recent years has been more assertive, partisan, and volatile, and one can imagine scenarios in which today's broad but vague support for enlargement could evaporate. Well over half of the incoming Congress will have been elected since the end of the Cold War, and Congress's relative lack of grounding in foreign issues these days has already produced consequences for NATO. Consider the case of one Republican who, in February 1995, voted in favour of the Contract with America provisions that endorsed NATO enlargement. Yet just ten months later, while debating President Clinton's proposal to send American troops to Bosnia, this same congressman rose to dispute the notion that the deployment was essential to prove NATO's viability, arguing that it was time to give NATO a decent burial. Under certain circumstances - say, if congressional Republicans began to view enlargement as less of a substantive necessity and more of a partisan matter - it is possible that many Republicans could reverse themselves in the same manner.

The results of the 1996 elections in the US provide yet another reason for believing NATO enlargement may be contentious. While the Republican majority in the House of Representatives narrowed, the Republicans gained two seats in the Senate. Moreover, the retirement of a record 15 Senators helped produce a new Senate in which many of its most experienced and moderate voices on foreign policy have been replaced by members who are more extreme and far less knowledgeable on these issues. As a result, the two weeks following the election saw contradictory signals - House Speaker Newt Gingrich talking about great cooperation with the White House on domestic issues, but the Senate making confrontational noises about foreign policy, from Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms warning the President about his choice for the next Secretary of State, to a stormy Senate briefing on an extension of the US deployment in Bosnia.

Finally, several substantive concerns could dampen political support in Congress as the debate over NATO enlargement proceeds. As Steven Kull notes above, the general public has qualms about enlargement's cost and nuclear guarantees, and these might begin to register on Capitol Hill. But in most recent foreign policy votes in Congress, mass opinion from a public that is little focused on foreign affairs has had less impact than the opinions of highly vocal elites or splinter groups. That is one reason why the United Nations, which remains popular among the public, regularly gets pummelled on Capitol Hill. The real danger to the ratification of enlargement, therefore, would come if some energetic and influential group of elites were to spring into action against the issue, or if there were to be a falling out among the different elite factions that compose the pro-enlargement coalition. The latter might well occur over the question of force posture, since those in the pro-enlargement coalition who are mostly concerned about Russia will likely insist on relatively robust defence preparations, while those more focused on European integration may well push for a lighter level of forces and spending.

In the end, the key determinant to the fate of NATO enlargement's ratification in the US is likely to be the White House. Given a more assertive Congress since the end of the Cold War, major foreign policy initiatives have only tended to succeed when they have the active support of the President himself. So far, based on conversations we have conducted on Capitol Hill, members of Congress seem disappointed by the level and intensity of White House outreach on this issue. Many feel that the executive branch has not yet tried to make Congress a full partner in the enlargement enterprise.

Now that the US election is over and NATO is preparing to take decisions on which states to invite into the Alliance, Capitol Hill will be watching to see if President Clinton and his advisers move to change that perception. After having touted the issue in his re-election campaign, the President can claim (correctly or not) that he has a popular mandate to pursue the Alliance's enlargement, and given the personal commitment he has made to the issue so far, he can be expected to do so. If, in fact, the Clinton administration's advocacy of NATO enlargement is active and bipartisan, and if it provides meaningful input for Congress into major policy decisions, then it appears likely that the strong margins of bipartisan support that the idea has enjoyed so far will endure, and the Senate will produce the two-thirds vote that is required.

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