Updated: 06-Dec-2000 NATO Review

Web edition
Vol. 47 - No. 3
Autumn 1999
p. 33-35

NATO after enlargement: Is the Alliance better off?

Sebestyén L. v. Gorka
Kokkalis Fellow for Hungary at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard,
and Consultant to RAND, Washington D.C.

The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland took their seats on the North Atlantic Council as full members of NATO last spring, manifesting their return to Europe. Some critics have argued that the new members were invited to join for the wrong reasons, that their accession was premature, and that they have no real contribution to make to the Alliance. The author disagrees, outlining the political and military assets the three new members represent for the new NATO and the unique role they could play in promoting stability on the European continent.

Only a decade ago, Czechoslovakia (1), Hungary and Poland were ideologically driven by Marxist theory, dominated strategically by Moscow, and their armies part of the Warsaw Pact. With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989-90, these independent states immediately made clear their wish to "return to Europe" and their aspirations to join both the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union. The first half of this wish was realised when the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland took their places on the North Atlantic Council as full members of NATO on 12 March 1999.

Enlargement for the wrong reasons?

(Left to right) Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Czech President Václav Havel, Austrian Chancellor Viktor Klima and former dissident, Adam Michnik, editor-in-chief of Warsaw's newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, at a conference in Vienna on 26 June to mark the 10th anniversary of the fall of the "Iron Curtain" in 1989.
(photo - 56Kb)

Some have argued that their successful accession came about for the wrong reasons: that the move to enlarge NATO was motivated by either Western feelings of charity, or a perceived need to exploit a temporary window of opportunity; and that the three were chosen subjectively, thanks to US diplomatic pressure, in spite of their militaries being in serious need of reform and a lack of any true commitment to NATO.

In my view, these charges are without merit. Indeed, the three new members are vital to defining NATO's new role on the Continent and, in particular, they have a unique contribution to make in improving Alliance relations with other non-member countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

Reforming the military

Soon after the political tidal wave of 1989-1990, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland all took drastic steps to change the nature of their armed forces, starting with the renunciation of aggressive strategies and radical reductions in force levels. Subsequent moves included an increased commitment to having officers learn NATO's official languages (English and French) and to formulating new missions for their forces. At the same time, attempts were made to gradually move away from absolute reliance on Soviet-era equipment. In this respect, greater emphasis was laid on achieving compatibility with NATO in communications and airspace management, among other areas.

The Alliance's Partnership for Peace (PfP) initiative played a key role in this process, enabling the forces of these countries to practise operational procedures alongside NATO and other Partner states. As a result, all three countries were able to make significant contributions to the implementation of the Dayton Accords which ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, through the contingents they each sent to IFOR/SFOR and, in the case of Hungary, through its ongoing provision of staging areas and transit rights for units deploying into and out of the former Yugoslavia.

Each country has been more or less successful in creating the framework for and gradual implementation of democratic, civilian control of the military. Nevertheless, we should remain realistic and recognise that serious challenges do remain regarding military reform generally. The more obvious of these constraints is financial. The defence budgets of these three countries currently stand at around two per cent of GDP. Current budget levels are insufficient to equip forces with military assets that are in good working order, interoperable with NATO and preferably Western. It is also proving difficult to attract potentially good officers into the ranks, as well as build up a qualified cadre of civilians with the skills needed in the uncertain security environment at the end of the 1990s.

Some of the criticism levelled at these states may have been justified as regards their military reform efforts. But it is easy to underestimate the magnitude of the unprecedented set of tasks facing former Communist countries wishing to join NATO. Not only are they having to manage the transition towards a market economy - remember, even some Western states are still struggling to balance free market principles with the requirements of the modern welfare state - they are also having to anchor their return to Europe by firmly re-establishing democratic principles. It would be foolish to expect advances in the field of defence reform to outstrip progress made in the areas of general democratic and economic reform. A credible and confident defence community cannot be created and maintained in a vacuum, isolated from the society which nurtures it.

Whatever criticisms may be made as to the extent of the modernisation and reform of their armed forces, one thing is clear: the break has been made with Communist ideology and aggressive military strategy, and the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are unquestionably headed in the right direction. It may be true that the Warsaw Pact fostered a mentality among its officers that is not particularly conducive to interoperability with Western forces, and that all three countries still rely heavily upon Soviet-era military hardware. But, at a very early stage, their governments made a political commitment to moving closer to the Alliance and promoted the learning of NATO's official languages and the adoption of NATO standards and concepts.

Contributing to the Alliance

During the first NATO exercises in which troops from the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland participated as full Allies, a British officer (centre) shakes hands with the Hungarian crewman of a Russian-made armoured personnel carrier near Gemona Del Friuli, Italy, on 18 March this year.
(Belga photo - 114Kb)

There are several ways to assess the three new members' military contributions to the Alliance. These countries have at their disposal in peacetime a total of nearly 350,000 active armed personnel. Even before acceding to the North Atlantic Treaty, both the Czech Republic and Hungary were practically ready to deploy up to a brigade-sized unit each for exclusively NATO-led, non-Article 5 (2), peace missions. Poland will be able to contribute two to three times as many troops. The fact that only ten years ago these same forces were pledged to destroy the North Atlantic Alliance and defeat the liberal democracies of the West makes the military contributions of the three new members to the Alliance today all the more significant.

Training and peacekeeping experience

All three countries inherited large training facilities from the Cold War period, which have already won great favour with NATO troops. This is an important asset, given the tighter political and environmental constraints some Allies are facing in using their domestic facilities. Two of the three countries - Hungary and Poland - also have their own peacekeeping training facilities, dedicated to creating a cadre of men versed in the special requirements of "Operations Other Than War", something not all Alliance states can boast.
Hungary also gained valuable experience hosting IFOR and SFOR troops prior to their deployment to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The recent Kosovo crisis clearly demonstrated that a considerable part of NATO's future work will probably involve operations like SFOR and the Kosovo peace implementation force (KFOR), which call for stable staging areas close to the region concerned, as well as personnel trained to manage such logistically challenging operations as peacekeeping and humanitarian support.

Military-industrial capacity

Another significant military asset these states bring to the Alliance is their indigenous military-industrial capacity. Poland has a substantial military-industrial complex with which it can supply itself and other states in several areas, helicopters being one of its strengths. The Czech Republic also has a strong reputation for quality military products, including training aircraft, munitions and small arms.

Hungary may be the weakest in this field but its potential should not be ignored. In the last few years, groups of dedicated designers and engineers have developed new defence-oriented products such as small arms, various innovative ordnance items, and even a Fast Attack Vehicle (the Szocske) - a type of vehicle much in demand with NATO special forces. These achievements are all the more impressive given the size of the country, the constraints of the post-Cold War period and the perennial drive for peace dividends.

Beyond purely domestic capabilities, there are also favourable developments in regional cooperation among the three. The best example to date is the joint Czech-Hungarian endeavour to field a new Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), a venture which is completely in line with modern tactical trends in Western Europe and North America.

Pioneering the way towards integration

(Left to right) Prime Ministers Mikulás Dzurinda of Slovakia, Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic, Viktor Orban of Hungary and Jerzy Buzek of Poland jointly shake hands, prior to the summit meeting of the Visegrad countries held in Bratislava on 14 May, aimed at promoting close cooperation in Central Europe.
(Belga photo - 40Kb)

The area in which the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland may have the most to offer concerns the need to promote stability in Eastern and South-eastern Europe. The vast majority of former Communist countries are united by the common goal of eventual NATO and European Union membership: the prime mover behind their gradual progress towards market democracy and more stable relations with neighbouring states. This puts the three new members in a rather unique position. They are pioneering the way towards integration with Europe. On the security side of matters, they have achieved their long-awaited goal. Economically and politically, they have achieved recognition as stable countries, satisfying the requirements of "market democracy", and attracting considerable foreign investment, leading them to be invited to begin accession negotiations with the EU.

But they, too, had to start practically from scratch after several decades of Communist rule. It is this shared past with other states in the region that leaves the new members best placed to assist prospective members to move towards closer integration with the Alliance, since they have first-hand insight into the necessary reform process.

So, it is clear that the new members can contribute significantly to the security of the Euro-Atlantic region in both political and military terms. As the front runners in the regional push to establish secure market economies and liberal democracies with credible defence assets, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are exceptionally well-placed to assist their neighbours in Eastern Europe and the Balkan region, who are seeking to take the same path to Europe. The new Alliance of the post-Washington Summit environment needs to recognise this fact and exploit it early on, as it works towards promoting the continental stability that is so important to all.


  1. Now the Czech Republic and Slovakia
  2. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty refers to collective defence.