LOS ANGELES - When historians look back on Nov. 21-22, 2002, they
will have no trouble locating the globe's most significant event:
the announced expansion of allied Europe's border to the outer edges
of Romania, Bulgaria and five countries that didn't even exist 13
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization will now include three
Black Sea countries instead of one, three Baltic republics (Estonia,
Latvia and Lithuania) that until recently existed within the borders
of the U.S.S.R., and two states (Slovenia and Slovakia) that only a
little more than a decade ago declared their independence over the
objections of the United States. For the first time in history, 24
European countries can sleep at night knowing they are protected
from foreign invaders.
Yet the historic NATO summit in Prague was cast largely as
another chapter in the geopolitical melodrama about Saddam Hussein.
"Bush draws NATO allies to anti-Iraq campaign," The Globe and Mail's
headline read on Thursday morning. "U.S. Wins NATO Support on Iraq,"
the Financial Times chipped in yesterday.
The forest missed by the tree-obsessed press was vast, and worth
considering. Beyond the real significance of guaranteeing security
for oft-trampled Central and Eastern European countries, the Prague
summit provided them with their first tangible multilateral reward
for overthrowing communism, gave U.S. President George W. Bush a
noticeable shot in the arm and served as the crowning achievement of
Czech President Václav Havel's fabled political career.
When Havel addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress in
February, 1990, as the new president of a wrecked country that would
surely be asking for handouts, he raised quite a few eyebrows when
he announced, "We, too, can offer something to you: our experience
[of communism] and the knowledge that has come from it."
Twelve years later, what may have sounded like a delusional boast
has become reality. As former U.S. State Department official Ronald
Asmus put it in his new book, Opening NATO's Door, "The idea of
enlarging NATO ... originated in Central and Eastern Europe."
The dissident-turned-leaders of Central Europe -- Havel, Poland's
Lech Walesa and Hungary's Jozsef Antall -- led the push for
inclusion starting around 1991. Although few North Americans
remember it now, it was by no means a foregone conclusion back then
that these fragile new democracies, and their even more fragile
Eastern neighbours, would not sink into the bloodshed that marred
That year, in fact, began with an ominously familiar sight --
Soviet tanks rolling into a satellite capital and crushing civilians
in Vilnius, Lithuania, a chilling reminder of Prague in 1968 and
Budapest in 1956. The U.S.S.R. still had troops stationed throughout
the countries of the Warsaw Pact (which had not yet been dissolved)
and it was not until two years later that the last Russian soldier
left Poland. Mikhail Gorbachev was ousted in a confusing August coup
and Boris Yeltsin took the unsteady reins of the first Russian
revolution of the nuclear age. To the southeast, Serbs invaded
Slovenia (if briefly), and Yugoslavia collapsed into chaos and
If history suggested anything, it was that the newly freed
countries had better find a protector, and quick. Czechoslovakia was
still haunted by the betrayal of its putative allies at Munich in
1938, and then being left at the mercy of the Soviet Union in the
continent-dividing Yalta Conference of 1945. Hungary had a losing
streak of seven consecutive wars. Poland's entire history was shaped
by the imperial lust of its neighbours.
In April, 1993, at the opening of the Holocaust Museum in
Washington, Havel, Walesa and Hungarian President Arpad Goncz each
pulled president Bill Clinton aside and urgently lobbied to join
NATO. Clinton began to change his thinking and policy on the spot,
initiating a process that would culminate in the 1999 admission of
the three countries. And, not for the first or last time, a U.S.
president found himself rejuvenated by the democratic enthusiasm of
the Central Europeans.
In the following months, according to Asmus, Clinton would
describe that meeting as "the clearest example I know ... that NATO
is not dead."
ed by the great democracies can rob millions
of their liberty and their lives."
Like Clinton and Albright before him, Bush stood on Czech soil
and declared: "No more Munichs; no more Yaltas." Like his father,
who visited Prague in November, 1990, he drew a direct connection
between the Munich capitulation and the world's containment of
After several short bilateral discussions about Iraq, Bush won a
stronger-than-forecasted alliance statement of concern, one that, in
the droll words of NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, "Took, I
think, 24 hours ... to be drafted and then to be endorsed by the 19
governments. I think that's approximately 41 days quicker than the
United Nations, but I can't be certain about that."
The future of NATO, as many alliance critics have noted, is
unclear. Robertson, Bush, Havel and others have been initiating
reforms to make reaction time quicker, decision-making more
streamlined and military spending more specialized and relevant.
But the fact remains that NATO played a minor supporting role in
the Afghan war and it is likely to do more of the same should
shooting break out in Iraq. Decision by consensus is beastly enough
with 19 members; 26 and counting may make it a nightmare.
But opponents of NATO expansion have been famously wrong -- about
Russia's once-feared opposition to the idea, mostly. And, as Bush
told the new invitees, "Never again in the face of aggression will
you stand alone."
Matt Welch founded Prognosis, a bi-weekly newspaper,
in Prague in the early 1990s. www.mattwelch.com