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."
Havel, while having relatively limited powers back home,
nevertheless had some influence both on Clinton and his second-term
Secretary of State, the Czechoslovak-born Madeleine Albright, and he
used his access to lobby for NATO intervention in Yugoslavia and for
continued alliance expansion into the poorer countries to the east.
The frail Czech President worked long and hard to put together this
week's summit, just two months before the end of his term, and to
have it include such significant organizational reform as the move
toward a rapid-response unit and the elimination of many
His opening speech was full of the sweep of history:
"If the past centuries witnessed various great powers dividing
the small, or smaller, European countries among themselves without
asking the latter's opinion -- whether this happened in direct forms
such as the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact or indirectly through
arrangements such as those at Yalta -- the present enlargement of
NATO carries an unequivocal message that the era of such divisions
is over, once and for all. Europe is no longer, and must never again
be, divided over the heads of its people and against their will into
any spheres of interest or influence."
This is an idea that Bush, like Clinton before him, clearly takes
nourishment from. Just before hopping on the plane, the President
sounded as enthusiastic as a Labrador retriever. "I'm really looking
forward to it. I can't wait to get there," he told reporters. "It's
going to be a very exciting time."
A good reason for an American to be pumped up is that one of the
two most powerful European multilateral institutions (the other
being the European Union), is seeing its fundamental character
changed by the far-more pro-American former communist countries.
At a time when U.S.-German relations are at a 20-year low
(creating one of the most overheated subplots of the summit -- would
Bush shake German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's hand?), Bush was no
doubt gratified to hear a European leader say, as Havel did in his
opening remarks, that: "Looking back at all we have been through
during the twentieth century, and witnessing all that is happening
today -- with the United States being inevitably involved in some
way or to some extent -- Europeans should be more conscious of the
roots and the type of the American responsibility and, if necessary,
show a certain amount of understanding for the occasional
insensitivity, clumsiness or self-importance that may come with this
In his major summit speech on Wednesday, Bush made several clear
distinctions between what he has called the "invigorating" new NATO
members and the more annoying (to him) older allies from Europe's
"In the years to come, all of the nations of Europe will
determine their place in world events. They will take up global
responsibilities or choose to live in isolation from the challenges
of our time," he said, in what many saw as a thinly veiled slap at
Schroeder and his governing coalition, which recently won
re-election on a campaign of criticizing U.S. foreign policy.
"Every new member of our Alliance," Bush went on, "makes a
contribution of character.... Members recently added to NATO and
those invited to join bring greater clarity to purposes of our
alliance, because they understand the lessons of the last
century.... Czechs and Slovaks learned through the harsh experience
of 1938, that when great democracies fail to confront danger,
greater dangers follow. And the people of the Baltics learned that
aggression left unchecked 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