The era of democracy promotion via European Union and NATO expansion is over. Throughout the 1990s, the West held up the lure of full membership in the key institutions of the Euro-Atlantic world to encourage governments in central and eastern Europe to persevere with their difficult and painful economic and political reforms.
Democracy and free-market systems appear to have set down stable roots in the former Soviet bloc–but in so doing, a great strain has been placed on both the Atlantic alliance and the EU. Voters who cast “No” ballots in the referenda on the European constitution in France and the Netherlands have sent a powerful message against further expansion and deepening of the EU. And while no vote was held in Germany, Chancellor Schroeder has made it plain that his country will abide no increase in the EU budget for 2007-2013, especially before crucial elections this September.
Meanwhile, President Bush completed his “Democracy in Eurasia–2005″ tour strong on rhetoric but light on details. In his address in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square, the president made no promises about eventual Georgian membership in either NATO or the EU, saying only: “We respect Georgia’s desire to join the institutions of Europe. We encourage your closer cooperation with NATO.”
This lukewarm endorsement follows the gentle rebuff given earlier this spring to Ukraine’s president Viktor Yushchenko. Speaking at Georgetown University, the Ukrainian leader eloquently laid out Ukraine’s aspirations to join the Euro-Atlantic community. His speech echoed another famous oration delivered on that campus some 15 years previously by Vaclav Havel–just as President Bush’s visit evoked memories of the Revolutions of 1989.
Unfortunately, times have changed since the end of the Cold War–and the steps taken to assist the newly liberated countries of eastern Europe back then are no longer feasible.
The “NATO 26″ may be a successful association of European democracies but as a means to project military power it is much more sluggish and ineffective than the old NATO 15. The EU, having expanded to encompass more than 450 million people, is reaching its saturation point. And digesting the Balkans–bringing states like Serbia and Croatia into NATO, and Romania and Bulgaria into the EU–may prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
NATO and the EU cannot continue to expand indefinitely and remain cohesive, successful organizations. The ongoing EU budget crisis demonstrates that Germany is not prepared to provide an infinite credit line to the Union.
Nor is the West prepared to undertake the massive effort that would be needed to displace Russia as Eurasia’s economic center of gravity. Guest workers from other post-Soviet states living and working in Russia send home $12 billion annually in remittances, the IMF recently concluded; this comprises 30 percent of the GDP of Moldova and over a quarter of Georgia’s. Ukraine may be increasing raw-material exports to Europe but much of its industrial production remains geared toward the Russian market.
What worked to promote reform in Poland or Hungary in the last decade is not an option in trying to encourage positive change across Eurasia, not to mention the Greater Middle East. And Western pundits who continue to hold out the hope of rapid EU and NATO membership for reform-minded states like Ukraine and Georgia do these countries and the cause of democracy promotion no service.
First, it is time to de-link membership in “the community of democracies” or “Western civilization” with participation in geographically defined organizations. After all, Mexico shares a border with the United States, yet is not a NATO member. Advanced industrial democracies such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand are not members of either NATO or the EU.
Strategic planners of a bygone era understood this principle very well and this is why the United States created a series of regionally based alliances alongside NATO rather than one all-encompassing organization.
Second, it is necessary to make programs like Partnership for Peace or the EU Wider Neighborhood Initiative genuinely attractive as alternatives to full membership. For too long, these were seen as “second-best” stepchildren and not taken seriously by anyone.
Finally, these new efforts must take into account Winston Churchill’s famous dictum that “in a true unity of Europe Russia must have her part.” Grandiose schemes for new Baltic and Black Sea commonwealths that bypass Russia look wonderful on paper but don’t correspond to realities on the ground. Russia remains Ukraine’s and Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner, and the United States is not poised to change that reality. The West in no way should facilitate Russian hegemony in the region–but helping Russia and her neighbors find ways to accelerate mutually beneficial integration on terms that does not compromise the sovereignty of the latter benefits all concerned.
Seeds of democracy may have been planted throughout Eurasia; whether they take root and flower depends on whether they are nourished. We need a new strategy–the old one is no longer viable.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.