Everything depends, of course, on how you define success. Supporters of NATO enlargement point out that without the cooperation of Hungary, any peace mission in the Balkans would have been far more difficult and costly. If Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary had not rejected Russia's request to permit a massive airlift of Russian troops over their territories into Pristina, the Kosovar capital, Russia and NATO would have been brought to the brink of a major military confrontation. All three countries were guided by their commitment to NATO, which Bulgaria and Romania are hoping to join in the next round of enlargement. Today, two Polish battalions serving in Bosnia and Kosovo are considered model peacekeepers.
As the new secretary general of NATO, Lord George Robertson, told a National Press Club audience in Washington, within 10 days of being admitted to NATO, the new countries were caught up in NATO's biggest conflict in its 50-year history. It was a "real test by fire - and they stood up robustly to it." He paid warm tribute to the effort, energy and loyalty of NATO's newest members. It is clear that the prospect of NATO membership has already become an important tool of constructive American influence in this crucial region. It would not serve the interests of the United States to undermine the hopes, or destroy the strongly pro-American orientation of the countries which find themselves between NATO and the present Russian border.
Those who think in purely military terms and argue, for example, that the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania could hardly contribute to NATO's defensive potential, tend to overlook the more vital question: what should be done to turn Russia from an adversary into a fully cooperative partner of the European-Atlantic community?
Opponents of NATO enlargement argue that nothing should be done that might create a sense of isolation, or even humiliation, in Moscow. To reject those countries seeking future NATO membership would pave the way, they argue, for a mutually beneficial accommodation and perhaps some "super-agreement" with Russia.
Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Russia's superpower ambitions are not limited to exercising, sometime in the future, greater control over its next-door neighbors. Its avowed primary objective is still to reduce America's global influence as much as possible. As long as Russia's leadership indulges every opportunity to damage U.S. interests abroad, any effort to treat today's Russia as a genuine partner would have to be based on a significant degree of self-deception.
There is an expansionist mentality among Russia's ruling elite, deeply rooted in the country's past, which makes it difficult for them to consider forming a partnership with the West. This almost permanent urge for territorial expansion has at the same time become a scourge for the Russian people, who continue to live in appalling poverty in a country rich in resources.
A refusal or indefinite postponement of admission to NATO of those countries located in the gray unprotected zone between NATO and Russia would be seen by Moscow as tacit recognition by the West that these countries are within Russia's exclusive sphere of influence. It would be perceived as a triumph and would further encourage the imperialistic elements within the Russian leadership, posing further challenges to the West.
By contrast, the gradual enlargement of NATO would help the Russians to understand that any dreams of regaining control over neighboring countries against their will are unrealistic. It would help Russia's leaders change their present unproductive mindset and finally reconcile themselves to the loss of their empire. And it would hopefully encourage these same leaders to focus their vast resources on internal recovery and raising the desperately low living standards of the majority of the Russian people. Jan Nowak is a former consultant to the National Security Council on Central and Eastern European Affairs. For 25 years he was director of the Polish Service for Radio Free Europe.