Slovakia's renewed push for membership in NATO reflects a new sense of urgency in Central Europe. With Russia rebuilding its empire and Western Europe both indifferent to Central Europe and increasingly uncomfortable with U.S. leadership, Central Europe must move quickly to keep the U.S. engaged if it is to avoid becoming the forgotten backwater between hostile camps.
In his New Year's Day address, Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda stressed his country's strong desire to join NATO, though he expressed the fear that 1999 could be "the last chance." The same hope and fear was also expressed by Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, in a December 31 report by the Czech news agency "CTK," when he said that Slovakia's chances of joining NATO remained slim, but he hoped that talks would commence in the near future regarding membership.
Slovakia's chances of joining NATO significantly improved following the September parliamentary elections that resulted in a pro-Western government succeeding that of the authoritarian leader Vladimir Meciar. Yet although NATO will formally invite the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to join the alliance in April 1999, during NATO's next summit in Washington, Slovakia will not be part of that group. One reason is that the new Slovak government has yet to stabilize the country's internal political situation, a significant precondition for entry into NATO. The EU also offered this rationale for its rejection of Slovakia's entry into that organization. However, the political dynamics of Europe are changing such that Slovakia may be in a position to play these organizations off against each other to obtain membership in both.
For Slovakia, membership in the EU and NATO has become the paramount goal. Integration into the EU guarantees a more extensive market for its goods and potentially greater amounts of investment and foreign aid with which to revitalize its economy. Membership in NATO enhances the security of Slovakia's eastern border by enabling it to coordinate its defense against Russian pressure with Poland to the north and Hungary to the south — and of course with U.S. troops theoretically in the middle of it all. Given the critical strategic location of Slovakia for the defense of NATO, particularly after Poland and Hungary are admitted, Slovakia should be able to easily draw on the support of the U.S. for admission into the organization. Moreover, Slovakia's leaders realize — as do the leaders of the other Eastern and Central European countries — that the EU commitment to expansion is waning and that a foothold in NATO may be the only means by which to gain leverage on possible EU membership.
The EU's current move to slow the process of expanding European integration is a product of the growth in Western Europe's social welfare policies. Exemplifying this is Germany which, under its new Chancellor, Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder, took over the presidency of the European Union on January 1. Germany's Social Democratic Party has long been a proponent of slowing EU integration out of a concern that, if the Union's borders are opened to the East, the EU would be flooded by cheap labor from Central and Eastern Europe. This, in turn, could potentially drive up the costs of the social welfare programs currently being instituted throughout Europe and already strained in Germany's case by the burden of Eastern Germany.
Therefore, lacking support from the rest of Europe, Slovakia has turned to NATO, hoping that the U.S. influence in that organization will prevail. What Slovakia has to offer to NATO is its location. Slovakia is located in the heart of Europe and is a pivotal country from a strategic point of view. It occupies a 300-mile-long stretch of territory running from Ukraine to Austria. Were Russia to dominate Slovak foreign policy and national security, Slovakia would then undermine the defense of Poland, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic. This means that Slovakia must be tied to the West, as it would become, in the absence of such ties, an Achilles heel for the whole of Europe. This puts Slovakia in a good bargaining position to obtain U.S. support.
On the other hand, Western Europe has grown uncomfortable with U.S. leadership, and is pursuing its own military alliance, though thus far only in addition to NATO. But as NATO's significance and U.S. influence in Europe wane together, so they might rise together, or so Slovakia hopes. Slovakia is hoping to keep the U.S. engaged and committed to an expanded and vital NATO, as without U.S. interest Central Europe may become a neglected and insecure backwater between the EU and the new Russian-Belarus-??? Federation.
Slovakia's drive for membership in NATO may place the U.S. at odds with Germany and the rest of Europe. The EU has and will grow without the U.S., but NATO, the main European defense structure, cannot. Hence, while many in the new Europe are opposed to U.S. influence, they remain tied to the U.S. through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The EU, with its continental-wide market and its tariff structure, is designed to foster a regional economic specialization and interdependence that is ultimately divorced from the U.S. and the North Atlantic connection. The crux of the current situation is that the U.S. recognizes the strategic importance of extending NATO's sphere of influence far enough into Central and Eastern Europe for NATO to remain effective; whereas the EU favors turning its back on applicants from Central Europe out of its concern that the cost of propping up the population of those countries may far outweigh any economic benefits derived from their membership.
Given the divergent responses of the EU and NATO to applicants from Central Europe, Slovakia's plea may raise the level of tension between the U.S. and Europe even more. However, it may also hasten a revival of U.S. and European cooperation. For the fact remains that the old Soviet Empire is beginning to regroup under Russian leadership and this may indeed pose a problem that neither the U.S. nor Europe can confront alone.