Throughout the 1990s, the allure of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union captivated the nations of Eastern Europe. But membership was not automatic. The original members of NATO and the EU made it clear that only the well-behaved needed apply, and that the official costs of acceptance would be steep.
Among a multitude of other requirements, NATO and the EU required the countries knocking on their doors to be democracies with market economies, to make either military or economic contributions to the community, and to protect minorities. Border disputes between countries that had been mortal enemies for centuries were expected to be resolved.
But “international institutions are overrated,” write Stephen M. Saideman and R. William Ayres, of McGill University and Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College, respectively. “Membership processes as instruments of influence on foreign and domestic policy are inherently limited.” Membership is political, and if it helps the incumbent members to admit a country, they do so—regardless of the formal merits of the applicant. Moreover, there are so many conditions of membership that the significance of each one pales in comparison to the others. Treaties can be signed and not implemented. Laws can be passed and not enforced. And once a country is admitted, it is quite free to backslide into business as usual. Kicking out backsliding members would be incredibly hard or impossible.
Membership in NATO and the EU is coveted because the former significantly increases a nation’s security and the latter carries grand implications of “joining Europe” and is considered necessary for economic success. Even so, when average voters in Eastern Europe marked their ballots for a new government, it didn't much matter whether the candidates were for or against joining. The transition from communism to capitalism was so brutal that in most elections, the electorate just chose to throw the bums out, Saideman and Ayres write.
Admission, the authors say, became less a question of “what you do” than “who you know.” Cyprus was admitted even though it failed to reunifry its Greek- and Turkish-dominated sections. Greece, an incumbent member of the EU, was Cyprus’s patron, and admitting the island was Greece’s price for supporting EU expansion. France pushed for the inclusion of Romania—which wasn't up to EU snuff on crime fighting and judicial reform—in part to offset the admission of pro-American Poland.
The Baltic states posed a difficult problem. They had sketchy records on minority issues (especially the treatment of Russians), but denying them admission would have seemed a victory for the Russian heirs of the Soviet Union, under whose hated yoke Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had chafed for more than half a century. They were admitted.
Hungary—whose wary neighbors have historically been sensitive to its irredentist tendencies—signed border pacts with Romania and Slovakia before joining NATO and the EU. Several writers have cited these treaties as success stories of the “conditionality” membership process. Saideman and Ayres, however, contend that Hungary agreed to the border treaties because in return it received something more valuable for domestic political purposes: better protection for the 1.5 million Hungarians living in Romania and the 500,000 in Slovakia. So instead of being pushed by the NATO and EU application processes to abandon any territorial ambitions, Hungary has used them to advance its own foreign-policy objectives. It has since gone a very independent way, going so far as to purchase arms from a non-NATO country.
An accession promise, the authors say, is similar to Mary Poppins’s description of pie crust: Easily made, easily broken.
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The Source: "Pie Crust Promises and the Sources of Foreign Policy: The Limited Impact of Accession and the Priority of Domestic Constituencies" by Stephen M. Saideman and R. William Ayres, Foreign Policy Analysis, July 2007.
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