The Wilson Quarterly

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.

Photo courtesy of Flazingo Photos

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