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#32 - JRL 2009-40 - JRL Home
From: Ira Straus (IRASTRAUS@aol.com)
Date: Wed, 25 Feb
Subject: Correction to article in JRL/#39 re NATO [re: polls, and Straus working for nonprofit studying NATO, not NATO]
[note from JRL website editor: FAS-hosted background information on CEERN: www.fas.org/man/nato/ceern/background.htm]

I see in today's JRL that I am mistakenly cited as if I were a NATO official (in item #33, "Can Russia become a NATO member?" by Ruslan Gorevoi, from Versia)

I am not a NATO official.

The citations in said article appear to have come indirectly from an interview I gave to someone else. The words attributed to me in it appear to have gone through translation, condensation for publication, paraphrasing for citation in another context, and retranslation. It is perhaps not surprising that some clarification is needed.

First, I take care in every interview to underline that the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO is an independent, non-governmental international association, formed in 1992 by public figures and scholars from the concerned countries. I regret that this somehow got turned upside down.

Second, the polls that I am said to have quote are in the main substance correct. However, lest they come to be cited and re-cited, inclusive of inaccuracies, a few words should be added about each:

1. It was in the mid-1990s, not 2002, that PIPA among others took polls of Americans about NATO expansion. In those polls it was indeed found that about 65% of Americans supported Russian membership in NATO (I gave that figure as an approximation in the interview, since I didn't have the poll on hand). That was not much less than the numbers supporting membership for other Eastern European countries that have subsequently joined NATO. However, it was phrased not as support for immediate membership, but for membership after Russian democracy had stabilized better. The question of Russian membership, asked outright without conditions as if an immediate proposition, received if I remember rightly 52% support.

2. I do not know what may have been shown by polls of Europeans on this subject. I have no idea where the writer found a poll I am quoted as referring to, finding 54% of Europeans supporting Russian NATO membership; I said nothing of it.

What I did say was that European governments were more negative about the idea of Russian membership in NATO than was the U.S. This is a fact of history. The German defense minister Ruehe pushed openly for NATO to declare that Russia can never join; many others also pushed for this, some of them Americans, more of them Europeans; President Clinton insisted that NATO keep the door open for Russia, and Clinton prevailed. It is not a matter of America's superior virtue, but of its being larger and less scared of Russia, and its greater distance, which historically has made it able in many cases to take a larger and more objective view of disputes among European countries than the Europeans themselves, and to sponsor reconciliations among former enemies in Europe. There was a time when France saw NATO as directed against Germany as much as against the Soviets, and was bitterly opposed to German membership in NATO; America insisted on it anyway, and largely as a result of this, nowadays the French are more relaxed about the Germans.

3. It is also true that some polls showed a plurality of Russians supporting membership in NATO (the article on today's JRL gives a 36% figure), compared to those who were against it, and a large number not sure. My memory is that the respective numbers were sometimes about 40%-30%-30%. However, the results depended heavily on when the polls were taken and how the polls were worded. In periods of strained relations, the numbers of Russians supporting membership were smaller. In polls that asked people to name their preference among a range of options -- membership, closer cooperation, the status quo of cooperation, a more distant relation (often phrased positively as a more independent Russian policy), an adversarial relation -- very few chose "membership", but perhaps that was because it did not seem realistic and was not on the official governmental table; in some cases they had to volunteer it, as it was not included on the list of options.

In my own estimation, the polls that asked specifically about membership, for or against, give us the most accurate indicator on this question, and the answers in periods of relative calm are more relevant than the answers in tense moments such as the war in Kosovo. The large percentage that expressed no opinion confirms an impression I have had repeatedly in my dealings with Russians, namely, that when it comes to speaking on matters of foreign policy, a large portion of the Russian public -- somewhat more than the comparable portion of the American public -- thinks it best to follow the lead or signals from its political leaders and foreign affairs elite; as long as the leadership is ambiguous, the public will be; as long as the leadership gives signals of a largely adversarial relation to NATO, much of the public will feel that speaking in a hostile way toward NATO is the right thing to do for their country, but will also say "correctly" that they favor "cooperation"; if the leadership were to say that NATO membership, after some negotiation or offer, is now in Russia's interest, a fair number of those "against" or of "no opinion" would be likely to switch to the "for" column.

Finally, I did not say "we in NATO". Regarding the follow-on lines -- that I "do not regard Russian membership as a thing of some distant future. We regard it rather as an inevitable reality of a considerably closer future." -- what I do sometimes say is this: While Russian membership looks impossible when seen from the immediate conjuncture of political forces, it looks almost inevitable when seen in the larger context of past Atlantic development and future needs. This paradox defines the unknown timeframe. It makes it a question of when the leaderships on both sides will overcome the entrenched impossibilities that stand in the way of achieving the necessities for their countries; or, in practical terms, when they will sit down together and work out terms and arrangements for ensuring that Russian membership would be beneficial for both sides, which is the only way to make it an actionable proposition.

Yours faithfully,
Ira Straus
U.S. coordinator
Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO
An independent non-governmental international association.