Washington, 11 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The United States yesterday offered proposals intended to overcome the three most serious obstacles to NATO expansion: Russian opposition to any growth in the alliance, East European concerns about the fate of those not included in the first round, and West European nervousness about NATO's future.
Speaking to a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher sought to meet each of these problems in turn.
In response to continuing Russian opposition to the expansion of the alliance, Christopher provided some fresh details on the proposed NATO-Russian charter which he said would define "a truly cooperative relationship" between the two.
Although he rejected Russian suggestions that this charter take the form of a "rigid legalistic treaty," the secretary promised that it would guarantee "a process of consultation and a regular pattern of security cooperation" between NATO and Russia.
To that end, he said, NATO was prepared to "exchange liaison offices with Russia at our major military commands."
Further, the secretary sought to meet two frequent Russian objections to expansion. He noted that "NATO has no plan and no need to station nuclear weapons on the territory of any new members."
And he repeated the past American assertions that any countries invited to join NATO would be invited to join the new post-Cold War alliance, not the one directed against Moscow.
In response to growing East European concerns about the status of those countries who will not be included in the first round, the American secretary of state made what was perhaps his most dramatic suggestion.
Arguing that the North Atlantic Consultation Council (NAC-C) created in 1991 had since become a "relic of the Cold War," Christopher called for its replacement "as soon as possible" by a new body to be called "the alliance partnership council."
The NAC-C provided a regular forum for occasional discussions between former Warsaw Pact countries and former Soviet republics, on the one hand, and NATO members, on the other.
Its proposed replacement, whose precise functions Christopher left open, would presumably include the same countries but this time on the basis of NATO membership or participation in the Partnership for Peace.
Several countries who seek to join NATO but who do not expect to be admitted in the first round have asked for an enhanced set of ties to the Western alliance. One such idea floated earlier this year by Estonia called for the creation of an inner Partnership for Security within the existing Partnership for Peace.
Christopher's statement on Tuesday -- which included a suggestion that NATO move toward "an enhanced relationship with Ukraine" -- appears to represent the American counteroffer, although it remains to be seen how his proposal will be viewed either by the East Europeans or by Moscow.
And in response to nervousness among current members of NATO about the future of the alliance, Christopher reasserted a strong American interest in the alliance. He indicated that Washington wanted to work closely with the European members to ensure that the alliance would remain a vital entity well into the future.
Translating from this diplomatic language, the secretary was clearly sending a message that the United States sees NATO as the central institution for trans-Atlantic ties and that it plans to retain its leading role in it.
He thus dismissed suggestions by some Europeans that the United States is pulling back from its commitments and other suggestions by some American political figures that the Europeans should bear more of NATO's burdens.
In addressing all three obstacles at once, the secretary has introduced a new clarity into the debate on NATO expansion, now planned for July 1997. But at least some of the parties to this discussion are unlikely to be entirely happy with his package of ideas.
That is because the reassurances offered to one country or group of countries are certain to look like something very different to the others. And that fact, a reflection of the underlying security situation in Europe, cannot be overcome quickly or easily.