Washington, 6 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - While the U.S. and its NATO partners negotiate with Moscow to overcome Russian opposition to the Western alliance's expansion, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is finding out that support for NATO enlargement is not universal in the U.S. Congress either.
Albright encountered Congressional skeptics Wednesday when she testified before the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.
First, in her prepared remarks, Albright reaffirmed the view of President Bill Clinton's Administration that the time has come for NATO to take in new members from Central and Eastern Europe. Without naming any specific countries, she said this process will start in July when the 16-member alliance issues invitations to new members. It is widely assumed that the first new members will be the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.
Then, Albright suggested that the United States and NATO were gradually overcoming Russian opposition to alliance expansion, and that Russian leaders would see that a NATO with Central and Eastern European members would also strengthen the security and stability of Russia.
Albright has given this standard review of U.S. policy several times this year already in other appearances before Congressional committees, and the statements usually pass without comment.
Wednesday, however, several Congressmen questioned the wisdom of expansion on several grounds.
Congressman David Obey (D-Wisconsin) told Albright that he dissented "strongly," from the Administration view. Obey said he agreed that Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Government would make some formal accomodation with NATO.
However, Obey also said the United States will "run a grave risk that future Russian nationalists under worse economic and political conditions than we have in Russia today will be able to exploit any Russian government decision to accept a movement east of the military borders of NATO."
Obey said he believes that in the long term, alliance expansion "could have profoundly negative consequences."
The congressman also said he was concerned about what he believes to be the lack of knowledge on the issue among the American people.
"I think they are going to wake up one morning and discover that we have provided a guarantee to defend Central Europe, three or four more new countries," Obey said. "They didn't know about it, and I doubt that they are going to be very thrilled about it. I don't think the American public has been sufficiently talked to, about this issue, so that they can make an intelligent choice about how they feel about it."
Albright said she agreed with Obey's assessment about the understanding of the NATO issue in the United States. But she also said the administration welcomes what she called a national discussion on the subject. She added that what she called the new NATO will be an alliance for a new Europe.
Albright said she believes the Russians are coming to the realization that NATO expansion will be a force for internal stability in the emerging democracies of Central and Eastern Europe.
"What I found interesting in my discussions in Moscow," said Albright, "was an understanding of the fact that they have been threatened by an unstable Central and Eastern Europe even more than we have ... and that an attempt to create some kind of stability in Central and Eastern Europe is also important for them."
Congressman Harold Rogers (R-Kentucky) said he too agrees that Russia will resign itself to NATO expansion now, but he says resentment over enlargement could provide a platform for demagogues in the future, and he says this prospect must be given careful consideration.
Rather than expanding the NATO alliance, Congressman Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) said he believes the United States should insist that admission to the European Union be a precondition for NATO membership. He said the former communist countries need economic development more than anything else, and he said stronger economies will make potential new members better able to bear the cost of joining NATO.
Albright said the Central and Eastern European countries are seeking membership in both organizations simultaneously.
"We think that by providing the NATO umbrella, that it helps create a sense of stability and security for Western Europe, for ourselves as well as, frankly, for Russia," Albright said.
The views of a handful of Congressmen are not likely to diminish support for NATO expansion in Washington. However, it is important politically for President Clinton to have solid Congressional backing for an issue he has made a centerpiece of his foreign policy.
In addition, the U.S. Senate will have the right of approval before the United States ratifies any revisions to NATO's charter. The House of Representatives, for its part, will be asked to approve funds that members will have to put up to help new members meet alliance standards.
At this point in the debate, there is overwhelming support among the 435 members of the House of Representatives and the 100 U.S. Senators for NATO enlargement.
The plan has the endorsement of the powerful chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House International Relations Committee -- Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Benjamin Gilman of New York. Both are Republicans who support the Democratic president Clinton on this issue. Republicans hold the majorities in both chambers of Congress.