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NATO: Analysis From Washington -- Undermining NATO's Timetable

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 11 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The timetable for NATO expansion announced at the Madrid summit this week may break down even before the alliance takes in its first new members two years from now.

The summit invited three countries - Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - to begin accession talks leading to membership by 1999. The alliance leaders indicated that they would consider inviting a second group of countries in that year.

And they said that they would keep the process of including ever more East European countries in the alliance both open and deliberate after that time.

This carefully worked-out timetable reflected calculations by some NATO leaders about how both their own populations and Moscow would react.

On the one hand, many NATO leaders have indicated that they could not hope to win popular support for the costs of expansion if the alliance tried to take in too many countries too quickly.

And on the other hand, even more NATO leaders have suggested that a slow, step-by-step expansion is the only way to avoid offending Moscow and pushing Russia back into an adversarial role.

But there are already at least three indications that the Western alliance may have a number of difficulties in holding to that script.

First, many of the countries that had hoped to be invited into the alliance now or in the near future are stepping up their campaigns for membership rather than simply accepting the Madrid timetable.

Following their rejection at Madrid, the countries that had hoped to break into the first round - Slovenia, Romania, and the three Baltic countries - indicated that they would step up their efforts to be included sooner than the Madrid schedule.

Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas, for example, pointed out on Wednesday that "a long-term cataclysm could occur in three, four or five years." As a result, he said, Vilnius wanted "guarantees for the future" sooner rather than later.

And other East European countries that were not expected to be included took courage from the alliance's decision to expand and indicated that they too might press for membership far sooner than the NATO leaders had planned.

Buoyed by their charter with the Western alliance, several Ukrainian political figures said this week that they hoped Ukraine would achieve NATO membership in the not too distant future, something no one in the alliance now appears to be contemplating.

Second, the three countries that were invited to join at Madrid reportedly have agreed to press for the more rapid inclusion of the Baltic states into the Western alliance.

On Wednesday, the presidents of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary met with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and apparently indicated that they would press for Baltic membership in the alliance as soon as possible.

Following the meeting, Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis said that he and his Baltic colleagues looked to the three Madrid invitees "to become advocates" of the rapid inclusion of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Such support for Baltic membership may be more difficult to resist than the NATO planners had expected. Indeed, in addition to Polish, Hungarian and Czech support, the Balts received backing from the American ambassador to Sweden.

Thomas Siebert told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter on the same day that "we will not consider the expansion of NATO to be accomplished or successful unless or before the Baltic states' ambitions are fulfilled."

Both the efforts of those who hope to join and the attitudes of those already invited to do so will put pressure on the alliance to move more quickly than it had planned, especially since those on the outside are likely to view delay as a sellout of their security.

But the third indication that the Madrid timetable may not be kept points in the opposite direction and suggests that NATO may not expand as quickly as the Madrid summit planned.

The pressure on NATO from both those included and those not yet in inevitably raise the stakes of the first round of alliance expansion and thus virtually guarantee increased opposition to any growth in the alliance by both Moscow and many in the West.

Russian leaders from President Boris Yeltsin on down have indicated that they can accept NATO's expansion only if it is both limited and deliberate.

Consequently, at least some in Moscow are likely to read the statements of both those countries not invited in and even more those invited to join at Madrid as a threat, and one that Russia is likely to respond to.

That will have an impact on the ratification debates in the current NATO member countries and provide ammunition to those who oppose any growth in the alliance.

As a result, the euphoria about the Madrid NATO summit could quickly evaporate as some countries discover that their own enthusiasms threaten their own interests.