Prague, 11 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - A little more than a month from now, on December 16, foreign ministers of all 16 member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will sign at a meeting in Brussels the so-called Accession Protocols paving the way for the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to become full members of the Alliance.
The protocols will be then submitted to ratification procedures in each of the Alliance member countries. Debate on the accession has already begun in the U. S. Senate and is said to be moving smoothly. Other NATO member countries are expected to follow. The odds are that the three Central European countries will join the Alliance in April 1999, its 50th anniversary.
For the Czechs, the Poles and the Hungarians, this will mark the culmination of their sustained and determined drive to enter NATO. Having successfully pushed for the dissolution of the Moscow-centered Warsaw Pact in 1991, they have focused their policies on joining the Alliance, considering it as the central element of their security and political stability in the future. They have made repeated efforts to enter as soon as possible.
For NATO, the eastward enlargement also marks a political and organizational watershed. The move was decided at the 1994 NATO summit in Brussels, prompted by basically political consideration. The collapse of communism and downfall of the Soviet Union created a security vacuum in Central Europe with potentially destabilizing implications for the entire region. The decision to enlarge in the East was confirmed this year by the Madrid summit in July, when formal invitations were issued to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to open membership negotiations. The summit also opened doors for a possible further expansion in the region.
NATO evolves from a transatlantic security arrangement to a more international entity
These decisions coincided with a major shift in the very concept of the Alliance's role and mission. NATO was initially conceived as a transatlantic security arrangement providing Western Europe with a U.S.-supported shield against Soviet aggression. This is no longer the case, though there is still much uncertainty about how to deal with Russia. The uncertainty is largely related to Russia's continuing opposition to NATO's eastward expansion.
There is no doubt, of course, about NATO's willingness, even determination, to cooperate with Russia. Last May the Alliance and Russia set up a special council to facilitate relations. Russia maintains political and military representation at the Alliance's headquarters near Brussels and the NATO-Russia council periodically meets to discuss relevant issues. But the council has no determining influence over the Alliance's decisions.
The Madrid NATO summit also established a similar council with Ukraine, while a broad cooperative program known as the Partnership for Peace has provided since 1994 an effective mechanism to expand relations between the Alliance and all Central and East European countries as well as other post-Soviet states.
The opening to the East has prompted a gradual, but perceptible move away from the traditional emphasis on development and maintenance of collective Western defense and toward a new concern with promoting stability throughout all of Europe through international cooperation. It also put into focus the need for organizational and operational adjustment within the Alliance itself. NATO's performance in Bosnia brought into the open a difference of views on how it should deal with regional crises. The disagreements concerned an immediate problem, but illustrated a different way of seeing things within the Alliance itself.
Some of these differences have been strategic. As the global superpower, the U.S. saw the Bosnian conflict in a larger perspective than the Europeans. For Washington, Bosnia has always been a conflict with broad implications for large political and ideological issues (Islamic mobilization affecting Western interests, for example). For Europe, it has been primarily a conflict endangering Europe's regional stability and specific national interests.
Other differences have been operational. The Bosnia conflict has demonstrated the need for effective peacekeeping capabilities rather than fundamental and broad defensive preparedness. This led to a move away from the reliance on nuclear deterrence and toward lightly armed mobile international units capable of effective and quick response to geographically limited conflicts.
All this required organizational changes within the Alliance, particularly in its command structures. The need for such changes has been generally recognized. The difficulty centered on the manner and scope of their implementation.
Demand grows for a 'European identity' within NATO
Particular problems concern the burgeoning demands within the Alliance for a clear institutional recognition of an "European identity" within NATO. This led to a dispute between the U.S. and France about the allocation of command posts to either Americans or Europeans. France argued for the right to hold a southern flank command that controls the Mediterranean and the Middle East and has been traditionally held by the U. S. Washington refused for strategic reasons.
The Madrid summit produced a statement supporting the strengthening of "European identity" within the Alliance, but no decision was taken on the re-distribution of command posts and neither was there any indication that such a decision was likely in the near future.
NATO is changing, but the process is still fraught with uncertainties and difficulties. The most dramatic concern is the U.S. resurgence as the world's only superpower. Within NATO this development appears to have prompted stirrings of occasional irritation and anxiety over America's unrivaled dominance.
During the Madrid summit some European NATO members -- particularly France but also Italy, Greece and Spain -- openly grumbled at what they saw as the peremptory manner in which the U.S. shut off debate on the Eastward expansion by insisting that the move be limited to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland alone. They now continue to complain about Washington's demands that Europe pay a major share of the expansion costs.
NATO's change will be lengthy and gradual. It could be slowed or even temporarily arrested as a result of unexpected developments and crises. But it is certain that the Alliance that has served Europe and America for many decades will not go away. It is likely to become even stronger with the expansion to the East.
The Alliance's enlargement is generally regarded as the most important development in recent East-West relations. It signals a major expansion of Western influence, Western values and Western institutions to the Eastern region. Underpinned by shared military planning and cooperation but also extending into economic, cultural and environmental fields, it changes the political map of Europe. And it greatly enhances NATO's role as a major player in international politics.
This is part two in a five-part series on the role of Europe's multilateral organizations in integrating Central and Eastern Europe with the West. See Europe:Has The West Embraced The East?