Washington, 12 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In a historic room packed with dignitaries, President Bill Clinton asked the U.S. Senate on Wednesday to help create a free, whole and united Europe by letting three former communist countries join the NATO alliance.
At a State Department ceremony that capped a two-year effort and fulfilled a re-election campaign promise, Clinton sent the Senate the documents to amend the NATO treaty and bring the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in as NATO's first new members since the end of the Cold War.
The ceremony was witnessed by the foreign ministers of the three prospective members -- Jaroslav Sedivy of the Czech Republic, Laszlo Kovacs of Hungary and Bronislaw Geremek of Poland.
NATO now has 16 members, and the national legislatures of each member country must approve the expansion. In the U.S., two-thirds of the 100-member Senate must approve the NATO treaty amendments.
For the three prospective members, Clinton said joining the alliance would be a pivotal event in the quest for the freedom and security of their citizens. He also said expansion will be a major stride forward toward the 21st Century goal of creating, "for the first time in all history, a Europe that is free, at peace and undivided."
There are still skeptics in Congress who question expansion on several grounds, from the financial cost to the U.S., to expansion's impact on U.S. relations with Russia -- which opposes enlargement -- to the need to expand an alliance established to defend against a system that collapsed almost a decade ago.
However, the Clinton Administration has spent the better part of the last two years arguing its case in public in support of enlargement, and they've been joined by leading figures from the European governments involved, including the Czech, Hungarian and Polish foreign ministers. They spent the past week in Washington making sure they spoke to individual senators to line up support.
White House officials believe they now have more than enough support to assure that the Senate will approve the treaty amendments. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will open the review process with hearings on the issue before sending the treaty amendments to the full Senate for discussion and debate. That could start next week and a vote could come during the first week in March.
Some senators reportedly had reservations about just what would be expected of the U.S., and among other things, the visiting foreign ministers are said to have assured Senate members that they have not asked for U.S. troops to be based in their countries, and they have not asked the U.S. to pay for any modernization costs for their military forces.
At the ceremony, Senator William Roth (R-Delaware), chairman of the Senate's NATO Observer Group, said NATO enlargement is a step long overdue.
Roth said, "NATO is the cornerstone of American leadership and the foundation for security throughout the transatlantic community." And he said the accession of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland will strengthen the alliance.
Said Roth: "These democracies have proved themselves ready to support American and allied interests both inside and outside of Europe."
Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), the senior member of the Democratic Party on the Foreign Relations Committee, said expansion of NATO will "rectify a historical injustice that prevailed for five decades." He said the three prospective members are "ready, they are able, they are capable of being full participating members of NATO."
The Senate is controlled by the Republican Party -- Clinton is a Democrat -- but enlargement has the enthusiastic support of party leaders in Congress. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) says he will work for quick approval of the treaty amendments. Helms is frequently at odds with Clinton on foreign policy issues, but enlargement enjoys strong bi-partisan support.
Clinton said there are three compelling reasons for the Senate to give its blessing to expansion
First, he said, the expanded alliance will make NATO stronger. Clinton said that "a NATO that embraces Europe's new democracies will be more capable of carrying out the core mission of defending the territory of its members, as well as addressing new kinds of conflicts that threaten our common peace. "
Secondly, Clinton said NATO must grow because it will make all of Europe more stable. NATO, said Clinton, "can do for Europe's East what it did for Europe's West after the Second World War: provide a secure climate in which democracy and prosperity can grow. "
Finally, said Clinton, "NATO's growth will erase the artificial line in Europe drawn by Joseph Stalin." The Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall are both gone, said Clinton, adding that nations "once confined by it now are truly free, with strong democracies, vibrant market economies, a proven track record of standing up for peace and security beyond their own borders."
Clinton also said that the effort to build a new Europe "also depends upon keeping NATO's door open to other qualified European democracies." He said the realm of freedom in Europe has no fixed boundaries.
Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Ukraine all want to join the alliance eventually.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose own family fled Czechoslovakia five decades ago, said Wednesday that the sending of the treaty documents to the Senate is a special moment. She said that, "if the Senate agrees, NATO will for the first time step across the line it was created to defend and overcome, the line that once so cruelly and arbitrarily divided Europe into East and West. "