By Jeremy Bransten and Ben Partridge
London, 10 March 1999 (RFE/RL) - On the closing day of a London conference on NATO, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said today that the conflict in Kosovo is an important test for the alliance, a test that will determine whether it lives up to its promise as the key to Europe's future security. Talbott -- speaking near the end of the three-day conference marking the alliance's 50th anniversary -- noted that the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary will officially join NATO as new members on Friday. Talbott also recalled that in six weeks, at its Washington summit, the alliance will set a course for its development in the 21st century.
But Talbott emphasized that unless NATO and its partners make progress in resolving the Kosovo conflict before then, the question of why the alliance remains in business will not be laid to rest.
Talbott said "Five days from now, on March 15, the Contact Group and the parties to the Kosovo conflict reconvene in France. If the talks and their aftermath go badly, it will cast a pall not only over the Washington summit but, more important, over the allies' and partners' ability to fulfill the objectives that they will set for themselves at the summit."
Despite his warning, Talbott noted NATO's contribution to bringing peace to Bosnia. He also said that the desire of many Eastern European countries to join the alliance has been a force for good and has brought greater regional stability. Talbott said Poland's increasingly good relations with neighboring Lithuania or Romania's growing cooperation with Hungary within the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program are clear examples of NATO's positive influence.
Commenting on NATO's relations with Russia, Talbott acknowledged that Moscow's continued opposition to the alliance's eastward expansion has not softened.
He said that "For Russians -- including many of those who favor their country's evolution in what I think we would all regard as the right direction -- NATO is a gut issue. The intense objection across a broad spectrum to NATO enlargement has not gone away, especially given the determination of the alliance to reaffirm its commitment to further enlargement at the Washington summit. We -- the alliance and Russia -- will have to continue to manage a profound disagreement. So far we have done so."
Talbott called for continued cooperation and dialogue with Russia within the framework of its existing partnership with the alliance. He rejected the charge that Washington is seeking a leading role in Europe, saying dominance is not on the U.S. agenda. He said that, as much as possible, NATO should continue to cooperate with the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to help resolve conflicts. But he stressed that NATO or its decision-making process must never be subordinated to either of those organizations.
Talbott said Washington welcomes the initiative by European NATO members to create a strong European defense identity within the alliance, to complement Washington's role. But he cautioned that such a move must be accompanied by consultations with the U.S., and he warned that a strong European defense identity must not lead to a separate, new European alliance. He said such a move would weaken all sides.
The two other key speakers at the conference today, Romanian Foreign Minister Andrei Plesu and Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, reiterated the importance they attach to the Washington summit. Both countries were excluded from the first wave of NATO's eastward expansion and want the alliance's reassurance that they will be allowed to join soon, in a second round of enlargement.
Plesu said Bucharest expects the Washington summit to unveil a timetable for further enlargement as well as a specific list of the criteria which have to be met for membership in the alliance's second wave of expansion.
Plesu said that NATO must offer a comprehensive strategy for all of Central and Southeastern Europe if it wants stability on the continent.
He added that for the first time in its history, Romania has been given a sense of confidence and a sense of belonging by the alliance's PfP program. But he noted that in Bucharest's view, now is the time to consolidate these gains and show Romania it is clearly on the road to becoming a full NATO member.
Kukan, for his part, said his country missed a historic chance to be included in the first wave of NATO expansion. He noted that the ambiguous foreign policy and lack of interest of Slovakia's previous government in the alliance were responsible for Bratislava's failure to be asked to join. That government, led by controversial former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, stepped down after being defeated in general elections late last year.
Kukan said Slovakia's new government will make joining NATO a foreign policy priority and will do all it can to convince the alliance that Bratislava can once again be a reliable and effective partner. He congratulated neighboring Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic on their upcoming accession and invited those countries' leaders to Bratislava in May to discuss regional security and cooperation within the framework of the Visegrad Four.