Vilnius, 31 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Kosovo crisis has simultaneously reinforced the desires of many East Europeans to join NATO and heightened their concerns that the Western Alliance may not be willing to take on new responsibilities--or new members--anytime soon. As Latvian Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs said last week the Kosovo crisis has underscored the continuing relevance of NATO for European security. But events there, he said, were "hindering moves to make expansion a reality."
To the extent that East European countries act on their desires, they appear likely to press the alliance for membership far sooner than NATO members appear to want, thus setting the stage for a series of rejections that could effect not only these countries and NATO but also the calculations of outside powers. But to the extent that East European countries act on their fears that NATO will not include them anytime soon, they are likely to consider alternative arrangements ranging from a retreat into cynicism or hypernationalism to the formation of alternative alliances either with other excluded states or even with countries they still view as threatening.
Complicating this debate is another one taking place both within Eastern Europe and NATO countries as well. It is between those who stress NATO's traditional role as a defense alliance committed to defending its members from outside aggression, and those who speak of a new NATO, one defined not by the existence of the Soviet threat but rather by a shared commitment to democratic values and a common willingness to act out of area, as in Kosovo.
These debates have come together this week at an international conference in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, called "NATO after 50 years--the New/Old Alliance". This meeting has attracted officials and experts from both NATO countries and those states which would like to join.
Not surprisingly, most of the NATO country participants are stressing the "new" aspect of the alliance, while many of those that want to join NATO are emphasizing the "old" aspect.
But the debates here and across the Euro-Atlantic region are complicated by Kosovo in often unexpected ways, by the fact that spokesmen for each side have often found allies on the other.
Some from Alliance countries who are concerned about the consequences of Kosovo on the alliance are discovering support among others from applicant countries in wanting to retain the alliance's traditional defensive role.
And at the same time, advocates from NATO countries, who advocate the new alliance, are discovering that their views are gaining support from some East European representatives who quite obviously hope that NATO might in the future be prepared to help them in the event of a crisis--even if the alliance is not yet prepared to admit them as full members.
Neither the Vilnius meeting nor the other places where this debate is now flaring are likely to resolve it definitively one way or the other. But all of them together suggest that Kosovo may prove to be a defining moment for NATO in ways far larger and far different than most of the participants in the debate have appeared to suspect until now.