By Elena Nikleva and Jeremy Bransten
U.S. General Wesley Clark, who retired in May 2000 after serving as NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, has been closely associated with the Balkans for the past several years. As a military adviser to U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke in 1995, Clark took part in the Dayton negotiations that brought peace to Bosnia. In 1999, he commanded alliance forces during the Kosovo conflict -- NATO's first-ever combat mission. Clark has championed the idea of a broad second wave of NATO expansion -- including Bulgaria and Romania -- an idea that has appeared to gain favor in recent months. Seven months before NATO leaders are due to meet in Prague to announce their future plans, Clark spoke to RFE/RL in a broad-ranging interview on NATO expansion, relations with Russia and membership prospects for "southern flank" nations.
Prague, 18 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Retired U.S. General Wesley Clark was first asked to enumerate what he sees as the main rationale for continuing NATO's eastward expansion. The key benefits, he says, are not only military but political.
"I think NATO recognizes that first, the prospect of membership is an important incentive in helping nations cope with the stresses and difficulties of transformation. And secondly, NATO would like to see the stability of Western Europe extended eastward. It's a stability not marked only by democratic change but by the expectations in people's lives, the settling down, the recognition that the old ways are things of the past. There will be no more wars. There will be no more conflicts. There will be no more armed revolts. There will be no more killing in the streets. This is Europe. This is the heartland of civilization. It's going to be settled. People can count on the future, and they can build their lives."
Specifically, in the case of Romania and Bulgaria, Clark sees NATO membership as an anchor that will once and for all ensure the two countries' place in the community of Western European nations, after centuries of existence on its turbulent political fringe.
"I think the most important advantage of bringing Bulgaria and Romania in [NATO] is that it settles the question of their future alignment and orientation. They're going to be democratic countries. They're going to be Western-oriented countries. They're going to increasingly become integrated into the mainstream of Europe and not be isolated and their people isolated on the southeastern fringe. It moves further to the recesses of the past, the legacy of the Ottoman Empire and of the armies that have tramped back and forth across the boundaries of the Black Sea -- invasions and massacres and so forth. They're going to be part of Western Europe."
Clark's heavy emphasis on the political significance of NATO expansion stems from his belief that, at heart, the alliance in the post-Cold War era has become more important as a political organization rather than as the military pact it was once solely designed to be.
Instead of judging applicants by rigid criteria, such as whether their armies are up to NATO standards or whether their governments have the necessary funds or fully established democratic institutions expected of current NATO members, the alliance -- according to Clark -- should act as a facilitator.
Expansion, he says, should be seen as part of an ongoing process that will require a certain leap of faith from both the alliance and future members.
"Fundamentally, it's a political issue. NATO is a political alliance before it's a military alliance. But when people in Eastern Europe talk about being poor, this is part of the transformation process. Wealth is created by people's imagination and industry. People have to create wealth by having ideas and then they need the institutions to support those ideas -- whether it's micro-scale loans or whether it's something else. And those micro-scale loans and easier credits from larger banking institutions and technical services and strong copyright and patent-protection provisions that are still accessible and relatively low trade barriers -- all of these features have to developed by the state. But they also require a transformation of mind set. Wealth can't be created by the state. It has to be created by individuals."
Which Central and Eastern European countries appear likely to be included in the second wave of NATO expansion, according to Clark?
"I think the prospects are very good for the Baltics. Everybody wants to bring Slovakia in, but there's concern about [former Slovak Prime Minister] Mr. [Vladimir] Meciar, and if he were to return to power, what that might mean. And that's going to be watched. I think there's growing sentiment in favor of bringing Bulgaria and Romania in. There are other countries that want to join. I think there's certainly nothing that will prevent further enlargement in the future. I don't think NATO's going to close its door after this -- far from it. But I think that the countries I've named are the ones in the first rank as they're awaiting membership. And the other countries -- the countries in the Balkans -- as they develop.... I didn't mention Slovenia, but Slovenia will be there also."
Clark was asked what implications the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States have for NATO expansion.
"I think it's actually facilitated the enlargement issue and coming to terms with it in two ways. Number one, it's enabled NATO to show its appreciation for the United States through the declaration of NATO Article 5 and the support to the United States that NATO has given as an institution. But it's also given the opportunity for individual NATO member countries to send their forces to work with the United States -- work that's been greatly facilitated by the years of NATO inter-operability and standardization of procedures. But a third point would be that because of 9/11 (11 September), the relationship with Russia has become -- in a strange way, it's become much easier. And I think the Russians and especially [Russian President Vladimir] Putin himself are able to see that the issues which unite Russia and the West are much stronger and much more important than the issues which divide us. So I think it's reduced Russia's problem with the prospect of NATO enlargement."
Finally, Clark was asked whether expanding NATO to include another half-a-dozen countries or more won't impair the alliance's decision-making process. The Kosovo crisis highlighted some divisions among alliance members -- with Clark's aggressive military strategy initially opposed by several European states and even key members of the U.S. administration.
There has been speculation that these may have contributed to Clark's early retirement after the campaign. But Clark says that, ultimately, Kosovo proved the alliance could act by consensus, and he is optimistic that further expansion will not stymie NATO's rapid-reaction capability.
"I think it very much depends on U.S. leadership. I think there are two schools of thought here. One school says, 'Well, you're going to have to change decision making, and you can't make decisions on the basis of consensus. There are too many countries, and it's going to be difficult and different.' There's another school that says, 'Well, the purpose of NATO will gradually evolve over time. And anyway, people say that perhaps NATO can't do war-fighting effectively.' But I think both those schools are wrong. I think that NATO proved in Kosovo that it could work together as an alliance and work effectively to bring about its desired outcome. And I think, secondly, that NATO proved during that anxious experience that it could operate on a basis of consensus and that this has to be the continuing principle for operation in the alliance."