Washington, 9 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher has laid out a new timetable for NATO's future, one that envisions the modification of the Western alliance to meet Russian concerns prior to its eastward expansion to include former Soviet bloc states.
Speaking in Germany on Friday, Christopher said that "NATO's cooperation with Russia should be expressed in a formal charter." This is the most explicit American endorsement yet of something Moscow has long sought -- a "16 plus 1" agreement designed to ensure that Russian concerns are addressed as the alliance develops.
American officials traveling with the secretary told journalists that this new charter will flow out of ongoing conversations between the alliance and Moscow, that it would be discussed at a NATO ministerial at the end of 1996, and then ratified at a NATO summit in 1997 when the alliance is to issue the first invitations to new members.
Both he and they thus made it clear that an accord with Russia will come before an expansion of the alliance. Underscoring this point, Christopher said that the "New Atlantic Community" could only emerge "if we recognize Russia's vital role" in it.
Such a position is likely to disturb many in Eastern Europe. In the past, for example, many officials there have reacted negatively when Moscow has made similar suggestions, seeing in them a replay of earlier grand accords in which their fate was decided by the great powers without their direct participation.
In addition to that, three other proposals Christopher made are certain to make at least some East European countries nervous as well.
Christopher argued that NATO must reform to "meet new challenges in a Europe where no power now poses a threat to any other." Many in Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, and the former Soviet republics do not share that assessment; indeed, it is precisely because they feel threatened that they are seeking membership in the Western alliance.
By ignoring such concerns, Christopher virtually guarantees that they will grow, especially now that he has suggested the alliance will seek an agreement with Russia before it invites in new members.
Christopher said that alliance expansion would not be a one-time thing, that the door to membership would "stay open" for all those willing and able to "shoulder the responsibilities of membership."
Many countries which hope to join but realize they are unlikely to be taken in during the first round will find these words reassuring indeed. But they may worry because Christopher did not specify how NATO would prevent Moscow's oft-repeated threats to project power up to borders of any new members. And it is the countries which would be in that gray area which are of course the most nervous already.
Christopher argued that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is "essential" in this process, again repeating a position that Moscow has advanced for some time. Many in Eastern Europe will recall Moscow's suggestions that NATO should be superseded by the OSCE: They will thus likely be more worried now that the United States appears to be supporting that idea as well.
In sum, the new timetable for NATO's future that Secretary Christopher has laid out will thus simultaneously increase the desire of East Europeans to join the alliance and increase their concerns that the alliance -- especially to the extent that it is modified to meet Russian requirements -- will not solve their security problems.
Such a situation is unlikely to produce the calm and reasoned consideration of the future that Secretary Christopher hopes will be the hallmark of the "New Atlantic Community."