Washington, 23 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton says 1999 is the year that NATO will have its first, new, full-fledged members from among the former communist Central and Eastern European nations, but he stopped short of saying who the first new members might be.
In a speech Tuesday in the midwestern U.S. city of Detroit, Clinton said that America's goal is that, "by 1999--NATO's 50th anniversary and 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall--the first group of countries we invite to join should be full-fledged members of NATO."
Clinton said the 16 alliance members will hold a summit early next year and decide which nations will be invited to join. The full alliance must agree on who should be asked, and the United States cannot unilaterally decide. However, Washington is the undisputed leader of the alliance, and Clinton's support for a 1999 admissions target date will influence the organization's decision.
The speech was part of a re-election campaign appearance by the president. Clinton is a Democrat seeking his second term. The election is in two weeks.
The venue was significant: Detroit is home to a large Polish-American community and also has sizable Ukrainian-American and Lithuanian-American communities, and numerous other voters with ties to Central and Eastern Europe.
It was also Clinton's most explicit statement to date about alliance expansion plans. Clinton's Republican Party challenger, former U.S. Senator Robert Dole, has been very critical of the Clinton Administration's NATO expansion policy. Dole has said the United States is missing a great opportunity to strengthen security in Europe. He has also accused Clinton of fearing negative reaction from Russia, which has repeatedly warned the alliance against expansion.
Alliance leaders have talked about expanding into Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union ever since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. NATO set up a program called Partnership For Peace which is aimed at increasing cooperation with non-NATO members in Europe but does not provide security guarantees.
Pressure from Central and Eastern European nations and the Baltic States for full membership has increased over the past two years, and NATO promised last year to take up the expansion question in 1997.
While Clinton did not identify any potential new members, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are most frequently cited as having made the most economic and political progress of any former communist country. It has become routine to see the three nations grouped together in press reports as the probable first to be included.
However, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Slovenia -- as well as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- are all eager to join.
Clinton said NATO expansion would not stop with its first new members.
"NATO will remain open to all of Europe's emerging democracies who are ready to shoulder the responsibilities of membership," he said. "No nation will be automatically excluded. No country outside NATO will have a veto."
The president also sought to ease Russian concerns about NATO expansion, saying it would enhance security for all, and that it was not directed against anyone.
He called for a formal cooperation agreement between Russia and NATO and said: "We should set up a mechanism for regular NATO-Russia meetings at all levels."
NATO was established in 1949 by Canada, the United States and ten Western European nations to defend Europe against any potential threats from the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. Greece and Turkey were added to the alliance in 1952. The former West Germany became a member in 1955, and Portugal and Spain joined in 1979.