Washington, 25 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton announced in a speech this week that membership into NATO should be granted to several new democracies of central and eastern Europe by the year 1999.
Although Clinton did not specifically name which countries he had in mind, but there is general agreement among diplomats, scholars and experts that the three most likely candidates are the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.
Membership to NATO is not granted simply on request. Prospective members must rigorously prepare themselves politically, militarily and financially in order to make themselves attractive candidates to the alliance.
Although NATO officials insist there is no fixed or rigid list of criteria for inviting new members to join, a 1995 NATO document specifically lists the main military and political regulations of the alliance and suggests several ways prospective countries could improve their chances of gaining admittance.
On the political front, members are expected to abide by the basic principles embodied in the Washington Treaty -- the document which established NATO in 1949 -- such as democracy, individual liberty and the law.
According to the document, in order to show their willingness to abide to these principles, prospective members must demonstrate a commitment to these norms, including "peaceful resolutions" of any ethnic or external territorial disputes.
Possible members are also expected to establish appropriate democratic and civilian control of their defense forces and prove that their countries are dedicated to "pursuing economic liberty, social justice and environmental responsibility."
Militarily, new members are expected to share the risks, responsibilities, benefits and burdens of a collective defense.
The document suggests that all prospective members should prepare themselves by proving they could militarily conform to the process of NATO standardization. This means that new members must be willing to accept NATO's chain of command and way of conducting operations; conform to current methods of NATO administration; and adapt major communications and weapon systems to match those of NATO.
The document specifies that the cost of upgrading and improving the military and political qualifications of a prospective member rests solely on each country.
Nonetheless, it does suggest that it would be in the best interest of the alliance to use some existing NATO funds designed to improve alliance development, infrastructure and procurement to aid new members. No specific monetary amount is named.
However, a show of devoting at least some resources to upgrading military readiness seems to be an important criteria for certain countries wishing to enter NATO.
This week, Czech officials reportedly told the Reuters news agency that U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, on a recent visit to Prague, expressed private concern that not enough money was being spent on defense matters in the Czech Republic.
The State Department declined to comment on what an official said are considered private conversations of the Secretary of State. William E. Odom, a former White House national security advisor, told RFE/RL that he believes those concerns are fueled by people who don't want to see NATO expanded.
Those people, he said, emphasize the need for a rapid build-up, including the immediate modernization of a new member's airfields, weapons systems and communications.
"You can do those things rapidly and spend a lot of money in a short amount of time. Or you can do those things over several years and spend a small amount of money each year. I don't think getting to a high state of military readiness is the most urgent issue facing a new country coming into NATO," Odom said.
Odom said that in his opinion, it is much more important for a country to achieve a stable democratic and economic transition in order to improve its chances for NATO admittance.
Odom added, however, that a potential member did have to take some overt steps to improve military capabilities, but that it was not necessary to spend a fortune in doing so.
Odom said that if indeed Christopher had expressed some concerns to the Czech government, he had no doubt Czech officials would take whatever steps necessary to improve the situation.
"The Czechs will spend whatever money they have to get in [to NATO]," he said. "They want in very badly."
One issue not mentioned as a criteria in the document is a country's geography.
Odom said that although the report may not mention it by name, geography is an important criteria to NATO membership. He added, however, that geography without political reform is worth little.
"There is no question about the importance of geography, especially in Poland," he said. "But I think if Poland had a Bulgarian type of government, we wouldn't be talking about admitting it."
The NATO document says that new members will be accorded all the rights and privileges of a full member. There will be no "second tier" security guarantees and all members are equally important, it adds.