Washington, 17 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - NATO's current members may be united in their commitment to the expansion of the alliance, but they are increasingly divided over just who should be taken in and when.
And these divisions, which reflect both concerns about continued Russian opposition and a jockeying for power among the current member countries, may prove more fateful for the alliance than the actual decision on enlargement scheduled to occur this summer in Madrid.
One reason that these splits have passed largely unnoticed until now is that a consensus among NATO members has emerged that Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic should be the first countries to be invited to join.
But in recent months, the nine other Eastern European states that have expressed interest in joining have stepped up their campaigns for membership.
Most have made little headway, at least as candidates for invitations in the first round. But two applicants -- Slovenia and Romania -- have generated significant support and serious opposition. And these differences are increasingly taking place in public.
Slovenia is often mentioned as the most likely "fourth" new member. The success story of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia enjoys the support of many NATO commanders. They view it as an important landbridge between Italy and Hungary.
It also attracts support from some NATO governments, some of whom see Slovenia as having met all the criteria for membership and others of who apparently view it as a useful role model for the other Yugoslav successor states.
But Slovenia's candidacy is opposed by other NATO countries who fear that the Western alliance might be seriously weakened if it attempts to take in more than three new countries in the first round.
Romania has sparked even more divisions. Last Wednesday, Romanian defense minister Victor Babiuc announced that France, Italy and Spain now support Bucharest's effort to join NATO in the near future.
And on Thursday, a senior U.S. defense department official praised Romania's accomplishments in the area of military reform and said Bucharest was "on a very constructive path."
But commentators in other NATO countries have expressed skepticism about admitting Romania anytime soon.
Most have done so either because of fears that its admission would antagonize Moscow or because of doubts that the weak Romanian economy could support the costs of membership.
However, the most dramatic opposition has come from German commentaries which have suggested that support for Romanian membership is part of a far-reaching French plan to weaken American influence in Europe and to contain Germany.
A commentary in the Munich daily newspaper "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" last Wednesday warned that French efforts to form a "Romantic" zone in the alliance was not based on "cultural ties" or on a recognition of Romania's strategic position.
Rather, Tomas Avenarius said, Paris was "playing the Romanian card" in the first instance to extract concessions from the United States within the NATO command structure.
If that is the French strategy, it seems to be working. The Paris-based "International Herald Tribune" on Friday reported that the United States had offered the French command of a southern European rapid reaction force, something Paris has long wanted.
But Avenarius suggested that the French plans were even more far-reaching than that. According to him, Paris fears that the entry of the favored three will strengthen Germany and thus wants to bring in Romania to "balance out" any increase in German power.
At one level, of course, this is a single German commentator's opinion. But at another, it highlights something that many both within the alliance and outside have wanted to ignore.
In the absence of a clear enemy to provide discipline within the alliance, each of its members will increasingly pursue its own national interests even while proclaiming fealty to the notion of alliance unity.
Now, these differences have spilled over into the question of which new countries should be taken in, a development that may further undermine alliance unity.