Washington, 12 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - U.S., Western and Central European officials see far more in NATO expansion than a guarantee of security in the new post-Cold War age.
For Hungarians, Poles and Czechs among other things, NATO membership will mean emotional fulfilment of a long-repressed "sense of belonging" to Europe.
The Czech Republic's ambassador to the United States, Alexandr Vondra, said at a Washington conference that NATO membership for his country will help deepen European integration.
Marek Siwiec, Poland's presidential national security adviser, said that joining the alliance for his country is part of what it is to belong to western civilization.
Hungary's state secretary for Euro-Atlantic integration, Ferenc Somogyi said the desire to belong to NATO and thus Europe is a powerful emotional issue in his country.
He said the Hungarian public is aware of the sacrifices required to finance NATO membership and wants to do it. "The people are encouraging the government to do everything to strengthen European values," he said.
Somogyi and other government officials, ambassadors, academics and international business representatives, were discussing their views of the new order being built in Europe, at a conference in Washington Friday on "Completing the Marshall Plan: The Enlargement of Euro-Atlantic Institutions."
It was organized by the Washington-based European Institute, a private group sponsored by more than 20 governments and corporations to promote U.S.-European ties.
Participants agreed on most major points, with slight variations. All the Central Europeans stressed that NATO expansion must continue beyond the first round of invitations to be issued in July at a NATO summit in Madrid.
Romania's ambassador to the United States, Mircea Geoana, said efforts to join NATO are changing relationships among the Central European nations from competition to cooperation and support.
"It used to be very competitive, a kind of race to be the first to become a NATO member," he said.
Geoana later expanded on this theme in an RFE/RL interview, saying his government works hard with Prague, Budapest, Warsaw and others to support each other and that dignitaries from the region visiting Washington always express support for other NATO aspirants.
"This is a better attitude and preparation for a future common membership within the transatlantic community," he said.
A senior U.S. State Department official, Rudolf Perina, said "the United States is committed to completing the process of NATO expansion" and that he is "not sure where this process will end."
He outlined the U.S. vision of European security, saying it is evolving into "a multiplicity of interlocking, mutually reinforcing, hopefully not too competitive, security organizations," of which NATO is only one component.
Other organizations reinforcing European security are to include the European Union, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Perina said the OSCE has begun to play a role in European security and "a lot of serious thought on government levels" is being given to how this role can be strengthened.
He said the security architecture of the 21st century will be unlike anything before, "multifaceted and functioning in a flexible, creative, dynamic way."
Poland's Siwiec said that for his country for the time being NATO remains the primary source of security. He said Russia does not seem to fully comprehend the strength of Poland's determination to join the alliance. But he agreed with others that Russia must be included in the talks about expansion and cannot be isolated.
Slovakia's ambassador to the United States, Branislav Lichardus, praised current negotiations between Russia and NATO and Russia and the United States, saying he was aware that his view goes against some other Central Europeans who are concerned that NATO is making too many concessons to Russia that will eventually weaken the alliance.
In a separate RFE/RL interview, Lichardus said his government believes "the current discussions are helping strengthen democratic forces in Russia and will help them stay in power after NATO expands."
He also said Slovakia has made great economic progress and is in the forefront of countries trying to meet criteria for joining the European Union.
Lichardus said Slovakia is ahead of its neighbors in fulfilling the economic requirements and is also "preparing legislatively very intensively for integration with Europe."
He said Bratislava is aware of "the political criteria it has to meet," and that "there is now a public debate in Slovakia both on NATO expansion and European Union enlargement to explain to people what is at stake so that they may independently express their views."
At the conference, speakers noted that NATO expansion and EU enlargement are interlinked but that membership in EU cannot be considered a substitute or a reward for those countries that do not get into NATO on the first round of expansion.
State Department's Perina said the United States recognizes that meeting EU criteria for membership is a longer and more complicated process than the NATO requirements, involving as it does a large array of economic and legislative factors and standards.