Washington, 13 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - The United States yesterday ended months of suspense and speculation, declaring that it favors inviting only Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to join NATO in the first round of expansion.
Defense Secretary William Cohen made the formal statement on the U.S. position yesterday evening at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.
White House spokesman Michael McCurry said in Washington earlier that "the United States position is firm." McCurry said it will not change in spite of a majority of European NATO members who support including Romania and Slovenia in the first group of new members.
NATO decisions are made by consensus of its 16 member states. But McCurry was confident that the U.S. position will prevail at a NATO summit in Madrid next month when the official invitation will be issued to prospective new alliance members.
Asked if the U.S. might be overruled, McCurry said "that is not likely."
However, he emphasized that the process of expansion is to continue and that Romania and Slovenia are viable contenders for membership.
He said "there obviously were other serious candidates -- Romania and Slovenia -- both are clearly on track." But McCurry said that "in the view of the U.S., they will profit by having more time to fully develop their capacities within the parameters of the (NATO) Partnership for Peace Program."
U.S. officials have privately expressed concern that the cost of modernizing forces and meeting requirements for NATO membership is currently too taxing for the poorer Central Europeans -- especially Romania that has begun only recently, with a newly elected government, to seriously tackle economic and poltical reforms.
But McCurry emphasized that the opportunity for membership for Romania and others will not vanish. He reiterated the often-stated U.S. policy that the door to NATO remains open, no one will be excluded from membership and that there will be more admissions.
Analysts say yesterday's announcement is not really surprising and has been signalled for weeks. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Lisbon recently that Washington would prefer to limit the first round of expansion to Czechs, Hungarians and Poles.
Nonetheless, high-level Slovenian and Romanian officials continued to press their case as hard as they could, dispatching one high-level official after another to Washington.
The chairman of the Romanian Senate, Petre Roman, was still making the rounds in the U.S. Congress yesterday to win key legislators to his country's cause.
U.S. officials say sentiment in the U.S. Senate was a major factor in the U.S. decision. The Senate must ratify the NATO accession treaties of the new members, along with the legislatures of all NATO states.
A group of senators went to the White House Wednesday to discuss the issue and present their views on potential NATO candidates with president Bill Clinton and Albright.
Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) said after the meeting that senators favored including Slovenia in the first round but warned Clinton that Senate ratification would not be easy and that the American people must be persuaded to support NATO expansion.