Washington, 13 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - America's decision to limit the first round of NATO expansion to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic has at least initially sharpened disagreement within the U.S. and outside it -- but U.S. officials expect harmony to prevail before the Madrid summit next month.
At the White House, spokesman Michael McCurry told reporters Thursday that the U.S. believes a consensus can be reached well before the all-important NATO summit in Madrid, set for July 8 and 9. "We are confident the U.S. position will prevail," McCurry said, overriding skepticism among some correspondents.
A number of European governments were publicly unhappy about the U.S. position. Belgium, France and Italy, among others, quickly called it a mistake and reaffirmed their support for including Romania and Slovenia in the first expansion round.
European officials say the NATO alliance is divided on the issue with nine NATO members, led by France and Italy, championing Romania and Slovenia. Britain and Germany and three others seem to be neutral, and at present only Iceland is in the U.S. corner, supporting a smaller number of countries for admission on the first round.
McCurry said Clinton was conferring with some of his counterparts to explain the U.S. position and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was already busy at the State Department making calls to various foreign ministers, including France's Hubert Vedrine.
McCurry made some tactful, diplomatic comments about the value of consultations, discussions and dialogue in shaping the decision.
But then he delivered an unmistakeable message, saying: "at the end of the day, when the United States publicly articulates a position, that tends to be a way in which things are brought to resolution."
At the State Department, spokesman Nicholas Burns noted that the U.S. is "the largest and most influential member of NATO, the country that has the greatest military forces to bring to bear as part of the alliance."
He and McCurry both pointed out that there is no dispute among the16 NATO members on admitting the Czechs, Hungarians and Poles. As Burns put it "there is a consensus in NATO right now for these three countries to come in."
They rejected suggestions that under the consensus rule, one NATO member's insistence on including Romania among the new entrants could have a veto effect, scuttling the candidacy of the chosen three.
Burns said now that the U.S. has announced its position, it will be the task of NATO Secretary General Javier Solana to put together a consensus before Madrid.
Meanwhile, the State Department and White House are also working to bridge divisions in Washington over NATO expansion policy -- particularly with the U.S. Senate which will be called upon to ratify accession treaties of the new members.
A group of senators met with Clinton Wednesday night to urge him to include Slovenia in the first round of expansion. The group was led by William Roth (R-Delaware), chairman of the U.S. Senate NATO Observer Group, and also head of the North Atlantic Assembly, NATO's political arm.
Roth issued a statement Thursday, saying he is pleased at "strong support for Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to become future NATO members."
But he expressed disappointment about Slovenia, saying the omission overlooks a strategic opportunity that would benefit U.S. interests.
Roth said "Slovenia's candidacy for NATO membership is as strong as these other nations and receives broad support in the U.S. Congress" and moreover, including Slovenia would make a broad political impact in the region.
Roth said "the inclusion of Slovenia would... send a strong message of reassurance to those in the former Yugoslavia that democracy and the protection of human rights is the doorway to the Western community of nations."
At the State Department, Burns dismissed a suggestion that Slovenia has been left out of the first group of NATO entrants because it is a relatively small country. He said Luxembourg is smaller than Slovenia and is a valued founding member of the alliance.
U.S. officials said Slovenia still lacks the military capacity required to fulfill the obligations of NATO membership. And Romania has not gone far enough in market economy and poltical reforms.
But the White House and State Department spokesmen emphasized that the U.S. wants to continue expanding ties with both countries. As Burns put it "We have the greatest hope of continuing a good, productive relationship with Romania and Slovenia and others" who want to join NATO.
He emphasized repeatedly that the process of expansion will not stop with the first round, that the door remains open to admit more countries to the NATO alliance, and that the U.S. is committed to this goal. In Burns' words: "we vigorously support enlargement...we very strongly believe there ought to be a second round ... and we are pushing the idea of a second round."
Burns did not lay out details or make any reference to a timetable. But analysts scrutinizing every word he uttered, took note of his statement that "you can't simply stop the process of building stability and democracy in Central Europe...you have to give some hope to those countries who want to meet the requirements of NATO membership, if they can't now, in a couple of years hence."
U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), another influential figure in the Washington foreign policy establishment and longtime supporter of NATO expansion, is urging a continuing and continuous expansion process.
He said in a statement Thursday that he understands some time is needed to absorb the new members. But Lugar said "it would be a huge mistake to declare a formal pause in expansion after Madrid."
Lugar urged the U.S. and NATO allies to reassure the Baltic states and other Europeans at Madrid that "they will not be left in a security no-man's land."