Washington, 16 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Washington's decision to support invitations for only three countries in the first round of NATO expansion is almost certainly definitive.
But European support for inviting as many as five new members at the Madrid summit next month may provide an opportunity for some countries left out by either plan to receive a public timetable for their inclusion in future rounds of expansion.
And that possibility is likely to drive much of the diplomatic activity in Eastern Europe over the next month.
Last Thursday, U.S. President Bill Clinton issued a statement indicating that Washington would support issuing invitations to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in the first round of expansion of the Western alliance.
Clinton's statement followed suggestions by nine European NATO members that Slovenia and Romania should be invited now as well and appeared to end the discussion, even though it clearly angered many Europeans inside the alliance and out.
But on Friday, Neris Germanas, the foreign policy advisor to Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas, told journalists that the American declaration, while likely definitive, does not end the matter.
Germanas suggested that the differences between the United States and some of its NATO allies on whether the number of new members should be three or five might give Lithuania, her Baltic neighbors and other East European states a chance to extract a promise for the future.
What Vilnius is looking for, the national security advisor said, is a commitment by the alliance to include the Baltic countries as members during the second or at worst, third round.
Germanas' suggestion is nothing new. During the past two years, Lithuanian officials have urged the Western alliance to identify all the countries who will be invited eventually and only later indicate when any particular one will be included.
Such a strategy, called by some the "first who, then when" approach, would in fact give a kind of surrogate security to countries not included in an early round and would prevent the emergence of an insecure gray zone between the alliance and Russia.
What makes the Lithuanian suggestion now especially interesting is that Vilnius has been very much opposed to the proposals of some European countries to take in five as opposed to three.
Like some in Europe and many in the United States, Lithuanians have been very frank in expressing their view that inviting five new members now would almost certainly delay a second round, if not cancel any possibility of future growth altogether.
That is because many in the West would see such a step as somehow final both because of the reactions it would produce at home and in Russia and because of the difficulties and expense current members would face in absorbing five rather than three.
Germanas' comment indicates that the Lithuanian government is clearly calculating that differences between Washington and some of its European allies open the door to negotiations.
And they are thus likely to expand their campaign for a declaration that a second round should take place at a precisely defined time in the future and that the alliance is prepared to declare that Lithuania will be invited in at that time.
Whether that strategy will work or whether the Lithuanians are taking this step because they do not know what else to do remains to be seen.
But the opening that they are trying to go through means that the American declaration last week may be the last word on the first round of NATO expansion. But it almost certainly will not be the last one on the question of the future growth of the western defense alliance.