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NATO: Analysis From Washington -- After Madrid

Washington, 10 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - NATO's decision at Madrid to invite three former Soviet bloc states to join its ranks seems certain to spark rather than still public debate about the role and even nature of the alliance in post-Cold War Europe.

And that debate is likely to exacerbate differences among its 16 current members, to transform NATO into something very different from what it is today, and to make it less likely that the alliance will meet its public commitment to future rounds of expansion.

There are three reasons for this conclusion. Each is rooted in the fact that NATO decided to include new members before its members had agreed on the nature of an alliance created to combat a threat that no longer exists - or at least no longer exists in the same form.

First, there will now be 16 debates rather than one. If the alliance is to expand, each of the current 16 member states must ratify a treaty with each of the three countries that have been invited to join.

In the absence of agreement among its current members on what the alliance should do in the future, these national ratification debates are likely to highlight the differences among the members rather than the points of agreement.

Turkey, for example, wants NATO to be more deeply involved in the Balkans than many other alliance members. France wants greater representation in senior NATO councils.

And Germany is increasingly at odds with other NATO countries about relations within Europe and between Europe and the United States.

All these and many other points of disagreement will be aired by both opponents and supporters of NATO expansion.

Second, these debates are now far more likely to focus on the costs of expansion than on its benefits.

Just like individuals, countries are likely to weigh the costs of any action against its benefits when they agree on the purpose of the action. But when they do not agree, they are likely to consider only the costs.

Such a focus on the costs of expansion is already dominating much of the debate in the United States and will certainly affect discussions in other countries as well.

That will certainly make ratification of expansion more difficult. But it will also weaken the commitment of current members to the institution and the faith those, who hope to be taken in, may have in the alliance's commitments.

And third, the Russians are likely to play a larger role than many now expect both in the individual national debates and in the new NATO-Russia forum created last May.

In a variety of NATO countries, Russian diplomats and spokesmen have argued that there is now no need for the expansion of the alliance, that its costs are too high, and that the expansion of NATO is part of an American plan to dominate Europe.

While none of these suggestions is without an obvious answer, each has found a sympathetic response among those who want to believe that there are now no serious challenges to European security.

And Russian diplomats in both Madrid and Moscow publicly indicated that they plan to continue to raise these points as the debates on expansion and on the future of the alliance proceed.

But even more, the Founding Act creating a new Russia-NATO council creates both expectations and opportunities for Moscow to intervene in alliance affairs.

While it is true that this new relationship does not give Moscow the veto over alliance actions, it does create both expectations that the West will take Russia's positions into account and a forum in which Russia can press its case.

Russian officials this week indicated that they will do just that, pointedly noting that Moscow will have a seat at NATO's table long before any of the three countries invited to join the alliance this week do.

In the absence of agreement among the current members over just what NATO should now be doing, such Russian participation in Brussels is likely to have a profound impact on the shape of the alliance in the future.

And as a result, the "new" NATO so often advertised at Madrid may soon become a very different organization, not so much because its members decided to change the organization but rather because they decided to expand the alliance before doing so.