Washington, 19 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Two developments many world leaders had long thought impossible -- eventual Baltic membership in NATO and the transformation of that defense alliance into a collective security organization -- increasingly appear not only likely but even inevitable.
And that movement from the unthinkable to the acceptable to the virtually inevitable has taken place as a result of the coming together of two very different patterns of political development: the West's tradition of and insistence on step-by-step change and the East's experience with and expectations of sudden, dramatic shifts.
Both of these patterns and their increasingly certain impact on NATO and Europe were very much on view last Friday when U.S. President Bill Clinton, Estonian President Lennart Meri, Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis, and Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas signed the U.S.-Baltic Charter at a White House ceremony in Washington.
In his speech, President Clinton reiterated the American commitment to ensuring that every country in Europe has the right to choose its own security arrangements regardless of its geographic location and to guaranteeing that the Baltic countries would eventually be able to enter NATO as all of them have declared that they want to do.
In his response, President Meri spoke for all three Baltic countries when he repeated their desire to join the Western alliance as soon as possible and when he suggested that inclusion of the Baltic states in NATO would be the next big test for the alliance.
Because both Clinton and the charter itself largely repeated promises the U.S. and NATO have made in the past and because the Baltic states appeared once again to be unsuccessful supplicants, many observers in the U.S., Europe and the Russian Federation tended to dismiss Friday's signing as either an element in American domestic politics or a "consolation prize" for the Balts.
Such conclusions could not be more wrong, albeit for very different reasons than many of those celebrating the signing of this charter have offered so far.
What was striking about both the signing ceremony and the charter itself was the extent to which both were broadly accepted as nothing especially out of the ordinary.
As President Clinton noted at the start of his speech, the signing ceremony attracted an unusually large number of ambassadors including Yuliy Vorontsov, the ambassador of the Russian Federation, to mark what the American leader called an historic and positive development for all concerned.
And as the commentators who dismissed the charter themselves acknowledged, the document and the speeches given on Friday seemed unimportant because virtually everything in them had been said before and was now more or less common ground.
But that last observation is precisely the key: It is now common ground that eventually the Baltic states will get into NATO some day. And it is also common ground that the organization they will become members of will not be the NATO of the Cold War but a new regional security group that will cooperate with rather than contend against Russia.
Neither of these ideas was common ground until recently. But because of the pattern of developments in Eastern Europe since 1989, the very acceptance of such ideas may lead to the inclusion of the Baltic states in NATO and the transformation of that alliance may now take place considerably faster than anyone had expected up to now.
Even those in NATO who accept that the Baltic countries will eventually join and that the alliance itself will change in the process have generally been reluctant to include the three countries on a short list for candidates for invitations in 1999.
But it is a measure of just how fast things may now be moving that last week an unnamed senior U.S. State Department official explicitly rejected a media report in the Baltic states that NATO would not invite the three at that time.
Along with the increasing willingness of the international community to accept as inevitable what had been seen as impossible, that rejection seems likely to encourage the three Baltic governments to push even harder toward their goal over the next 18 months in the hope that they would receive invitations in the next round of alliance expansion.
A year ago, that would have seemed the most improbable of developments, just as five years ago few thought that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic would be taken into the Western alliance and just as ten years ago even fewer thought that the Soviet Union would disappear from the map.
Now, in the aftermath of the signing of the U.S.-Baltic Charter, those who thought this could never happen may discover that it is going to take place far sooner than they had thought possible.