Prague, 29 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton has officially announced that he would ask the Senate "within days" to ratify NATO's expansion in the East.
Speaking two days ago at the joint session of the U. S. Congress, Clinton said that "within days, I will ask the Senate for its advice and consent to make Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic the newest members of NATO.... I ask the Senate to say yes to them."
Clinton went on to say that "by taking in new members and working closely with new partners, including Russia and Ukraine, NATO can help to assure that Europe is a stronghold for peace in the 21st century."
This mention of Central Europe, Russia, Ukraine and NATO constituted but a brief passage in the annual State of the Union address, which provides a traditional outline of U.S. domestic and foreign policies. But it was significant for several reasons.
Firstly, the president clearly confirmed that the U.S. government considers the NATO's eastward expansion into Central Europe an important tenet of its foreign policies.
The three Central European countries were invited last July by the NATO leaders to open membership negotiations. These negotiations concluded by the end of 1997, and, in December, NATO foreign ministers formally invited Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to apply for membership. This invitation must be ratified by all 16 NATO member states.
The U.S. played a leading role in that process. Clinton's declaration in the State of the Union address confirms the determination to maintain that role.
Secondly, the president emphasized that the expansion is taking place in concert with strengthening of contacts and cooperation with "new partners" of NATO. Four years ago, the U.S. government proposed the establishment of a broadly defined "Partnership for Peace" program grounded in cooperative relations between NATO and numerous other, mostly Eastern, countries.
Clinton specifically mentioned Russia and Ukraine in his address. This alone showed U.S. government recognition of their political and strategic importance in Europe. More importantly, it also underscored U.S. recognition of their separate national identities in international politics.
Finally, President Clinton affirmed that those points constitute permanent and lasting aspects of U.S. foreign policy, rather than decisions prompted by some exigencies of the moment.
"On the eve of a new century, we have the power and the duty to build a new era of peace and security," the president said. And he went on to emphasize that the new, expanded NATO, while it cooperates with all its new partners, "can help to assure that Europe is a stronghold for peace in the 21st century."
The president was seen and heard by television audiences all over the world.