Washington, 18 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The long-awaited ratification debate in the U.S. Senate on NATO expansion has begun.
The debate was launched late yesterday, unexpectedly and with little advance notice, in a half-empty chamber. Only four senators spoke to outline their positions before the session was adjourned to resume today (Wednesday).
Congressional aides said ratification proceedings on the accession protocols to the NATO treaty, that will allow Poland, Hungary and the Czech republic to join the alliance, are expected to pick up pace but could be sporadic, interrupted by consideration of other senate business.
They said the NATO debate is expected to last several days and a vote is unlikely to be called before the end of the week at the earliest.
In the opening statements last night, all four speakers agreed that western democracies have a moral obligation to reconnect with the Central Europeans from whom they were separated for half a century first by Hitler and then by Stalin.
But setting the main themes of the debate, two opponents and two supporters put forward differing interpretations of what NATO enlargement will mean for Russia, NATO's mission and America's strategic role in the world, as well as familiar arguments about the cost of expansion.
Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) introduced the ratification document, called "Resolution of Ratification on the Accession of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to NATO."
Helms is the esteemed 77-year-old chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which recommended ratification earlier this month by a margin of 16 votes for and two against, and drafted much of the text of the document.
He said his paramount concern was that NATO expansion take place in a manner consistent with U.S. national interests. "We insisted on that, we have done that in this resolution," Helms said.
He summarized the 22-page resolution which includes a number of declarations and conditions to emphasize among other things, that U.S. leadership in NATO will continue without interference from the United Nations, and good relations with Russia should be encouraged only if Russia remains committed to democratic reforms.
Urging support for ratification, Helms said the end of the Cold War does not mean freedom and liberty are no longer threatened in Europe.
"Even now European nations are being torn asunder by ethnic hatred and religious division," he said, adding "we must remain vigilant against the re-emergence of old threats from the past and new threats to come."
Senator Robert Smith (R-New Hampshire) said flatly that he opposes NATO, expansion and wants more time to fully understand all its implications.
Smith was one of 17 legislators who earlier this month asked the Senate leadership to postpone the ratification debate until June.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi). a strong supporter of enlargement, rejected their request but said he will give all senators who have reservations time to be heard.
Smith's complaint yesterday that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are being accepted into NATO in too big a hurry without due consideration, is likely to be a recurring grievance in the debate.
He argued that the Soviet threat no longer exists and no harm would be done by waiting a year before enlarging NATO eastward.
Smith called NATO enlargement "a token and unimaginative distraction from what we want to do, which is bring Russia into the western world."
He also objected to NATO expansion on the grounds that "it will create a bunch of outsiders and subject NATO almost annually to the perpetual anguish of who will be next -- will it be Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, when will their turn come?"
Smith said expansion will draw another line though Europe, year after year, and perpetuate Cold War attitudes.
But President Bill Clinton says that a new dividing line in Europe will be created if NATO stops expanding.
He wrote to Lott earlier this week urging the Senate to quickly approve the NATO treaty protocols for Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic and to reject attempts to restrict future expansion eastward.
Clinton said in the letter this would be "unnecessary and unwise, for it would reduce our own country's flexibility and leverage, fracture NATO's open door consensus and draw a new and potentially destabilizing dividing line in Europe."
Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) echoed Smith's opposition, adding his own special concerns about the costs of expanding NATO. He urged more time to study financial responsibilities before proceeding with ratification.
Harkin signed a letter to Clinton last June raising scores of questions about enlargement and asking then for more time to thoroughly consider the issue.
Senator William Roth (R-Delaware), one of the earliest supporters of NATO expansion, said it will strengthen peace and democracy and benefit all countries in Europe, including Russia.
He said those who oppose expansion out of concern for Russia are "dead wrong," and forget to take into consideration "the hand of partnership and assistance" the West has extended to Russia and NATO's new cooperation with Moscow through the NATO-Russia Founding Act.
Roth also emphasized that "expansion is central to the vitality of the transatlantic community," saying "few votes before the U.S. Senate have such a far-reaching significance" as the vote on ratification.
He said voting in favor of NATO expansion eastward is not only a moral imperative to right a communist wrong but also a vote for America's strategic relationship with Europe.
Roth said NATO expansion will strengthen the alliance, enable the U.S. to remain a European power and make Europe more stable and more secure.
The debate continues today with critics and advocates taking turns before the microphone. Speakers are expected to include Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), a strong supporter of NATO expansion, and John Warner (R-Virginia), an opponent who wants an amendment to the resolution that would mandate a three-year pause before enlarging NATO further.
Several senators have proposed adding conditions that would restrict and delay NATO expansion but Roth told RFE/RL last week that he expects the ratification resolution eventually to be approved as it stands, free of any amendments.