Washington, 4 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Sometimes a defeat can define the future far more precisely than a victory does.
That may have been the case last week when the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve NATO membership for Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. But at the same time, that body more narrowly defeated an amendment that would have called for a three-year pause before considering any additional new members for the alliance.
The number of senators voting for the failed amendment, in contrast, was greater than the one-third of the Senate that would be needed to prevent ratification of any future treaties. Consequently, this vote may guide the future evolution of the alliance even more than will the approval the Senate gave for the three new members.
And that is especially likely given both statements in the Senate debate itself and follow-up commentaries which have suggested that the alliance's primary task now should be developing relations with Moscow rather than considering additional applicants for membership anytime soon.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted 80 to 19 to approve treaties that would make Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic members of the alliance. The United States thus became the fifth of the 16 current NATO member states that have formally ratified plans to take in these three East European countries.
Prior to that vote, the senators defeated a series of amendments that would have had the effect of changing or limiting the alliance in one way or another. The most significant of these proposed amendments came from Senator John Warner, a Republican from Virginia.
Sometimes identified in the press as the "pause" amendment, it called for adding to the instrument of ratification of the inclusion of the three new members a provision that would put the United States on record as opposed to any further expansion of the alliance for at least three years.
The proposed amendment was rejected by a vote of 59 to 41. But that rejection may mean less than a superficial consideration of these numbers might suggest.
On the one hand, this vote showed that 12 senators who later voted to include the first three new applicants appear to be against any further expansion soon. And on the other, the 41 votes this amendment garnered are seven more than 34 votes needed to defeat any proposal for expanding the alliance further to the east over the next several years.
And consequently while the amendment lost and does not have the force of law, the number of votes it attracted is likely to have an enormous political impact on NATO itself, the Russian Federation, and the countries lying between the two.
For the alliance, this vote in the U.S. Senate suggests that there is likely to be even less interest in the future than there has been in the past elsewhere for a second or third round of NATO expansion anytime soon. If as seems likely in the wake of the Senate vote the U.S. does not appear likely to ratify any new expansion, other member states are going to be less likely to push it.
That could of course change if Russian policy toward the region changes or if Western evaluations of Russian policy in Eastern Europe and elsewhere shift.
What is intriguing is that this vote may have precisely that effect. For the Russian Federation, this vote is a virtual invitation to increase pressure on NATO to make even more concessions to the insult and injury that some in Russia and more in the West say Moscow is feeling from the first round of expansion.
And it is also likely to be read in Moscow as an implicit acknowledgment that the Western alliance is prepared to go so far and no further, regardless of what its political and military leaders now say. That could lead some in the Russian capital to push for an even tougher approach with regard to Russia's immediate neighbors.
Finally, for the countries situated between the expanded alliance and the Russian Federation, this vote appears likely to have the most serious political consequences. Many leaders there may read the vote on the Warner Amendment in the same way that Moscow is likely to.
In that event, some are likely to conclude that they have no choice but to make additional concessions to Moscow. Others may retreat into a hyperbolic nationalism that will only further exacerbate the situation. And still a third group is likely to seek additional expressions of Western support, short of NATO membership but beyond what they feel they have today.
And all these likely responses are going to come from a vote on a measure that did not pass rather than from a vote for another measure that did.