Washington, 12 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen says the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a military alliance -- not a social club -- whose members must make a genuine security contribution. He suggests it will take time to absorb new partners.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder says NATO needs a period of consolidation after admitting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic this spring.
But an influential U.S. Senator, pointing to a new congressional study, says NATO expansion should press ahead, adding that closing the door even temporarily would send a "chill across Europe."
And several other members of Congress say they favor early membership for the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. NATO will meet in Washington on April 23-25 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the alliance that kept the peace during the darkest days of the Cold War and continues its mission in the post-Communist era. The 16-nation NATO alliance will formally welcome as full members Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
Other countries ask when their turn might be.
Despite recent assurances by U.S. President Bill Clinton that the door to NATO remains open, there are indications that the expansion process might be slower-moving than originally anticipated.
Cohen said during a recent visit to Germany that while the door to NATO membership must always remain open, "that door is at the top of a very steep set of stairs." He said those countries seeking membership must be willing and able to contribute to NATO's collective security "and not just be consumers."
The secretary of defense also said that the alliance understands Russian security concerns.
He said: We intend to work with both Russia and Ukraine, understanding that there can be no stability throughout the continent without a stable Russia."
Schroeder, who held talks in Washington with U.S. President Bill Clinton on Thursday, echoed Cohen's remarks. The German leader also said that he did not expect NATO to decide on any future members at the April summit beyond Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Despite these cautionary remarks, the three Baltic countries and Romania say they intend to press ahead with their efforts for early NATO admission.
Said Estonian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Ethel Halliste: "Estonia continues in its efforts to join NATO as soon as possible."
Earlier this month, several members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a resolution recommending the integration for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia into NATO. A congressional resolution is not binding but it can carry considerable political weight. It has not been voted on by Congress.
The resolution said the three Baltic countries are "undergoing a historic process of democratic and free market transformation after emerging from decades of brutal Soviet occupation."
The resolution said these countries have met five key standards for NATO entrance. These include support for democracy, including toleration of ethnic diversity and respect for human rights; building a free market economy; civilian control of the military; promotion of good neighborly relations; and development of military integration with NATO forces.
The resolution stated in part: "Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia would make an outstanding contribution toward furthering the goals of NATO should they become members."
It said that extension of full NATO membership to these Baltic nations would promote stability, freedom and peace in the region and in the rest of Europe as well.
A recent congressional survey suggested that of the nine Eastern and Central European countries seeking NATO membership, tiny Slovenia is the most qualified to become the next member.
Slovenia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have all applied for NATO membership.
The conclusion on Slovenia's readiness was reached by the Congressional Research Service (CSR), a research arm of the Congress. It said Lithuania and Slovakia may be next in line into readiness to become alliance members.
Senator William Roth, a Republican from the eastern U.S. state of Delaware, said in making the report public that as a minimum Slovenia should be invited in April to accession negotiations.
Roth is president of the North Atlantic Assembly made up of lawmakers from NATO countries.
The CSR report said Slovenia is a stable and economically vibrant democracy that is already contributing to NATO operations. In fact, Roth said the report shows that Slovenia matches or surpasses the standards set by Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
Roth said: "To ignore such a qualified candidate could be a historic mistake that would undermine progress toward a united Europe. Closing the door in April, even temporarily, would send a chill across Europe."
The congressional study said Slovenia's armed forces may be able to make a contribution to NATO similar to that of smaller current members such as Luxembourg.
It said that Slovenia's 1998 defense spending is 354 million dollars, or about 1.9 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product. The study said that is a percentage higher than that of Hungary and the Czech Republic.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to former President Jimmy Carter, said Wednesday at a Washington conference on NATO enlargement that the very idea of expanding the alliance depends on the aim of NATO.
Brzezinski said: "If NATO expansion was particularly driven by the desire to enhance Europe's geo-political security against Russia, then no further expansion is needed because NATO has gained geo-strategic depth. It has enhanced its security by adding a chain of countries that further increases the scope of West Europe's security. But if Europe's desire to be a zone of peace and of democracy was a driving element of NATO expansion, thereby creating a wider Euro-Atlantic system, then it follows that further expansion is mandatory. Historically mandatory, geopolitically desirable. I subscribe to the second point of view."
He also said that: "Insofar as the process is concerned, I subscribe very strongly to the argument that vagueness regarding the open door process is tantamount to pause."
Opponents of NATO expansion favor a pause to assess where the alliance is headed.