By Jeremy Bransten and Ben Partridge
London, 10 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said in London today that the conflict in Kosovo is an important test for NATO, a test that will determine whether the alliance lives up to its promise as the key to Europe's future security.
Talbott -- addressing the last day of a three-day conference on the alliance's 50th anniversary -- noted that the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary will officially join NATO as new members on Friday. Talbott also recalled that in six weeks, at its Washington summit, the alliance will set a course for its development in the 21st century.
But Talbott emphasized that unless NATO and its partners make progress in resolving the Kosovo conflict before then, the question of why the alliance remains in business will not be laid to rest.
"Five days from now, on March 15, the Contact Group and the parties to the Kosovo conflict reconvene in France. If the talks and their aftermath go badly, it will cast a pall not only over the Washington summit but, more important, over the allies' and partners' ability to fulfill the objectives that they will set for themselves at the summit."
Despite his warning, Talbott noted NATO's contribution to bringing peace to Bosnia. He also said that the desire of many Eastern European countries to join the alliance has been a force for good and has brought greater regional stability. Talbott said Poland's increasingly good relations with neighboring Lithuania or Romania's growing cooperation with Hungary within the Partnership for Peace program are clear examples of NATO's positive influence.
Commenting on NATO's relations with Russia, Talbott acknowledged that Moscow's continued opposition to the alliance's eastward expansion has not softened.
"For Russians -- including many of those who favor their country's evolution in what I think we would all regard as the right direction -- NATO is a gut issue. The intense objection across a broad spectrum to NATO enlargement has not gone away, especially given the determination of the alliance to reaffirm its commitment to further enlargement at the Washington summit. We -- the alliance and Russia -- will have to continue to manage a profound disagreement. So far we have done so."
Talbott called for continued cooperation and dialogue with Russia within the framework of its existing partnership with the alliance. He rejected the charge that Washington is seeking a leading role in Europe, saying dominance is not on the U.S. agenda. He said that, as much as possible, NATO should continue to cooperate with the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to help resolve conflicts. But he stressed that NATO or its decision-making process must never be subordinated to either of those organizations.
Talbott said Washington welcomes the initiative by European NATO members to create a strong European defense identity within the alliance, to complement Washington's role. But he cautioned that such a move must be accompanied by consultations with the U.S., and he warned that a strong European defense identity must not lead to a separate, new European alliance. He said such a move would weaken all sides.