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NATO: Do Budapest, Vilnius Meetings Show An Alliance Uncertain Of Its Direction?

The NATO alliance has held two important meetings in the past week, in Budapest and Vilnius. One of the key issues hanging in the air at both was the question of the alliance's possible expansion eastward. The Vilnius meeting, in particular, heard talk in favor of expansion, but is that what the established alliance members really want? RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at some of the opinions.

Prague, 1 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- If some of the press coverage is to be believed, the meeting in Budapest early this week of foreign ministers from the NATO alliance and the European Union was a glum affair.

Reports suggested that the United States and its European allies had disagreed on the future of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. That's the treaty that stands to be breached by current U.S. plans to develop a missile defense shield.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson was sufficiently concerned by these reports to issue a denial. He said he refutes "completely the allegation that there was a row in NATO" on the missile defense issue.

But gloom in the press continued, at least on another important theme -- NATO's further enlargement eastward. A commentary in the German paper "Die Welt" (by Andreas Middel, 31 May) quotes sources in the corridors of the Budapest conference as saying most established members of NATO were reluctant to address the enlargement issue. On the contrary, the article said, the alliance was quietly trying to dampen the expectations of hopeful would-be members.

The only man said to have been set alight by the expansion topic was Russia's Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who was also in Budapest and who reiterated Moscow's strong objections.

What's sure, at any rate, is that the Easterners are still clamoring to get into NATO. Slovenian President Milan Kucan said this week that his country expects an invitation to join NATO at next year's alliance summit in Prague. Kucan called it "unfair" that Slovenia was not already in NATO, and he said he believed Slovakia should also receive an invitation in Prague.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis, meanwhile, called on NATO to "end the uncertainty" by clearly setting out its policy on membership for the three Baltic republics. That's the most thorny enlargement issue, because the Baltic states were once incorporated into Soviet territory.

After the Budapest meeting came the meeting, in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. That meeting brought together legislators from the NATO member states and all aspirants.

Certainly, NATO chief Robertson beat the drum of enlargement loudly in his keynote speech to the assembly yesterday (31 May). He said:

"NATO's commitment to the enlargement process remains as firm as ever. Why? Well, because NATO membership can and has locked in reform and it contributes to stability." And Robertson gave a broad hint that the Baltic states would not be excluded from consideration as members, despite their special position vis-a-vis Russia. He said:

"When a European democracy is able and willing to make a real contribution to Euro-Atlantic security, the alliance will consider their application for membership. And let me be very clear and be very blunt -- this includes every democratic country in Europe and not just some."

But even Robertson appeared to suggest that enlargement is not inevitable. He used conditional wording about expansion in referring to NATO's efforts to reassure Russia:

"Of course, on enlargement, we'll want to talk to the Russians and assure the Russians that this is not a threat to their national security or to their national interests, because it is not. [NATO enlargement] can actually add to stability and security in Central Europe, if it was to happen, as indeed it has happened in the past."

Not all analysts are convinced the path forward is as smooth as Robertson's upbeat tone might suggest. London-based defense consultant and Baltic specialist Alexandra Ashbourne puts it this way:

"Robertson, since he became secretary-general, has been very committed to the enlargement process, but I've seen that in just words rather than concrete actions. I mean, what he is saying today is pretty much the same as he said last year -- namely, that NATO enlargement is a good thing and that's what we're aiming for. But he is going to be very careful not to upset the Russians."

Ashbourne says there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm for expansion among some established NATO members, and cites Germany as one such member. She characterizes the German view as being that further enlargement brings with it a risk to stability. Additionally, she says that overall NATO has not been able to formulate a clear role for itself in the post-Cold War era:

"NATO is in a very peculiar position, and has been since the collapse of the Soviet Union, because its original mission -- this article 5 collective security guarantee [saying if one NATO member comes under attack, all other members are obliged to come to its defense] seems to have been replaced by a desire to concentrate -- for example, as we saw in Kosovo -- in peacekeeping and other security arrangements. It's really not quite sure where it is going as an organization. It had 50 very successful years of collective security in Europe and across the Atlantic, and is now trying to redefine itself."

As yet, however, there are no signposts to point NATO to a certain road ahead.