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NATO: U.S. Official Calls Enlargement A Priority

The idea of NATO expansion appears to be gathering momentum. At a U.S. Senate committee hearing yesterday, an official of the administration of President George W. Bush explained why the U.S. supports taking in new members this year. He told the senators that the war against terrorism makes NATO enlargement particularly essential.

Washington, 2 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A senior U.S. State Department official says adding new members to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should be a top priority for the alliance at its Prague summit in November.

Marc Grossman, the department's undersecretary of state for political affairs, said that the 11 September terror attacks on America make it even more imperative to enlarge NATO.

Grossman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 1 May that the attacks demonstrated how important it is for the United States to have reliable allies: "Our agenda for Prague has three parts: first, ensuring that NATO has the capabilities needed to meet emerging new threats; second, to extend NATO membership to more new European democracies; and third, to renew NATO's partnerships and relationships with Russia and Ukraine and other partners -- that's new capabilities, new members, and new relationships."

Grossman said these three elements are rooted in NATO's values and goals when the alliance was established in 1949.

At the Prague summit, NATO is expected to consider the applications of Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told a congressional committee last month that he believes NATO will take in "a very healthy number" of new countries. He declined to identify the prospective invitees.

The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), said yesterday that without a stable Europe, the U.S. cannot hope to carry out its goals elsewhere in the world. And without an active cooperation of vibrant European partners, Biden said, the U.S. cannot succeed in its war on terrorism.

"For more than a half a century, NATO has been the cornerstone of our strategic defense. It is our most important tangible link to Europe. It demonstrates the continuing commitment of the United States and the continuing commitment of the United States being a European power."

Biden noted that NATO members replied to the September attacks with an immediate show of solidarity, invoking Article 5 of the treaty. The article stipulates that an attack on one member is an attack on all.

NATO countries used seven airborne warning and control system (AWACS) planes to patrol the skies of the United States following the attacks. The operation freed up U.S. planes for the military campaign in Afghanistan.

The AWACS operation will end on 16 May after upgrades to the U.S. air defense system and enhanced cooperation between American civil and military authorities. NATO said that 830 crew members had patrolled the U.S. skies.

Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), the ranking minority member of the committee, said at the hearing he also sensed that NATO expansion is inevitable: "First, there is general agreement that NATO enlargement should continue, that we should think about an ambitious round for Prague, and that the war on terrorism makes it all the more important to accelerate the task of consolidating democracy and security in Central and Eastern Europe." Lugar said NATO also appears to be moving forward on closer cooperation with Russia.

The alliance and Russia are expected to conclude agreement on a joint council at a summit in Rome later this month. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said recently that the Russia-NATO joint council will be an independent organization able to study issues and take decisions in a number of areas.

Senior U.S. officials have said NATO would not give Russia veto power over the alliance's decision making process on expansion. Russia has expressed particular opposition over the possible inclusion of the three Baltic states.

Grossman said yesterday the NATO-Russia Council will focus on well-defined projects where both parties share a common purpose, such the fight against international terrorism. He said it will also offer Russia the opportunity to participate in shaping the development of cooperative mechanisms in areas of nuclear nonproliferation and civil emergency preparedness.

The committee's meeting was attended by the ambassadors of Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. They did not speak.

But during an afternoon hearing by another congressional panel, the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations subcommittee on Europe, the Bulgarian ambassador to Washington summed up the candidate countries' aspirations. Elena Poptodorova said, "We're here because we are preparing to take our place as part of Europe, whole and free."

Poptodorova said the prospective candidate countries would make NATO more robust and efficient. She said these countries already are acting as if they were in NATO, providing assistance to the United States in the war against terrorism.