The U.S. Senate voted 96 to zero today to approve the applications of seven former communist Eastern European nations. But some senators say the alliance needs more than just new members, RFE/RL reports from Washington.
Washington, 8 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Senate, or upper house of parliament, voted overwhelmingly today in favor of expanding NATO to include seven former communist states in Eastern Europe.
Six of the applicants -- Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia -- supported the U.S.-led war to depose Saddam Hussein as president of Iraq. They and Slovenia were approved with little debate.
The Senate voted 96 to zero in favor of enlargement; four of the 100 Senate members were not present. U.S. acceptance of NATO applicants requires a two-thirds vote. Under the U.S. Constitution, the other chamber of Congress, the House of Representatives, does not vote on foreign alliances.
Just before the vote, Senator Richard Lugar, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said today will go down in history as one of the historic moments for each of the seven applicant nations. And Senator Joseph Biden, the vice chairman of Lugar's committee, noted the significance of the date.
"It's fitting that on this day, which is the 58th anniversary of V-E Day, victory over Nazi tyranny in Europe, that the United States is about to admit -- vote to admit -- seven countries who suffered under that tyranny and the tyranny of communism," Biden said.
The legislatures of the other 18 NATO nations also must vote on the applications. Most have yet to vote, but all are expected to approve. The alliance says the seven new members should be inducted by May 2004.
Today's Senate action was in sharp contrast to the Senate deliberations of 1998, in which 19 of the chamber's 100 members voted against including the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in the alliance.
Some senators argued at the time that expanding the alliance to the east would be perceived as a threat to Russia. The United States was then trying to improve relations with Moscow.
Since then, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin has eased Russia's objection to NATO expansion, and has even stepped up consultations with the alliance.
Some of the leading U.S. senators who opposed NATO expansion in 1998 now support the entry of the seven Eastern European states. They include John Warner (R-Virginia), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Carl Levin (D-Michigan), the committee's vice chairman.
But these senators also say the alliance must consider reforms. NATO was founded in 1949 as a bulwark against the threat of the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact. Now, they say, it must focus on international terrorism and related issues.
NATO was deeply divided in the weeks leading up to the war in Iraq. At that time, three members -- Belgium, France, and Germany -- blocked the request of another member, Turkey, for help in strengthening its defenses before any war began in neighboring Iraq.
This opposition was sidestepped when Turkey's request was brought instead before NATO's Defense Planning Committee, the military arm of the alliance of which France is not a member. France withdrew from the committee four decades ago, but still remains a political member of NATO.
Belgium and Germany, who are still members of the committee, agreed to help Turkey, but only after the United States assured them that it would continue to pursue a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis at the United Nations.
One such decision-maker is Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At a 30 April hearing of his panel, Lugar said terrorism has left Americans feeling more threatened than they have since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and possibly since the end of World War II.
As a result, he said, NATO remains essential to the United States despite occasional divisions like the recent rift over Iraq.
"Many observers will point to the split over Iraq as a sign that NATO is failing or irrelevant. I disagree. The United States has more at stake and more in common with Europe than [with] any other part of the world. And these common interests and shared values will sustain the alliance if governments realize the incredible resources that NATO represents," Lugar said.
Despite Lugar's faith in NATO, he said it is time the alliance considered changing its rule that political decisions must be made by consensus. That means that a single member nation can block a decision agreed upon by the other 18 members.
This is how Belgium, France, and Germany were able to block the plans of the other 16 NATO members for Turkey's defense before the Iraq war. Given that, Lugar questioned whether such a structure can be useful in years to come.
"If NATO had been united on Iraq, could it have provided an effective command structure for the military operation that is under way now? And would those allies beyond those currently engaged in Iraq have been willing and able to field forces that would have been significant in the outcome of the war? In other words, achieving political unity within the alliance, while important to international opinion, does not guarantee that NATO will be meaningful as a fighting alliance in the war on terror," he said.
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Kenneth Allard, a former military intelligence officer, said it is essential for NATO to drop the unanimity rule. He told RFE/RL that France has long been a difficult member of the alliance, noting its unilateral withdrawal from the Defense Planning Committee, which deals with crucial military issues. He said Paris should not be able to thwart the will of NATO's majority.
"We have seen France trying to have it both ways. They have tried to withdraw from the military part of the NATO alliance and yet maintain their position as a political member of the alliance. Well, that is trying to have your cake and eat it too. And it is time we called a halt to that," Allard said.
Allard suggested that there are several ways of getting around France's veto. One, he said, is to change the alliance's rules, although that could be difficult. A second way is to sidestep NATO's political infrastructure and bring up matters to a vote of the Defense Planning Committee, where France does not have a seat.
A third option, he said, is to work to have France expelled from NATO. Allard said this is not as unrealistic as it sounds. He noted that the United States is not the only ally that France has angered. And he cited France's very undiplomatic scolding recently of new alliance members, and some applicants, for supporting the U.S. policy on Iraq.
"If you care about NATO, then you begin to look for ways in which you can preserve that very key institutional relationship from a new set of adversaries. I'm not sure that France is an enemy yet, but I am sure that they are an adversary, purely based on their track record in this latest run-up to the Iraq war," Allard said.
Radek Sikorski, a former defense and foreign minister of Poland, and now an international affairs analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, an independent policy research center in Washington, takes a much less critical view of France. Certainly, he said, France is not an adversary of the United States, of NATO, or of any of the alliance's members.
"France would like to create a Europe which is a counterweight to the United States, rather than as a firm ally. And that means that NATO could be paralyzed as [it] was briefly [before] the war in Iraq. So I think you will find those [NATO] members who are still patriotic about the trans-Atlantic alliance somewhat amenable to the idea of diluting the unanimity rule," Sikorski said.
According to Sikorski it is time for NATO to reform its voting structure, if only because its size is likely to grow from 19 to 26 within a year. He notes that a military alliance must have the capacity to react quickly to a threat.
Sikorski said the rule of consensus worked well when the principal threat was the Warsaw Pact. But today, facing the nearly amorphous threat of international terrorism, the alliance cannot afford the luxury of unanimity.
"I think anybody who has chaired a meeting of more than a dozen people knows that when the group grows beyond that -- 14, 15 people -- it's very difficult to reach consensus. So I think some revised rules are probably in order," he said.
For all the talk about changing the rule on NATO consensus, however, Sikorski said the real potential crisis facing the alliance lies in whether it can properly fulfill its commitment made at last November's summit in Prague to create a rapid-reaction force.
Sikorski said that force is essential to NATO's continuing relevance as a defensive military alliance because it would be what he calls an "essential instrument" to face today's very real threat of 21st-century terrorism.