Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 118

Last week marked a potentially decisive turn in the protracted debate over NATO’s enlargement, not only removing doubts that enlargement will take place next year, but also raising for the first time a real prospect that the enlargement will be substantial. A palpable shift of political attitudes within the alliance has altered the parameters of the debate. From this point on, naysaying to enlargement is officially out, while delaying tactics are becoming increasingly difficult to sustain politically within alliance councils and in national debates on enlargement.

American leadership energized these advances at the summits just held in Brussels, Warsaw and Ljubljana. President George W. Bush outlined a Euroatlantic vision, the political ground for which Senator Jesse Helms broke in his January speech at the American Enterprise Institute, and the moral underpinnings of which Czech President Vaclav Havel laid in his address to the Bratislava conference of aspirant countries last month.

The latest sequence of events began in Turku, Finland with the meeting of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the defense ministers of the five Nordic and the three Baltic countries. At that meeting, Rumsfeld–without prejudicing the deliberations of the NATO summit due within days–praised Estonia’s, Latvia’s and Lithuania’s implementation of the NATO Membership Action Plans (MAPs). He declared that “there is no question that three Baltic states have made good progress in their military efforts” and are continuing to strengthen their defense structures, military training and participation in NATO-led peacekeeping operations.

A joint statement of the ministerial meeting confirmed that finding. Asked by the press to comment on Moscow’s opposition to the enlargement of NATO, Rumsfeld replied: “The Russian government had views with respect to enlargement in 1999, and the enlargement went ahead” [with the Polish, Czech and Hungarian accession round.] Rumsfeld conclusively ruled out the suppositions–which had bordered on anxiety in East-Central and Baltic Europe until this point–that Washington might renounce NATO’s early enlargement in return for Moscow going along with the U.S. antimissile defense program. And he not only cited the right of all states to choose their security arrangements, but also underscored that “this is the wonderful thing about NATO.” With that, Rumsfeld drove home the point that failure to admit qualified candidates would mean an abdication from NATO’s most basic principles and would damage the alliance itself (Helsingin Sanomat, June 9; M2 Communications, Western news agencies, June 10-11).

The presidents and prime ministers of NATO’s nineteen countries conferred on enlargement and other issues on June 13 in Brussels. As anticipated on both sides of the Atlantic, President Bush set the tone, underscoring three core points: first, inviting the qualified countries, by the date certain of the Prague summit in 2002; second, no exclusions based on “geography or history;” and, third, no outside veto. While applicable to all admission-seeking countries, Bush’s remarks are clearly understood to uphold the Baltic states’ eligibility, overriding Russian objections to the admission of states bordering on Russia or formerly been annexed by it.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson summed up the terms of a new allied consensus as follows. First, the “zero option”–that is, no enlargement next year–is now “off the table.” Second, “if [admission-seeking countries] continue making the progress they are making,” they should be admitted “without any red lines”–an allusion to Moscow’s current usage for the old Ribbentrop-Molotov line in the Baltic. Third, based on current and anticipated performance on the MAPs, “NATO hopes and expects to launch the next round of enlargement at the Prague summit in 2002.” This last marks a convincing start toward “ending the uncertainty,” as Zbigniew Brzezinski urged the alliance at the Bratislava conference (White House and NATO releases, Western news agencies, M2 Communications, June 13).

In a semantic signal, Bush and Robertson used the term “aspirant members” in their postconference remarks in Brussels. The usage until now has been “aspirant countries.” According to unofficial reports from some participants in the summit, no country objected to the admission of the three Baltic states together into NATO, and an unprecedented combination of nine countries argued in favor. That number has since been confirmed publicly by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a participant (MTI, June 18). Officially, the summit did not “name the names” of countries with the best chances of admission. But, in what has been reported as a postsummit leak, Czech President Vaclav Havel identified the three Baltic states, along with Slovakia and Slovenia, as the best placed aspirants (Die Welt, June 16).

The dynamics of the intra-NATO debate suggest that a critical mass is forming within the alliance in favor of its Baltic enlargement. The discussion in Brussels showed, moreover, that the option of admitting just one Baltic state–namely, Lithuania–has now been superseded by the prospect of admitting all three together (see the Monitor, March 16, April 11, 13, May 14, June 11; Fortnight in Review, April 13).