As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization prepares to issue invitations to prospective new members at its summit in Prague later this year, candidates aspiring to join the alliance are making their case to U.S. lawmakers.
Candidates for the second round of NATO expansion have been diligently lobbying U.S. lawmakers.
Ambassadors from 10 applicant countries testified before the House International Relations Committee.
Included among the prospective members are Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia as well as the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Bulgaria's ambassador to the United States, Elena Poptodorova, said all 10 candidates could make an important contribution to NATO.
"We believe we can add security, and not just consume security, that we can add value to the alliance both militarily and politically. Be it air surveillance in the Balkans or mounted troops in Romania, the expertise in de-mining in Slovenia or the airfields in southeastern Europe, we do believe that in our modest scope we add to the strength and vitality of NATO," Ms. Poptodorova said.
Prospects for NATO membership for Bulgaria and Romania are said to have increased because of their assistance to the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan. Still, there are concerns among alliance members about the commitments of both countries to continue reform especially in the fight against corruption.
Ambassador Poptodorova said her country has more work to do in that area. "Yes, we know, we have to fight corruption and organized crime," she said. Making the case for Albania's candidacy, Ambassador Fatos Tarifa underscored his country's geographical location. "In cooperation with neighboring states, Italy and Greece, both members of the alliance, Albania's membership in NATO naturally expands the alliance on its southeast wing, building another bridge that will strengthen the link between the western part of Europe with the triangle that lays eastward from the Adriatic to the Baltic and the Black Sea to finally realize the vision of Europe that is whole and free," Mr. Tarifa said.
All the ambassadors highlighted progress their countries have made toward military, economic and democratic reform.
But the Bush administration believes the prospective members have more work to do.
A team of U.S. officials led by Ambassador-to-NATO Nick Burns visited candidates for NATO entry earlier this year to urge them to push forward on reform before the alliance's summit in November.
Marc Grossman, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"We have been working very hard with the aspirant countries and with other allies so that people are ready for NATO membership. We have told aspirants that the United States has made no decision on which countries to support for membership, and we have urged them to accelerate their reforms between now and Prague," Mr. Grossman said. Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith brief the Senate panel on what the Pentagon is doing to prepare NATO candidates for membership.
"The Defense Department is working with the aspirants through bilateral and NATO channels to help them become the best possible candidates. We are assessing the state of each aspirant's military structures, its implementation of defense reforms, the readiness of its military units dedicated to NATO-led missions and the military value it can bring to NATO," Mr. Feith said.
Lithuania's ambassador to the United States, Vygaudas Usackas, sought to ease concerns about prospective members' readiness for NATO membership in his testimony to the House International Relations Committee.
"Our inclusion in the security structures of NATO will not make NATO unwieldy or unmanageable. Quite the contrary. It will add a group of nations prepared to act, which have devoted resources and made the commitment to deal with the changing world, a group of nations that truly understand the moral imperative of freedom and democracy and the values and responsibilities that come with them," the Lituanian ambassador said.
U.S. lawmakers are highlighting the importance they place on such values.
Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, expressed concern about a recent spate of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe, and he urged prospective NATO members to steer clear of such acts. "The very ugly remnants of war-time fascism must be totally and permanently suppressed," he said.
"Speaking only for this Senator, and I am not making any accusations, I suggest that if I were to conclude that aspirant countries were not doing every single solitary thing in their power to deal with that issue, I would be part of a one-man band to keep them from becoming part of NATO," Mr. Biden added.
The U.S. Senate must ratify the accession of new NATO members.
Mr. Biden also praised NATO's decision to set up a closer partnership with Russia, which has been wary about the move of the alliance into former Soviet territory.
An agreement to establish a NATO-Russia Council is expected to be concluded at a meeting of alliance and Russian foreign ministers in Reykjavik, Iceland next week. The pact is expected to be signed at a summit in Rome at the end of the month.
The joint council will give Russia a greater say on issues of mutual concern, including counter-terrorism and nonproliferation, but will not give Moscow the ability to veto NATO actions.