The U.S. Senate Thursday approved a second round of NATO expansion, endorsing the candidacies of seven eastern European nations to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The seven candidate countries are Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, as well as the three Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
In a recent appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, Ambassador Nicholas Burns, urged Senators to approve NATO membership for all seven. "I am convinced that bringing these seven nations into the alliance will make NATO a stronger collective defense organization," said Mr. Burns. "I am convinced they will help increase the security of the United States."
The Senate is expected to vote the two-thirds majority needed to ratify the seven nations' entry into NATO. No House vote is needed. At the heart of NATO is a mutual defense pact that commits members to respond with military force to an attack on any other member.
Many Senators argue that NATO expansion can have a positive effect on an alliance that they believe has been weakened by divisions over the U.S. led war in Iraq.
"I hope we can use the expansion of NATO as an opportunity to begin to heal what hopefully is a temporary divide here in the alliance, because I believe the alliance's importance and consequence exceeds its military capability," said Senator Joe Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Six of the seven candidate nations have served as members of the coalition against Iraq. The seventh, Slovenia, allowed fly-over rights for humanitarian missions. But NATO members France, Germany and Belgium have been outspoken critics of the war. The three countries blocked a request by Turkey for help in bolstering its defenses ahead of the war, arguing the move would undermine hopes of avoiding conflict.
The dispute was resolved after the request was brought before NATO's Defense Planning Committee, which does not include France. France left NATO's military command structure in 1966.
Germany and Belgium eventually reversed their position in exchange for assurances the alliance would support United Nations efforts to find a peaceful solution in Iraq.
The NATO split over Iraq was the focus of much Senate debate Wednesday, with Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona sharply criticizing France's role. "NATO has been put at great risk by hostile French obstructionism that is as dangerous as it is cynical," the senator said. "Let me be clear: I believe that the French government is pursuing a systematic campaign to undermine American leadership in Europe and around the world."
The Senate agreed Wednesday that NATO should consider dropping its requirement that decisions be made by unanimous vote. Senators approved (by voice vote) an amendment calling on President Bush to raise the issue with the alliance's policy-making North Atlantic Council within 18 months.
NATO first expanded in 1999, when it admitted the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary.
At the time, opponents expressed concerns that enlargement of the western alliance could isolate Russia as the United States was trying to improve relations. But Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, says Russia has dropped its objections to NATO expansion, even to the candidacies of the Baltic nations, which broke free of Soviet rule in 1990. He suggested that terrorist attacks on the United States two years ago marked a turning point in the Russian position. "Since September 11, 2001, Russian opposition to NATO enlargement, particularly Baltic membership, has eased," said senator Lugar. "The Russians have recognized enlargement is not directed at them."
The entry of the seven candidates for NATO membership is dependent on ratification by all 19 alliance members. NATO invited the seven to join at a summit in the Czech capital, Prague, last November.