What a difference five years makes. The last time the U.S. Senate weighed extending NATO membership to new countries in 1998, senators debated for four days about how Russia might respond and how much adding new members might cost. But no such concerns marked the debate preceding the Senate’s unanimous May 8 vote endorsing alliance membership for seven additional countries.
With the foreign ministers of the seven candidate countries looking on from the Senate balcony, senators by a 96-0 vote approved the expansion of the 19-member alliance to include Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. In 1998 the Senate backed the memberships of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland by an 80-19 vote.
This latest expansion moved the alliance even further east toward Russia and, for the first time, included countries that were part of the former Soviet Union—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Yet, Moscow barely batted an eyelash, unlike the previous round when it protested vehemently. The Kremlin’s subdued response to the growth of its Cold War-era foe reflects in part its warming relations with the West and the May 2002 creation of the NATO-Russia Council, which cemented a closer, more formal NATO-Russia relationship.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania also soothed Russian concerns by pledging to accede to an updated version of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty once it enters into force. Moscow had repeatedly stated over the last few years that the three countries should not be admitted to NATO without being parties to the CFE Treaty, which limits the amount and location of heavy weaponry, such as tanks, that its states-parties can deploy.
Russia’s mollified stance was reflected in the Senate debate. In 1998, several senators warned that NATO’s expansion would end rapprochement between Russia and the West and lead Moscow to increase its reliance on nuclear forces. This time, no senator voiced such worries. In fact, Russia was barely mentioned.
Instead, senators indicated that they are more concerned about problems posed to NATO from within rather than from outside. Several senators, led by Carl Levin (D-MI) and John Warner (R-VA), expressed concern that as the alliance grows it will become harder for the alliance to act because it makes decisions by consensus. Senator Jim Jeffords (I-VT) made the strongest statement, declaring, “I am concerned that the alliance has expanded to the point of becoming inefficient and unwieldy.”
Reflecting these concerns, the Senate passed a nonbinding amendment calling on the president to initiate a discussion at NATO on the consensus decision-making rule.
Underlying this Senate initiative, in part, was lingering resentment over the failure of some NATO members to stand firmly with the United States in confronting Iraq over its disarmament. Belgium, France, and Germany strongly opposed U.S.-led military action against Iraq, and Turkey did not grant the United States the use of Turkish territory for launching a northern invasion.
The amendment also called for the president to raise the “merits” of creating a process for suspending a country’s alliance membership if it “no longer complies with NATO principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.” The process would potentially be applied to a country that became a dictatorship.
The amendment does not specify a U.S. position on either the consensus rule or the suspension issue but only suggests they be brought up for discussion.
Some senators acknowledged that the seven aspiring countries will not contribute much military manpower or might to the alliance, but they expressed confidence that the countries would be able to fill capability niches, such as detecting weapons of mass destruction and demining. They also said they hope the new members will reinvigorate the spirit of the alliance as a club of free-market democracies.
All NATO’s existing members must approve the seven countries’ bids to join the alliance. The United States was the third country to do so, following Canada and Norway. All NATO members agreed last November to extend invitations to the seven countries to join, and they are all expected to approve the seven states’ accession.
The Senate also declared that NATO’s door remains open and that these seven “will not be the last.” Albania, Croatia, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have applied for NATO membership.