MONS, BELGIUM — Building 901, just outside the fence of the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Powers in Europe (SHAPE), is arguably the most international military base in the world.
The modest three-story structure in Mons, Belgium, is headquarters for the Partnership for Peace, which consists of nearly 40 nations, including NATO members, NATO wannabes, and NATO could-be-but-don't-wannabes.
NATO foreign ministers recently decided at their meeting in Sintra, Portugal, that Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic - all Partnership members - will be among the first countries invited to negotiate for NATO membership.
"I'd be lying to you if I didn't admit that back home in Warsaw, the people [are so eager they] are like a pot going to boil over!" says Col. Waldemar Czarnecki, senior Polish liaison officer here.
The Partnership, with 27 members including Russia and Switzerland, is the program that helps bring countries into NATO's extended family. The prime example of it in action is the multinational force (SFOR) deployed in Bosnia, where NATO and Partnership forces work together to keep the peace.
How Hungary gets noticed
For Central European and Baltic countries striving for NATO membership, the Partnership is a critical arena in which to show what they can do.
"This is where the rubber meets the road," says Col. Frank Kalmar, the senior Hungarian liaison officer here.
If Hungary doesn't make it over the fence from Building 901 into the SHAPE complex itself, it won't be for lack of effort by Colonel Kalmar.
SHAPE observed its 30th anniversary Saturday. As part of the celebrations, a Hungarian officer leapt from a Hercules C-130 cargo plane as part of a joint parachute jump - the only non-NATO soldier to take part, Kalmar notes.
And a recent speech by the Hungarian defense chief, Lt. Gen. Ferenc Vegh, marks "the first time a representative of a non-NATO country was a keynote speaker at a NATO exercise," says Kalmar, who, with his salt-and-pepper crew cut, would fit right in at a United States Marine Corps recruiting station.
On a wall-mounted white board he tracks joint NATO-Partnership exercises in which Hungarian forces will participate over the next year. On another wall is a map of Bosnia showing SFOR deployments. Behind his desk is a souvenir photo of the White House.
All this bespeaks an eagerness to join the team. Actually, from the Central European point of view, it's a matter of rejoining the team. "We can get back where we belong, without choosing the wrong kind of friends," he says, referring to Hungary's alliance with Nazi Germany during World War II.
"We don't want to join NATO because we fear some kind of threat. We want to join a family of like-minded nations with whom we share cultural values, roots," Kalmar says. But he does obliquely acknowledge a threat from Russia: "We want to join NATO for the same reason other countries don't want to leave."
In Poland's path: paperwork
Poland's Colonel Czarnecki has his eyes on the same prize: "full membership." But the way to it is over mounds of paper - messages that must be read and evaluated and shipped off to Warsaw with recommendations from the colonel or one of his staff. Poland, like other Partnership countries, must learn to do things the NATO way.
Take "stanags," NATO's "standardized agreements" on things like the specifications for binoculars to be used by members, for example. "We have a whole office [here] just to translate stanags," Czarnecki says.
This routine paperwork can get tricky. Of the 1,119 unrestricted stanags that have been decreed so far, only 773 have actually been released. At the secret level, only 10 have been set and none released. As a result, even an officer as enthusiastic about NATO as Czarnecki acknowledges, "It's not always very easy" to get information he needs.
He's clear on the consequences of information gaps. "If we're taking part in an exercise, and there's a NATO helicopter and a Polish helicopter, and they can't communicate with each other, and they aren't using the same flight procedures, why, these helicopters will crash!" He emphasizes his point with a clap of his hands that reverberates like a gunshot in his small office.
Another critical area, he says, is language training. "A lot of officers have basic English: 'Hello, my name is Waldemar, how do you do?' But ... we need to get a larger number of officers with excellent English."
A plan to take 200 people out of a country's officer corps and turn them into fluent speakers of "operational English" in an eight-week course hasn't worked. Now planners think in terms of 1-1/2 to two years to develop fluency.
Col. Jaroslav Skopek, the senior Czech liaison officer in Mons, is a soft-spoken man who seems surprised to find himself outside NATO's gates looking in.
"Enlargement of NATO is a step to broaden the peaceful development of Europe," he says. "It's the one organization ... with the strength to carry out a peacekeeping operation, as we have seen in Bosnia. As many countries should be allowed to join as possible."
Getting into NATO will require ratification by all of its 16 members. This is not a foregone conclusion. But Kalmar, Czarnecki, and Skopek all express confidence that this hurdle will be cleared.