Like debutantes at a military cotillion, some East European countries have been primping for this moment for years. Some regard an invitation to NATO membership as inevitable. But midway through the current phase of NATO expansion, there is still wide disagreement over how to admit new members.
The main issue is whether Europe's nascent democracies, especially those that have returned former communists to power, have the political will and stability to complete the difficult, far-reaching reforms required for NATO membership. Experts who track the subject, including some who favor expansion, continue to voice doubts.
"I don't think they are ripe by a long shot," says Ed Kolodziej, a University of Illinois professor.
Here in the United States, NATO expansion is hardly the stuff of presidential stump speeches but there are clear differences between the main contenders. President Clinton is committed to a cautious timetable in which the first invitations might be made in 1997, with actual admissions delayed for several years. His presumed GOP rival, Bob Dole, favors a speedier process.
To be sure, extending NATO eastward carries huge political and financial consequences for the US.
Not only will millions of tax dollars have to be spent to help the cash-short new democracies contribute to NATO's overall capabilities, but a downsized US military will be committed to defending more of Europe at a time when many Americans oppose new foreign entanglements.
"Who is going to pay for all of this?" asks Daniel Nelson, a professor of international relations at Virginia's Old Dominion University.
Other experts warn that to expand NATO prematurely could hurt the alliance and bind the US to weak, unqualified partners by removing the strongest incentive for ex-communist states to keep their democratic reforms on track.
"The offer of membership too soon could have a negative effect on the reform process," says Jeffery Simon, an influential expert on NATO at the National Defense University in Washington.
US officials insist such hurdles can be overcome. Invitations to join NATO will compel new members to complete reforms, they say. But they admit that prospective Eastern European members are being told they must work harder to meet membership criteria. Says a State Department official: "We have been emphasizing the need for them to take the initiative."
"NATO is not a country club that you go join one afternoon," adds White House spokesman Michael McCurry.
NATO leaders agreed on enlarging the alliance in December 1994. Publicly, it was touted as the best way of guarding against a post-cold-war return of the frictions that beset Europe for centuries, ignited two world wars, and set former Yugoslavia afire. Privately, it was seen as a bulwark against a resurgence of Russian expansionism.
As a stepping stone to membership, prospective entrants were urged to join the Partnership for Peace, a program designed to instill NATO doctrine through joint military exercises.
After a year of deliberation, NATO last December set out admission criteria. Former Marxist states must embrace democracy and free-market economics, resolve feuds with neighbors, and modernize their armies and bring them under civilian control.
Fifteen states are now holding intense talks with NATO on those criteria and in December NATO leaders will review the talks and decide how to advance to the invitations phase.
US officials refuse to identify leading candidates, hoping to soothe Russian unease and avoid antagonizing states that might not qualify.
But Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, with their rapid moves toward democratization and capitalism, are widely seen as topping the list. In one of his last acts as Senate majority leader, Mr. Dole on June 4 joined other GOP colleagues in introducing legislation to speed the trio's NATO admission by providing them with $60 million for military modernization.
That sum, however, is but a fraction of the funds the three states need to rebuild their Soviet-style militaries. Where the rest will come from remains in doubt. The total cost of NATO expansion is between $61 billion and $125 billion, according to a congressional study released in April. The US share would be between $5 billion and $19 billion.
Another major concern among many experts is the lack of progress by Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest in instituting Western-style civilian control over their militaries. Their commanders retain considerable political power and their parliaments still have little or no authority over defense budgets and policymaking, experts say.
The leftist government of Poland, the largest and most strategically important of the three states, recently tried to create a civilian US-style national security council to oversee defense policy, but was blocked in Parliament.