Before it adjourns this fall, Congress is likely to pass a bill called the NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act, and President Clinton will likely sign it into law. Because of the political season - Americans of Eastern European heritage remain a key political constituency in several important states - proponents at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will claim that this is a major foreign-policy achievement.
That's an exaggeration. This modest bill merely states that three countries - Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic - have made the most progress toward NATO membership, and authorizes $60 million to help them prepare for it. It neither states point-blank that these countries should be in NATO, nor sets a timetable for their entry into the alliance.
More to the point, the scant attention given to this bill underscores the lack of debate on one of the most critical strategic decisions facing the United States. Enlarging NATO means committing American lives and resources on behalf of European stability and security. Before we approve the enlargement of NATO, we need persuasive answers to some fundamental questions.
NATO enlargement will advance the interests of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, but how will it advance US interests? What will these countries do for NATO? Are we ready to commit American soldiers and nuclear guarantees to their defense?
Will NATO enlargement increase stability and security in Europe, especially if NATO takes in some countries - but not others - in Central and Eastern Europe?
A Congressional Budget Office study estimates that the US may have to absorb $5 billion to $19 billion of a total cost of between $60 billion to $125 billion over a 15-year period. At a time of defense-spending cutbacks and a sharp reduction of US troops in Europe - down from 300,000 to 100,000 in the past 5 years - are we ready to take on new security obligations in Europe?
The paramount US interest in Europe should be security and stability, not the roster of NATO members.
If it is done right, NATO enlargement can contribute to European security and stability. We will achieve that goal only if all parties in Europe come to believe they have a stake in the new security order, and only if the American public, once it understands the costs and commitments, agrees.
Fortunately, NATO enlargement will not happen overnight, with or without this legislation. Any decision on enlargement must be taken by all 16 NATO governments and be ratified by the parliaments of all NATO members. Neither the Congress nor the executive branch of the US can dictate the policy or the pace of enlargement to our NATO allies. The best course for the US is a gradual, deliberate, and open approach to this complex undertaking.
First, we should use the Partnership for Peace mechanism to build closer ties between NATO and the eastern half of Europe and help those countries get ready for NATO membership.
Second, we should work to build consensus within NATO so that enlargement can proceed smoothly. Third, we should work closely with Russia - in Bosnia, on arms control, and in support of economic and political reform - toward the common goal of a stable and peaceful Europe. Fourth, we should promote enlargement of the European Union, so that military integration is tied closely to political and economic integration.
Finally, we should have a full and open debate in the US to bring out the costs and commitments of NATO enlargement and show why they are in the US national interest.
Creating a new European security order is a vast and complex undertaking. No country in Europe represents a threat to the continent's peace and security. We shouldn't rush the process of NATO enlargement for domestic political reasons. We have the time, and the obligation, to get it right.
*Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D) of Indiana is a ranking Democrat for the Committee on International Relations.