When to add East European nations to NATO's security umbrella may not be not be a sizzling issue in US election campaigns, but in Europe, it is carefully watched.
By calling for NATO to enlarge by a specific date, 1999, but not specifying who might join at that time, President Clinton brought to the fore increased speculation in Europe over who would be in the first round of new NATO members.
He also left unanswered what could be done for the "second tier," aspiring alliance members who don't make it into the first wave of expansion.
Poland and the Czech Republic are widely thought to be among the front-runners for admission into the alliance. Hungary is also considered a likely early entrant.
Commenting on Mr. Clinton's speech, given Tuesday in Detroit, Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski said that he welcomed the announcement. Similarly, Czech Ambassador to the US Michael Zantovsky told reporters in Prague that 1999 was the date "we were thinking about and hoping for."
Such security is a real concern to many of the second-tier countries, in particular the Baltics. In their efforts to break free from Russian influence, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia see NATO membership as a bulwark against future aggression from their sizable eastern neighbor. Toivo Klaar, minister counselor in the Estonian Embassy in Brussels, told the Monitor he has no problem with the idea of "rounds" of enlargement, as opposed to an all-at-once approach. "It's obvious that no organization can absorb an infinite number of new members at one time," he said. But failure to take concrete action toward second-tier countries would "send the wrong signals to third countries."
The particular third country Mr. Klaar had in mind was obviously Russia, which has strongly opposed, but more recently seemed resigned to, NATO enlargement.
"I do not want to make a specific comment. All I can do is to repeat our general position that we have a negative attitude to the plans for expanding NATO," Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov told reporters in Moscow. "Let's wait and see."
Part of the problem in Moscow is a certain reluctance to accept Western assurances that NATO is not aimed at Russia. This situation is exacerbated by Moscow's recent political turbulence. But observers also suggest that Russian opposition has a tactical basis. By driving as hard a bargain as it can over NATO's first-wave enlargement, Russia is seeking to gain leverage over second-wave countries, notably the Baltics.
Other second-tier hopefuls include Slovenia, Romania, Slovakia, and Albania, the first ex-communist East European country to seek NATO membership.
The Baltics, in particular, are at a disadvantage when it comes to joining a military alliance: lack of military forces. After 50 years under Soviet domination, they have had to start from scratch to develop such forces. But that's coming. "For us, NATO is an important symbol as the defender of democracy.... We have an inherent right to be part of NATO," Klaar says.
The year Clinton designated, 1999, is symbolic: It is NATO's 50th anniversary and 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The decision to set a specific date for NATO expansion is not for Clinton to make on his own. NATO leaders will jointly decide on a timetable. But Robert Hunter, American ambassador to NATO, said that 1999, as a "working date" used unofficially for planning purposes, was "well consulted" upon in "corridor talk" with other member countries. "The speech was made with a good expectation that it will be accepted" by other NATO allies, he said.
The speech also represented an effort to keep the lines of communication open to second-tier countries. "NATO's doors will not close behind its first new members," Clinton promised.