A year ago, few analysts would have predicted that Romania would become a key issue in NATO's plans for enlargement to the east. Among Europe's poorest states, Romania has lagged behind its northern neighbors since 1989 in economic reform and democratization. In Washington, one still rarely hears talk of Romania's role in the enlargement debate. The assumption is that the most economically prosperous of the former communist states - Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic - alone will be invited to begin negotiations to join the alliance by 1999.
But events in recent weeks have indicated that the fate of Romania will be a major item on the agenda at the alliance's July summit meeting in Madrid. While the "who and when" questions of enlargement may seem relatively straightforward in Washington, the Clinton administration appears increasingly out of touch with the views of many of its European partners.
Romania is the second-largest state in East-Central Europe (after Poland) and covers an area larger than Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia combined. Its strategic significance is self-evident. Like Germany, it straddles the Danube. Like Turkey, it maintains major ports on the Black Sea and is one of the preeminent shipping powers in the Balkans-Black Sea zone. Like France and Spain, it's on the front line of Europe's fight against uncontrolled immigration, drugs, and transnational crime. Like Greece, it's situated at the crossroads of Europe's great civilizations and former empires. Its history has been as much a product of interaction with current NATO states as with its confreres in the old Warsaw Pact.
For some NATO members, however, Romania's geographical importance has long been seen as irrelevant. Eager to downplay any perceived threats that an enlarged NATO might present to Moscow, the United States in particular has frequently denied that enlargement has any strategic utility. Strengthening democracy and promoting shared values have become the chief justifications for welcoming new members. Enlargement, in other words, is more therapeutic than strategic. Those countries farthest down the road to economic and political recovery will be the most likely candidates for integration into the Euro- Atlantic community.
Signs are, however, that this view isn't shared throughout the alliance. Since the beginning of the year, major policymakers in France, Italy, Spain, and Greece have stated their support for Romania as part of the first wave of new entrants.
French President Jacques Chirac, visiting Bucharest in February, underscored France's "strong position" that NATO not limit the initial round of enlargement to Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs.
Similar views were expressed by Spanish officials after a visit to Madrid by the chairman of the Romanian senate. And this month, Italian Defense Minister Beniamino Andreatta and Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs Piero Fassino said Italy would back Romania's joining Poland and other states in early negotiations on NATO membership.
This growing enthusiasm for Romania is in part a result of changes within the country itself. Since last November, the government has been controlled by a coalition of center-right and center-left parties, all committed to speedy economic reform and pan-European integration. The president, a former university rector, is as sincere and eloquent a promoter of civic values and interethnic understanding as one will find in Prague or Budapest. And alone among the states of East-Central Europe, the Romanian Cabinet includes ministerial portfolios controlled by members of the country's largest ethnic minority, the Hungarians.
Romanians have been quick to capitalize on these changes. Continuing a policy initiated last spring, the foreign ministry and political parties - as well as Romanian-American groups in the US - have banded together to press Romania's case.
BUT beyond the political transformation of the country and the Romanians' own public-relations savvy, there is a more fundamental reason for the Europeans' newfound interest. There is a growing sense in European capitals, especially in the alliance's southern tier, that the US and its allies in NATO's northern tier are blind to the policy priorities and security challenges of the countries of the south.
Immigration from North Africa, the Middle East, and the conflict zones of the former Soviet Union; the expansion of criminal organizations from these regions; and the undesirable influx of drugs and criminals that follows in their wake are paramount in the security calculus of southern and southeastern Europe.
But with the agenda set by the alliance's North Atlantic axis - the US, Britain, Germany - the states of the south understand that their own security concerns are likely to receive scant attention. Were NATO to absorb more states from Europe's northern tier (such as Poland), the south's share in alliance agenda-setting would diminish even further. Hence, the focus on Romania - a country whose security interests parallel those of NATO's southern flank and whose strategic location will be crucial to meeting the challenges of the coming century. It's hard to know to what extent the new enthusiasm for Romania is simply a diplomatic ploy by the governments of NATO's south or a genuine change of heart over Romania's prospects for membership.
But it is clear that, either way, the outmoded mantra of "Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic" has been laid to rest. Policymakers in Washington should recognize that, come July, the debate on enlargement will be far more complex than they anticipate. Providing for the security of all the alliance's member states, not simply rewarding countries that look most like us, will be the overarching concern. Strategy, not therapy, will be the key issue. And as things stand at the moment, for the first time this century, the Europeans may well be better strategists than the Americans.
* Charles King is Ion Ratiu professor of Romanian studies at Georgetown University in Washington.