Nearly eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe is enlarging its borders to the east.
Tomorrow, the heads of state and government of the 16 NATO nations meet in Madrid to invite new members from Central and Eastern Europe to join the world's most successful military alliance.
NATO enlargement is part of a historic bid to erase the divisions created by the armies of Hitler and Stalin in World War II and support a peaceful, democratic Europe. But it could also discourage nations rejected for early admission and strengthen the hand of hard-liners in Russia, who see NATO enlargement as a provocation.
What is NATO?
NATO is a military alliance created in 1949 to defend Western Europe from Soviet aggression. After the Soviet Union's collapse, the transatlantic alliance adapted to take on new missions, including crisis management and peacekeeping beyond NATO's territory. For example, the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) helped halt the civil war in Bosnia.
NATO has taken on new members three times since its founding: Greece and Turkey in 1952, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1955, and Spain in 1982. Eleven states in Central and Eastern Europe now are asking to join the Alliance, and new members are expected to be added by 1999.
Why enlarge NATO now, or even maintain it, if Russia is not a threat to Europe?
Just because Russia - or any other nation - isn't a threat today doesn't mean that such a threat may not exist in the future, respond NATO officials.
The conflict in Bosnia proved that savage ethnic strife could exist in the heart of Europe. Terrorist acts, nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, or a surge of refugees fleeing some new ethnic conflict could also threaten Europe's peace.
Many former East-bloc nations aren't convinced that Russia isn't still a danger. For them, NATO membership provides a guarantee that they would not be abandoned by the West in the face of Russian aggression, as they were after World War II. That is why joining NATO is a higher priority than EU membership.
Is America adding new allies that it must defend in any conflict?
Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949, NATO's founding document, requires the United States and other allies to treat an armed attack against one as an attack against all.
But this does not mean that B-52s must take to the skies as soon as there is a border skirmish involving a new member. In the event of an attack, NATO allies are to consult as to the best means to meet the threat. Decisions are reached by consensus. All NATO members must have an adequate initial self-defense capability.
What do Americans gain or lose by helping to stabilize more of Europe with troops and money?
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says that NATO enlargement makes it less likely that American troops will be called to fight another war in Europe. To join NATO, new applicants must show that they respect and share democratic values, including human rights and civilian control of the military, and also that they have settled external territorial disputes.
Recently, NATO aspirants signed an unprecedented series of agreements resolving longstanding conflicts between Poland and Lithuania (1994), Hungary and Slovakia (1996), Poland and Ukraine (1996), the Czech Republic and Germany (1996), and Hungary and Romania (1996).
NATO now accounts for about $10 billion out of a $260 billion US defense budget. NATO enlargement will cost $35 billion over the next 10 years with $14 billion to be paid by new members, $19 million by Europeans, and $2 billion by the US, according to a US Department of Defense study.
The Congressional Budget Office and some think tanks say those costs could be much higher, with the US paying some $19 billion over the next 15 years for NATO enlargement.
What did the US and NATO give to Russia in return for Russia not opposing this enlargement?
On May 27, Russia and NATO leaders signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which includes Russia in a new partnership for European security. The agreement sets up a Permanent Joint Council to discuss matters of common interest, but does not give Russia the veto it had demanded over NATO decisions, including the selection of new members.
In the run-up to this agreement, NATO pledged that it had "no intention, no plan, and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members." Russia was also invited to join the Group of Seven industrial nations at a summit in Denver last month - a gesture seen as a payback for Russia's moderating its objections to NATO enlargement.
Why did Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic qualify to enter first?
These are the only nations on which there is broad consensus among allies. In the run-up to the Madrid summit, President Clinton said that the US would back only these three for the first round of membership. France, along with eight other members, is also backing a "southern enlargement" to include Romania and Slovenia. NATO's southern members have long argued that the next major security threat to Europe may come from the Mediterranean area.
US officials say that a small first wave will send a signal to disappointed first-round applicants that there will be a second. They also argue that trying to absorb too large a group of new members at once could weaken NATO's effectiveness and cohesion.