It promises to be the most far-reaching realignment of the European political firmament since the collapse of communism.
Yet, even as the Senate begins considering the admission of former Soviet bloc states to NATO, concerns persist that two of the first invitees aren't doing enough to prepare to join the alliance.
United States officials have been telling Hungary and the Czech Republic they must boost both their military budgets and public support for NATO participation, especially the obligation to defend other members. Hungary has also been exhorted to strengthen parliamentary oversight of its military, including keeping better track of how it spends money.
How far the two states succeed in meeting the requirements goes directly to a key question posed by NATO's eastward expansion: Will the new members contribute to Europe's defense or will they be charity cases unable to modernize their Soviet-era armies without the help of US taxpayers?
The question will be among those most closely examined by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a series of hearings that will culminate in a vote on NATO expansion. The hearings open today with a defense of the initiative by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, the panel's powerful chairman, says he wants to support the plan - but not before key questions, including costs to the US, are fully answered.
"I have expressed some serious concerns about the way the administration has approached NATO enlargement thus far," he said in a recent letter to Ms. Albright.
"The Senate will want to see serious efforts by these countries to join the NATO military family," says Stanley Sloan, a defense analyst with the Congressional Research Service. "The Senate clearly will not want the US to be faced with rescuing any of these countries."
Senior Hungarian and Czech officials visited Washington last week to reassure the US that they can meet their obligations. Says Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs: "We do not seek refuge in NATO."
But some US officials are apprehensive. They say that unless Hungary and the Czech Republic address their shortcomings, the Senate could attach conditions to their admission. "It's important as we get into the ratification issue to focus on the Czech and Hungarian cases and think about ways we can keep some leverage on them," says a Pentagon official.
The two nations and Poland were invited in July to become the first in Eastern Europe to discuss joining NATO. Their admissions must be approved by all 16 NATO legislatures. None is expected to act before the US Senate, where a vote is not due before February. Ratification requires support of two-thirds of the chamber.
Weak Europe could pass bill to US
NATO expansion is a centerpiece of President Clinton's foreign policy agenda. It aims to create a post-cold-war security framework that will safeguard democracy and avert a resumption of the European feuds that sparked two world wars.
But even ardent supporters harbor reservations, including whether the prospective members can afford to modernize. The US estimates that the three prospective members must spend up to $13 billion each to transform their forces. This provokes concerns that, with European allies beset by fiscal problems, the US could get stuck paying some of the bills. With the US facing its own NATO expansion-related costs - estimates run from $2 billion to $19 billion over 12 years - that's something the Senate isn't likely to accept.
"There is no free lunch," warns Defense Secretary William Cohen, echoing the sentiment of many senators.
Apprehensions about Poland's military have eased since a leadership shakeup in March. But some officials are less certain about Hungary and the Czech Republic. While the countries have made enormous strides since shedding Marxism, they are lagging in meeting fiscal and political criteria, the officials say. "If you put Poland at 100 percent health and Hungary at zero, the Czechs would be at about 25 percent," says the Pentagon official.
US pushes for bigger spending
Concerns about the Czech Republic arose after a summer economic downturn prompted reconsideration of a plan to bump up defense spending - which is now 1.9 percent of gross domestic product - by a modest 0.01 for each of the next five years.
US Assistant Defense Secretary Frank Kramer, visiting Prague last month, warned against the revision. The message was apparently heeded: The government restored the original plan in a new budget. But the budget must still pass Parliament amid polls showing that up to two-thirds of Czechs oppose raising defense spending.
Hungary's budget plans are also causing jitters. During a visit in July, Secretary Cohen said Budapest should raise defense spending from 1.4 percent of GDP - the lowest of the three prospective members - to at least 2.1 percent.
But the government remains wedded to hikes of just 0.01 for each of the next five years, enough "to bring Hungary to the level of smaller NATO countries," insists Mr. Kovacs, the foreign minister.
Public opinion is also a problem, with polls showing some 60 percent of Hungarians opposing higher military spending.
One poll shows 6 out of 10 Hungarians supporting NATO membership, stoking optimism that a Nov. 16 referendum on joining the alliance will pass. But US officials are concerned by a finding that a slim majority of Hungarians oppose sending troops to defend other NATO partners, a key obligation of alliance membership.
In a recent speech to officials in Budapest, Jeffrey Simon of the Institute for National Strategic Studies, a Pentagon think tank, warned that in his view Hungary's efforts to improve its strategic planning process and parliamentary oversight of the defense budget were inadequate.
He cited a unilateral decision by generals to buy T-72 tanks from Belarus with funds from the sale of military property.
"The US Senate will want to be convinced that new members will be 'producers' of security," said Mr. Simon. "It will not be easy to overcome the image that Hungary will only be a 'consumer' of security."