Debating a Super-NATO

Whether NATO should expand isn't likely to be a topic this month on "Oprah."

But whether Americans are watching or not, the US Senate is scheduled to take up this question. Some of those who follow the issue are calling it the most important decision about NATO since its founding in 1949.

If the Senate ratifies - and other NATO members concur - Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary will join next year. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee already has voted 16 to 2 in favor. Although the measure looks likely to pass, opposition seems to be rising in both parties.

What will the debate be all about? You're likely to hear the following points being made. Senators who agree with the Clinton administration that NATO should expand will argue:

* Now that major countries of Eastern Europe are democracies, why have an alliance with Western European democracies but exclude eastern ones?

* Since the new members will be allies, they expand the area of Europe where wars will not happen.

* A bigger NATO becomes a stronger super-NATO, adding about 200,000 troops.

* The prospect of NATO membership has given aspiring countries an incentive to solve their own problems. These countries have had to strengthen their democratic institutions, make sure their militaries are under civilian control, and resolve old ethnic and border disputes in order to qualify for membership.

* The risks of making an enemy of Russia are real, but manageable. Moscow won't be pleased to see NATO move closer to its borders. But failing to expand won't make US-Russian disagreements - including how to deal with Iraq, Iran, and nuclear arms control - go away either.

Among those cheering for passage: former President Gerald Ford, former Armed Forces Chief of Staff Colin Powell, and Bush administration Secretary of State James Baker.

Meanwhile, senators who disagree with the administration and want to delay NATO expansion will argue:

* It will poison relations between the US and Russia and hold up passage of the Start II arms-control treaty that would cut Russia's stockpile of 10,000 nuclear weapons. A change of government in Russia could find these weapons pointed at the US again.

* Current members often differ. Greece and Turkey are in a cold war. Why add more competing interests?

* Russia isn't a credible military threat to these countries right now, so what's the rush?

* It'll cost the US a bundle. Forecasts vary widely, from $1.5 billion (a White House figure that seems far too low) to $125 billion, the Congressional Budget Office's number.

Among those expressing doubts about expansion are a bipartisan group of former senators, including Sam Nunn; two recent ambassadors to Moscow; and former CIA director Stansfield Turner.

So, what to do?

A group of 17 senators want to delay a vote until after June 1. But debate isn't likely to be any different then. It's now time to show support for the three countries in this round, who've done everything asked of them to qualify. But then NATO should cool the admission of new members.

It would make sense for future members to join the European Union as a precursor to joining NATO. EU membership provides economic, political, and social ties essential to a stable, nonthreatening Europe. And that should foster a smoother mutual defense relationship.

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