- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2000

VILNIUS, Lithuania.

It is undoubtedly too easy to become skeptical about the impact of NATO enlargement when you sit in Washington, where looking at the downsides to just about anything is a favorite pastime and where cynicism often masquerades as realism. The "new" NATO's first test in Kosovo was indeed enough to give a lot of people pause, and once the first round of expansion had been completed with the inclusion of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic last year, a lot of people thought we had done our bit here in the West.

But then again it is probably too easy to become cynical about almost anything when you sit in Washington.

To understand the true importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for the countries which hope to become members, you have to be in a place like Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, where last Friday defense ministers from nine aspiring NATO members came together to remind NATO leaders that they are still waiting to be invited in. Strikingly, even the mere prospect of inclusion has had a powerful effect on the former East Bloc, creating new models of cooperation that were unimaginable as recently as the mid-1990s. Where chaos, uncertainty and ethnic conflict once threatened Eastern and Central Europe, the kind of nightmare which did indeed unfold in the Balkans, today we find cooperation and a display of solidarity.

What this region needs now is the completion of the economic and security structures that bind together the rest of the European continent NATO and the European Union. Only when all of Europe is gathered within their borders can we say that the wounds of the Cold War (and those of centuries of other wars) have been healed. In other words, we are talking here about a vision for a stable and prosperous and unified continent, allied with the United States to further the common interests and values of both.

Now, grand visions take stamina and conviction to achieve, and in Washington, where leadership in NATO has to originate, there has been little evidence of either after the fall of the Iron Curtain. (Still some credit is due here to the Clinton administration, which belatedly got behind the idea of enlargement after toying with the "Partnership for Peace.")

Nor have Europeans shown a great deal of interest. As French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said recently in Washington when asked about it, "Nobody talks much about NATO enlargement any more. Most talk is of EU expansion."

All of which is why the jolt of publicity provided here in Vilnius could be a vital one for the future of NATO. The conference was the fourth meeting of officials from these countries, but the first to bring their foreign ministers together. Too often in the past, neighbors have been jostling to position themselves for inclusion in the exclusive clubs of the West, but Friday's meeting showed that major candidates were willing to bring along even the poorest and smallest among them in all, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Albania and Macedonia in NATO by the year 2002. This is an ambitious strategy to be sure, a Big Bang, and would be a departure from the cautious approach that failed to gain any new nominees at the Washington Summit last year. Undoubtedly there is a danger of disappointment here if it fails, but boldness could in the end be a more persuasive strategy, one that has a certain grandness to it.

The statement by the nine read in part: "Our goal will not be reached until each of us, as well as other European democracies sharing the values of the Euro-Atlantic community and able to bear its common responsibilities, has been fully integrated into these institutions. We call upon the member states of NATO to fulfill this promise of the Washington Summit to build a Europe whole and free. We call upon the members states at the next NATO summit in 2002 to invite our democracies join NATO."

Now, that's a challenge that can be heard and which will demand a response in Washington and the capitals of Europe.

Important responses were already coming in during the Vilnius meeting. Both U.S. presidential candidates expressed commitment to an open-door NATO policy, even if their statements were a little short on specifics. Texas Gov. George W. Bush also managed to include a nod to Russian feelings in his statement, which should not have been necessary, and Vice President Al Gore expressed his sentiments in pretty bureaucratic terms. Still, this placed both men on the record. Also important were statements in support from Sen. Jesse Helms and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. It cannot happen without their support, either.

As usual, the Russians were the elephant in the room. Needless to say, they could hardly miss the significance of the event, but interestingly there was none of the ballistic rhetoric that attended the initial round of enlargement. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that "the expansion of military alliances" outside Russia's borders is a threat to Russian security.

Actually, it won't be. Instability would be more more of a threat to Russia, which the government should start to understand by now. Furthermore, as Vytautis Landsbergis, currently the chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament and the man who led Lithuania to independence, told me in an interview: "The Russians have lost the Yalta line, but they want to preserve the Ribbentrop line," referring to the pact signed by Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop and Soviet Foreign Minister Vachyslav Molotov in 1939, handing the independent Baltic nations to the Soviets. "The second World War was very long for Lithuania," he said, "about 50 years." That should be long enough, surely.

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