The New York Times

May 8, 2003

Senate Votes Unanimously to Approve Expansion of NATO

By BRIAN KNOWLTON
International Herald Tribune


WASHINGTON, May 8 The Senate voted unanimously today to ratify the expansion of NATO, and a leading senator said that the vote to add seven East European countries to the military alliance would underscore its relevance and help end bitter disagreements over the Iraq war.

The vote was 96 to 0, with four senators absent, to add Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. No vote is required by the House of Representatives. Only two other member countries, Canada and Norway, have ratified NATO's expansion, but final approval is considered certain.

    New European Members Since 1999
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Estonia
  • Slovenia
  • Slovakia
  • Bulgaria
  • Romania
  • Czech Republic
  • Hungary
  • Poland

The Senate Republican majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, said he had seen few ideas "so untroubled by political differences" as the addition to the alliance of countries once part of the Communist bloc. The Democratic leader, Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, said the vote was "the beginning of a partnership that will produce greater world stability."

Foreign ministers of the seven countries attended the vote, along with the United States ambassador to NATO, Nicholas Burns. The ministers met later with President Bush.

The enlargement will add to NATO seven countries that, for the most part, were strong political backers of the American-led war on Iraq (only Slovenia did not join the coalition). Bulgaria, notably, stood with the United States during the rancorous United Nations Security Council debate on a resolution to authorize a war.

That set these countries apart from two leading NATO powers, France and Germany, which opposed the Iraq war. This split prompted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to dismiss France and Germany as part of a decreasingly relevant "Old Europe," in contrast to Washington's Eastern European supporters. From the other side, the split brought a controversial slap at the East Europeans by President Jacques Chirac of France.

The powers involved are still wrestling, though with less bitterness than before, over a possible role for NATO in postwar Iraq.

But Senator Richard G. Lugar, the Indiana Republican who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that today's vote could help to heal relations in the wake of the Iraq war.

"This is historic for these seven countries, vital in continuing to strengthen the North Atlantic alliance," he said. "Many observers will point to the split over Iraq as a sign that NATO is failing or irrelevant. I disagree."

Still, the run-up to the war in which France, Germany and Belgium temporarily blocked a Turkish request to NATO for nonmilitary aid left wounds that some in Washington will not quickly forget. The wounds were irritated further when those three countries and Luxembourg said last month that they were establishing a military headquarters for operations outside the NATO arena.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, credited the East European countries with providing "significant political and logistical support" to the American-led military campaign in Iraq. He accused France, however, of "pursuing a systematic campaign to undermine American leadership in Europe and the world."

President Bush warned France in an NBC News interview on April 25 not to help "create alliances against the United States or Britain or Spain or any of the new countries that are the new democracies in Europe." Europe, he added, must "not become fractured to the point where the United States won't have relations with a united Europe."

France and the other three said that their plans would complement NATO operations, not compete with them.

The seven new members mostly have small military forces, compared with the current members, including the three Central European countries that joined in 1999: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Together, however, they will add nearly 200,000 troops to the alliance and push its borders hundreds of miles to the east and north.

During the Iraq war, Romania permitted the United States military to use an air base near Constanta, a Black Sea port, for cargo and warplanes. And Bulgaria, for example, opened a training camp and an airfield to KC-10 refueling planes.

Estonia and Latvia share a combined border of more than 200 miles with Russia. But past Russian opposition to NATO expansion has faded under President Vladimir V. Putin, who has carved out for his country a consultative role with the alliance.

Some Republican senators, during the debate ahead of the vote, questioned the future of the alliance and its commitment to fighting terrorism.

"NATO has been put at great risk by hostile French obstructionism that is as dangerous as it is cynical," Mr. McCain said.

And Senator George V. Voinovich of Ohio, referring to the seven NATO applicants, said: "They've acted as de facto allies. In fact they've acted as better allies than some of the members that are currently in NATO."

Reflecting American frustration at the blockage of the Turkish request for NATO support during the Iraq war, the Senate approved an amendment instructing Mr. Bush to ask the alliance to consider dropping its requirement that decisions be unanimous.

Also, without mentioning any country, the amendment asks NATO to consider a policy for suspending members that no longer adhere to democratic principles.


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company