The Senate voted late Thursday to approve a historic expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into Eastern Europe, handing President Clinton his most far-reaching foreign policy achievement since taking office six years ago.
The Senate vote _ 80 to 19 _ opened the way for Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to become full members of NATO by next year, a development opponents warned would antagonize Russia and possibly set back its movement toward democracy. Supporters of expanding the alliance argued that the three former Warsaw Pact members had earned their place in NATO by becoming democratic nations that would contribute to Western military security.
Both Florida senators, Democrat Bob Graham and Republican Connie Mack, voted for enlargement.
The U.S. Constitution requires a two-thirds vote by the Senate to approve entering or modifying international treaties such as the one involving NATO. The final tally Thursday night was 13 beyond the required 67 votes. The legislatures of all 16 current NATO members as well as the new candidate members must approve admission of any new alliance partners.
Before Thursday's vote, the legislatures of Canada, Norway, Denmark and Germany had given their approval. With the United States now on board, the remaining 11 current alliance members are expected to vote their approval in the coming months. The Czech Republic completed its approval Thursday, only hours before the Senate vote in Washington, and Poland and Hungary are expected to follow suit before the end of the year.
Clinton made his main pitch for NATO expansion in late March, when a Senate vote was first expected. At the time, he said "the admission of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic will be a very important milestone in building the kind of world we want for the 21st century."
"We can bring Europe together not by force of arms, but possibilities of peace," the president said. "This is the promise of this moment and we must seize it."
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was even more forceful, writing a day before the Senate vote that the three Eastern European nations had "met every possible requirement of membership."
"They are strong democracies with healthy economies," Albright said. "They have helped us resolve virtually every potential ethnic and territorial dispute in their region. Their soldiers have risked their lives in the Persian Gulf war and Bosnia. All three have offered to contribute forces if a military strike is necessary in Iraq."
Not everyone was convinced. A bipartisan group of senators led by John Warner, R-Va., and Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y., proposed dozens of amendments designed to delay a vote on NATO expansion or water down the resolution to approve it. The amendments were voted down by wide margins Wednesday and Thursday.
Among other things, the amendments were designed to make NATO's acceptance of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic contingent on agreements that no other Eastern European nations be allowed in, that alliance membership be frozen for three years, that any new NATO members must first be members of the European Union, or that Washington's share of alliance costs be fixed by legislation.
The Clinton administration and those who backed alliance expansion rejected all these conditions, saying that NATO needed to maintain "an open door" for other Eastern European nations that might want to join. If there is another round of expansion, the two most likely candidates for alliance membership are Slovenia and Romania.
Though public opinion polls showed most Russians were unconcerned about the expansion of NATO closer to their frontiers, the political leadership in Moscow has been vehement in its opposition to the move. Some of that opposition was blunted a year ago when the two sides entered into an agreement creating what is known as the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council.
Though some U.S. conservatives consider the Joint Council too much of a concession to Moscow, the Clinton administration insists that it does not give Russia a voice, much less a veto, in NATO decision-making. Instead, administration officials say, it gives the two sides a forum to consult on topics of mutual interest.
Along similar lines, Secretary of State Albright argued in an article in the New York Times on Wednesday that opponents of NATO expansion were giving far too much weight to Russia's stand on the issue.
These opponents, she wrote, apparently assumed that "Russia's neighbors must set aside their legitimate aspirations indefinitely so that the United States and Russia can get along."
"These assumptions not only sell Russia short, they are also dangerous," according to Albright. "If we want Russia to complete its transformation into a modern European power, the last thing we should do is to act as if Central Europe is still a Russian sphere of influence."
Even so, no less an international statesman than George F. Kennan, considered by many the prime architect of American foreign policy in the post-World War II era, was adamantly opposed to NATO enlargement. Jeopardizing Russia's halting move toward democracy, Kennan argued, "would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era."
In the end, Thursday evening's Senate vote represented a major foreign policy victory for a Clinton administration that _ with a few notable exceptions _ has been unusually averse to tackling international issues. Proponents of NATO expansion even argued that Washington's leadership in enlarging the alliance from 16 to 19 members would define America's role on the world stage for decades to come.
Despite its historical implications, administration officials _ including the president _ were relatively low-key in the days leading up to the Senate vote. In a previously scheduled news conference on Thursday, Clinton made only brief mention of the impending NATO vote, noting that accepting new members would take the alliance "closer than ever to realizing the dream of a generation _ a Europe that is united, democratic and secure."
And even though Clinton was on the telephone during the day Thursday urging undecided senators to vote yes, the real heavy lifting during the finals days of debate was done by Sens. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Joseph Biden, D-Del., the ranking Democrat on the panel..
Biden, especially, took the lead in countering opposition arguments that with the Soviet Union's collapse and the end of the Cold War in 1991, there was no further real need to expand or strengthen NATO.
In summing up the arguments in favor of expansion, Biden said, "largely because of NATO's persistence, communism crumbled in Europe." In conceding defeat, Warner promised that he and others who opposed expansion "will do our best to make it work."
New face of NATO
In July 1997, NATO formally proposed three new members and hopes to admit them by April 1999, the 50th anniversary of the alliance. The legislatures of all 16 existing members must ratify the move.