The Washington Times

President Bush is in Europe this week, and much of the attention will focus first on the atmospherics of his meetings with our European friends and allies, second on the case he makes for missile defense and the response to it. Just as important, though, will be the impression Mr. Bush leaves about the commitment of the United States to remain fully engaged with Europe.

The most telling moment there is likely to be a speech Mr. Bush gives in Poland on Friday. State Department Policy Planning Director Richard Haass, speaking at a Brookings Institution conference last week, telegraphed that a major statement on American relations with Europe would be forthcoming. There’s no time like the present – and no place like Warsaw. An affirmation not just of affinity with Europe but of an active American policy commitment to realizing “Europe whole and free,” delivered in the capital of a former Warsaw Pact country now a U.S. ally in NATO, will resonate well beyond Europe.

One test of the speech will be how much substance Mr. Bush offers on the question of another round of NATO enlargement. The most recent round, in 1999, successfully brought in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Nine other countries – Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia – have made application for membership. NATO may issue more invitations at its 2002 summit in Prague. No one expects Mr. Bush to name names in Warsaw. At the same time, everyone expects a general reaffirmation of the “open-door” to NATO membership. But the next summit is getting closer, and it would be useful at this point for Mr. Bush to provide guidance on how the United States will approach the question.

Some want a “Big Bang.” Let all the aspirants in; why let some dangle? Others variously attach special significance to particular geographic areas or combinations. Still others want an end to enlargement altogether. This includes especially those who are worried that a bigger NATO will further estrange Russia. Russia itself remains opposed to enlargement, especially enlargement extending to the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – the territory of the former Soviet Union.

My sympathies, I admit, favor a bigger bang. But sympathy – or more specifically, abstraction and ideology – ought not to be driving the decision-making here. The fact is that NATO long ago settled the question of whether the alliance would remain open to new members: It will. The door is indeed open and will remain so – unless the 19 members decide they made a mistake and act to close it. It’s true that the door can be closed de facto by inaction, namely, issuing no new invitations. And it can be left half-open (or half-closed) by inviting some and not others. But the process by which invitations come to be issued is not willy-nilly. And that process, in turn, provides a bulwark against extraneous considerations affecting countries’ membership aspirations.

Since the Washington NATO summit in 1999, any country that wants to join is required to draft and implement a plan to meet a broad set of criteria. These include political and economic matters (for example, a stable democracy and rule of law as well as settlement of any international disputes), defense and military (the ability to contribute to collective defense, a process reviewed at length in the course of aspirants’ mandatory participation in the Partnership for Peace program), resources (commitment to sufficient defense spending), security (i.e., of alliance secrets) and legal (ensuring that national law does not conflict with NATO obligations).

This is serious, and it needs to be (and is) taken seriously by aspirants, some of whom are farther along in meeting the criteria than others. The existence of these membership requirements implies the answer to two questions: Should countries that do not meet them be invited to join? No, otherwise the criteria are meaningless. Should countries that do meet them be excluded from joining? Again, no, otherwise these were never the real membership requirements and meeting them would not necessarily lead anywhere – and the “open door” as described was a fiction, notwithstanding the declaration of the NATO allies.

Now there are other ways to approach the question of new members. To pick the most obvious, Russia would likely quickly acquiesce in a smaller round of enlargement that did not include the Baltics – and might be willing to be more cooperative in other areas, for example missile defense. But there is no other way to approach the question of new members that does not run afoul of the problems above – namely, exposing NATO’s own stated membership guidelines as meaningless or fictitious. This in turn would do serious damage to the role of the United States as both leader and member of NATO, with the United States either trying to run roughshod over the procedures it and 18 others agreed to, or running away from them, thereby sounding retreat from the pursuit of “Europe whole and free.”

Mr. Bush has an opportunity to bring clarity to this discussion by reaffirming the open door and the process that implements it, namely, the action plans aspirants implement to meet entry requirements. For those who have not yet met NATO’s criteria, he needs to pledge to work with them as long as they are trying to. And he should affirm that the United States will support invitations for those who have.