The Washington Times

SOFIA, Bulgaria. – A long-scheduled summit meeting of the presidents of the 10 new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe seeking to join the Atlantic alliance took on a solemn, even historic dimension last week as a result of the Sept. 11 terror attack. Three days before the Sofia meeting, NATO’s 19 members formally reached the determination that the attacks on New York and Washington had originated from abroad. For the first time, then, article 5 of the NATO treaty, which declares that an attack on one is an attack on all, came into effect. Sofia became a wartime summit.

Last spring in Warsaw, President Bush made it clear that the United States is committed to an open door to countries seeking to join NATO, following on the entry of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999. The expectation throughout the alliance has been that invitations will be issued to at least some of the aspirants at a NATO summit in Prague in 2002. Each nation seeking to join – Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – has to meet an extensive set of political and military criteria, spelled out individually in response to its unique circumstances. Some countries have been making more progress than others, but in an impressive display of solidarity last year in Vilnius, Lithuania, they pledged that they would each also work together for the membership of all.

The United States has often expressed its commitment to a “Europe whole and free.” NATO members and would-be members have a lot in common with each other, not least the value placed on freedom and democracy. But NATO is not a political and culture club, or to the extent that it is, it is something far more serious besides: a military alliance, and the linchpin of European security. Article 5 is at the heart of it.

That, more than anything, is what Sept. 11 drove home. The United States was the particular target of the attack, but our allies declared themselves to have been attacked as well. The result is a united front against the attackers – and a clear and unequivocal commitment to do what is necessary for self-defense, an effort made easier by the united front. In Sofia Oct. 5, the 10 members of the Vilnius group added themselves to the cause. In a joint “Declaration of Solidarity,” they stated, “We consider these attacks to be an attack on all of us” and pledged “to conduct our foreign and security policies in accordance with the implications of the NATO treaty including commitments stemming from article 5.” Our would-be allies by treaty have declared themselves our current allies in fact.

As George Robertson, the NATO secretary-general, put it in Sofia, “The new democracies have demonstrated once again that they are not fair-weather friends. They have emphasized that the Euro-Atlantic community is growing quickly from a community of shared values to a community of shared action.”

In short, these countries realized what they needed to do, and did it unhesitatingly. The attack quickly led internationally to a moment of extraordinary ethical clarity, whose dimensions and scope we have not yet fully appreciated, I think. It’s not really a question of what countries “should” do. It takes the shape more of their leaders coming to the swift realization of what they have to do. The phenomenon extends well beyond Europe. If you can’t stand with the United States now – if, indeed, you do not feel compelled to stand with the United States – you accordingly forfeit something very large, perhaps a claim to belong to the civilized world, and the loss is entirely your own, as will be the consequences.

It was quite clear in Sofia that the question of how Sept. 11 might affect NATO enlargement was heavily on the minds of officials from all 10 of these countries. They see quite keenly what NATO means to them – the closest thing to a permanent guarantee of their country’s security that this world currently offers. But, in order to achieve this end, they themselves are compelled to take the side of an alliance engaged in a complicated, uncertain and unorthodox war, declaring their own willingness to assume risk equal to that of current members. It takes no less.

There is no way to sit this out, not without thereby making a unilateral declaration of indifference to the principles that came under attack Sept. 11, and earning the scorn of those who share them. This could not be clearer than in the case, for example, of the speed with which Vladimir Putin has acted to ensure that Russia remains oriented toward the West. He has advanced by retreating, all but discarding Russia’s opposition to the enlargement of NATO and seeking instead to strengthen Russia’s ties to it. It has been a stunning turn of events, of a piece with the ethical clarity of the moment.

The prospect of NATO membership for any of these 10 countries has not much changed as a result of the Sept. 11 attack. But no one is any longer in doubt about the need for a common defense of the principles the member-nations of the alliance embody.