In a commencement address to the Army’s next generation of officers, President Clinton launched a long-term campaign Saturday to persuade the American people to support expansion of NATO, which he said is essential to assuring U.S. security in the 21st century.
NATO, the Cold War military alliance formed to deter the Soviet Union from aggression in Europe, is planning to invite three fledgling democracies once locked behind the Iron Curtain - Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - to join as full members by 1999. The invitation will be offered at NATO’s summit in Madrid, Spain, on July 8-9.
Any NATO expansion would commit U.S. forces to defend new alliance partners against any future attack - an expensive extension of America’s military shield to borders never before guaranteed by Washington.
While little domestic opposition to NATO expansion has surfaced so far, the White House anticipates a fight over the next two years before the Senate approves such a radical change in the NATO treaty.
Clinton sought to frame the coming NATO debate on his terms in a 23-minute speech to the 800 men and 96 women graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point and embarking on careers as Army officers.
“Today, our flag of freedom and power flies higher than ever, but because our nation stands at the pinnacle of its power, it also stands at the pinnacle of its responsibility,” Clinton said.
“I firmly believe NATO enlargement is in our national interests. But because it is not without cost and risk, it is appropriate to have an open, full national discussion before proceeding.”
The cost to the United States will be $200 million a year for a decade, Clinton said, citing a Pentagon estimate. Independent analysts, including the Congressional Budget Office and the RAND Corp., a California think tank, have said the costs could be much higher, especially if conflict erupts.
Clinton put the risk to America in personal terms for his young audience, who sat before him on the football field at Michie Stadium dressed in gray tunics, white straps across their chests, and purple sashes at their waists:
“In the years ahead, it means that you could be asked to put your lives on the line for a new NATO member, just as today you can be called upon to defend the freedom of our allies in Western Europe,” Clinton said.
“I weighed these costs very carefully. … I concluded that the benefits of enlargement … decisively outweigh the burdens.”
Clinton ticked off four reasons he believes NATO expansion is wise:
First, “it will strengthen our alliance” and make it better able to meet challenges such as Bosnia, where Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic already are helping.
Second, it will help “provide a secure climate where freedom, democracy and prosperity” can take root in such states that were formerly captive to Soviet communism.
Third, enlarging NATO “will encourage prospective members to resolve their differences peacefully.”
Fourth, an expanded NATO working in partnership with Russia and other quasi-partners “will erase the artificial line in Europe that Stalin drew, and bring Europe together in security, not keep it apart in instability.”