In last month's Vilnius statement, Lithuania, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania urged NATO to offer membership to all the aspirants in two years. But though U.S. officials are encouraging, the "big bang" is viewed by a number of analysts as unfeasible. The "big bang" is "very interesting, but not possible," due to the shortage of political capital and lack of support from alliance's European members, said Daniel P. Fata, The Spokesman at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.
Taking in a large group of Eastern European countries would be too radical a change for the next U.S. administration, said James M. Goldgeier, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. The alliance could invite more than one country, but not all nine.
"In the current international environment [with no acute security threat from the East], the predisposition would be to go slower," Goldgeier said.
Lithuania, Slovenia and Slovakia are likely to be the first candidates to enter NATO, Fata said, quoting Zbigniew Brzezinski, an influential foreign policy analyst and a former national security advisor. Goldgeier singled out Slovenia as the most prepared candidate with Slovakia, Lithuania and Romania following closely.
The argument that Baltic states should enter NATO simultaneously as a united block is not likely to make a strong case in Washington, analysts said. NATO members favor evaluation of the candidates on an individual basis to grant membership to the countries that have advanced most.
This leads to a question, according to Fata, what will happen to Latvia if Lithuania makes advancement towards NATO and Estonia towards the European Union.
A top-level Latvian diplomat dismissed the view in an informal conversation with The Baltic Times. There are no major differences in the Baltic states' ability to meet the NATO accession criteria that could position any of the Baltic states much ahead of the others, the diplomat said.
A U.S. State Department expert, who refused to be identified, agreed. "All three Baltic states have done a very good job. We are impressed by all of them," the official said. "It's really not fair to make the judgement right now. It's more important where they'll end up in a year or two."
U.S. government officials have said that NATO doors remain open for the candidate countries under continuous review. The applicants are evaluated taking into account the future vision of NATO, as well as the broader European context, said P. J. Crowley, spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council.
"We know very well that there are countries that desire NATO relationship," Crowley said in a telephone interview with The Baltic Times. To make a judgement about the possibility of the "big bang," NATO has to evaluate countries on an individual basis, he said.
Bringing all nine countries into the alliance will definitely be one of the possibilities discussed by the new administration, according to the State Department official.
Candidate countries are in different stages of development, and they keep changing continuously, the official said. While the current administration won't make any decisions on NATO expansion, it will ensure the accession process is proceeding correctly and all the aspirants receive the necessary feedback.
A detailed evaluation of the integration of the first-round countries - Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary - will be one of the main factors in taking decision on new members, according to Crowley.
A simultaneous invitation for all the countries, but with staggered entry dates, could be an altered version of the "big bang." According to this schedule, the first three countries could join the alliance in 2002-2003, but the next two in 2005.
Bringing the aspirants "under the tent, not under the umbrella" would assure governments that the financial resources have been spent for good reason, Fata said.
A more active debate on NATO enlargement is forecasted in the second half of 2001.
NATO expansion could become a part of presidential election campaign if the Balts - the only group with a political clout in the U.S. Congress and media - manage to raise the issue and get response from the presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush, Goldgeier said. Both Gore and Bush have expressed support for the Vilnius statement.