However, outside the walls of NATO headquarters the debate over NATO expansion is fierce. Lobbying in Washington is growing in intensity, and in capitals across Europe, from Helsinki to Tirana, pro-NATO campaigning is filling media and foreign policy agendas.
The expansion issue looks likely to be the informal lunch topic at the NATO foreign ministerial meeting in Budapest, May 29-30. NATO diplomats from candidate countries, who have been lobbying hard for discussions to begin in earnest, are hoping that Budapest will set the ball rolling.
Russian opposition to NATO's eastward expansion, especially to include Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, is well-known. Russia says NATO membership for the Baltic states will bring the Alliance unacceptably close to its border. So, the prospects for membership look best for the new small states of Slovenia and Slovakia. Slovenia, economically the strongest of the Central European states, is a favorite among top U.S. foreign policy officials, while Slovakia enjoys strong support from its three NATO neighbors Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland.
Outside official negotiations, concrete steps are being taken (to expand the Alliance.) For example, on March 22 Bulgaria signed a technical agreement with NATO allowing temporary deployments of Alliance bases and troops on its territory. It is the only NATO applicant country to have done so.
Some analysts believe that Baltic accession could lead to division within NATO and so will not be part of the next round of expansion. Theories also abound that if the Baltics are taken in, at least initially, only one country will be chosen.
If this scenario turns out to be true, Lithuania seems to be the first choice. Not only is the first ever meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in an Eastern and Central European country being held in Vilnius this week, but its relations with Russia are best. Also, it is the most militarily advanced among the three, spending the largest percentage of GDP on defense.
Lithuania has campaigned passionately for NATO membership. Nearly every Lithuanian political party in the Parliament – both from the ruling coalition and from the opposition – signed an agreement May 23 reaffirming the country's fervent desire to join NATO. This move is something Latvian and Estonian pro-NATO politicians can only envy, as it gives a strong guarantee that Lithuania's political course won't change with the change of governments in the country.
The "better one than none" scenario would, of course, be disappointing to the citizens of the other two Baltic countries, who will then be left in the gray zone of security.
But it may turn out that it's none rather than one or three. In this case, "very strong compensation," these analysts have said, can be given to the Baltic states in the form of some security guarantee. This guarantee could be given to the Baltics by the United States and other NATO members outside the formal framework of NATO membership.
Now it's time to see whether these analysts have been right and whether the Baltic people will be happy about it.