The United States has signaled it might favor bringing into NATO more new members than currently anticipated, arguing that "the more allies we have, the better off we're going to be."
It also expressed its determination to press European partners to boost their military capabilities, including making a contribution to President George W. Bush's missile defense program, despite strong reservations about it in many European capitals.
The statements came at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on May 1, which featured Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith among the key witnesses.
The issue of bringing new members into the 19-nation alliance will top the agenda at a NATO summit in Prague in November.
The applicants include Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Croatia and Albania.
But although no final selection has been made, experts had been pointing out until recently that only about five of these candidates were most likely to make the cut.
According to the well-informed Republican Senator Richard Lugar, that unofficial list has now been expanded to seven to include Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania.
But when asked if he believed the alliance could undergo an even "larger enlargement," Grossman answered without hesitation: "Yes, sir, I do."
"The events of September 11 show us that the more allies we have, the better off we're going to be," he continued. "The more allies we have to persecute the war on terrorism, the better off we're going to be."
The undersecretary of state indicated the administration believed concerns of countries like Russia about the Western alliance moving into the former Soviet territory should not be a determinant factor in settling the enlargement issue.
"We take as our guidance the president's view that NATO should not calculate how little we can get away with, but how much we can use to advance the cause of freedom," he said.
To placate a wary Russia, NATO officials are working with Moscow to set up a NATO-Russia council that would open a permanent forum for interaction between Moscow and Brussels.
A formal deal creating the council is expected to be approved at a meeting of NATO and Russian foreign ministers in Reykjavik on May 14-15 and formally signed at a NATO-Russia summit in Rome in late May.
Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted late last month that Moscow must be treated by the Western Alliance as an equal partner.
But Grossman made clear that was not about to happen.
"The body will not give Russia the ability to veto any NATO actions in any area," he stressed. "Second, it is not a back door to NATO membership."
Both Grossman and Feith made clear the Bush administration remained dissatisfied with the contribution provided the alliance by European military forces, arguing that they lacked sufficient airlift, sealift and precision strike capabilities.
A laundry list of things to do produced by Feith at the hearing included bolstering nuclear, biological, chemical and missile defenses in Europe to protect alliance forces "against the range of missile threats."
"To achieve these goals, we believe allies should seek both to increase defense spending and to use their resources more effectively by pooling efforts," said the undersecretary of defense.