For America, Baltics' NATO membership a celebration

  • 2002-11-28
  • Matt Kovalick
The United States never recognized Soviet occupation of the three Baltic nations, so it was a special moment for U.S. leadership when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania finally received invitations to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. While in Prague for the summit, Matt Kovalick spoke to Heather Conley, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, who explained the White House administration's views toward the Baltic states and their future role in the military alliance.

Can you outline the achievements the Baltic states have made to get to this point? What are the challenges they still face?

We really believe there has been a remarkable transformation. Fundamentally, the Baltic states have changed their political, economic and military structur. The goals of [joining] the European Union and NATO have helped as catalysts to make those changes. From the U.S. government's standpoint, today is a celebration of all that hard work.

As far as challenges ahea, we'll keep talking about economic reform to see an open and transparent commercial area, which touches on corruption. We say that knowing we have corruption in the U.S.

Also, making the rule of law as strong as possible, reforming the judicial system, and strengthening contracts so [as to help] more foreign investment. We see the Baltic Sea region as an economically dynamic region.

On the political side, we'll continue to work through some tough issues: Holocaust issues, recognition of the past, education and property restitution. These are difficult issues politically that are also expensive. It won't be a quick fix, but we appreciate the spirit of cooperation [we've had] with all the governments.

[As far as military reform] the president has particularly been struck by each of the Baltic countries contributions… knowing it's about quality and not quantity. They want to contribute their capabilities to broader coalition efforts, to NATO. Fundamentally, the militaries are transforming their strategies from a territorial defense to an alliance structure.

As newly invited members, have the Baltic states been called upon or could they be called upon if there is a potential situation in Iraq?

Since Sept. 11, the candidate countries have acted as de facto allies, even though they did not have an obligation. Each country has to make that decision for themselves. We've had a positive reaction - a lot of solidarity and support regarding the global war on terror and Iraq, whether that translates to material support that's required down the road… we're not at that point of advanced discussion.

The casual observer might say, "time to celebrate, it's over," but the Baltic states are not official NATO members yet. What can they expect from the ratification process - maybe a tough one in the U.S. Senate?

There are many congressional leaders here at the summit. This is an important signal from the president, who's saying, "No matter how enthusiastic I am, there are still 100 senators that need to be consulted on this process."

Senators want to make sure the new members contribute to the strengthening of the alliance. So, there will be a robust discussion in our Senate when we proceed through the ratification process – it won't just be about the candidate countries, but also about NATO in the 21st century.

Are the new members under more pressure to keep to commitments because the last three admitted [the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary] might not have done as well as they should have?

The new candidate countries are entering NATO at a time of its fundamental transformation. They're almost leapfrogging into a new way of doing business. It might be easier for them than some of the older members who struggle to make changes from the Cold War. The new members have a head start in terms of capabilities. We've seen the commitment to spend 2 percent GDP on defense spending, which is better than some older members.

What is the message Bush wants to leave when he visits Vilnius?

I see it as a completion of the vision expressed in his Warsaw speech last year. For us, this is a celebration. For Lithuania, it's the first time an American president has traveled to Vilnius, so it is a significant event. We're delighted the Baltic presidents will join together. I think it's symbolic since the three Baltic states have worked together.

The U.S. has always kept faith in the Baltics even in the darkest days. The U.S. did not recognize their occupation. I think in a way, it's a fulfillment of our promises and returning back here for the celebration of welcoming the Baltics back to the Western family after being gone for too long.

I think you'll see the president is the most enthusiastic person about enlargement. He's met with all the leaders and expressed his views. He'll say there's more hard work, but yet it's a celebration of the countries rejoining together.