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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nations Team Up to Join NATO

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Nine European countries banded together Friday and said they would ask NATO to invite them all to become members in 2002, a "big bang" that would expand the alliance to 28 nations and include for the first time several former Soviet republics.

The declaration by the foreign ministers of the nine new democracies - Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Albania and Macedonia - was an unprecedented show of cooperation. Now, NATO must figure out how to accommodate those ambitions and whether a 28-nation grouping could reach the kind of consensus on which the military alliance has historically based its operations.

Besides the problems of adapting NATO's military command and decision-making processes to a much larger group, any expansion may pose a serious risk to relations with the government, which accepted the incorporation of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO last year with great reluctance.

The government has frequently warned that it will not tolerate the inclusion of former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in NATO. President Vladimir Putin has signed into law a new defense policy that describes "the expansion of military alliances" outside national borders as a threat to security interests.

But Lithuanian Foreign Minister Algirdas Saudargas, who diplomats said was the driving force behind the nine nations' "big bang" strategy, said the Baltic states would no longer be cowed. He and other ministers said, contrary to the government's way of thinking, NATO expansion would bring greater stability along the country's western frontier.

"We are not only prepared for the responsibilities and burdens of NATO membership, we are already coordinating our defense structures and policies with the Alliance," the ministers said in a statement.

In the United States, how to deal with the next wave of NATO enlargement is emerging as one of the first important foreign policy challenges of the next administration. Both major presidential candidates, Vice President Al Gore and George W. Bush, sent encouraging letters to the meeting Friday saying they would do their best to fulfill the aspirations of would-be member states.

Any plan to expand NATO will require ratification by the legislatures of the 19 current members, including a two-thirds majority of the U.S. Senate. This, several foreign ministers said Friday, would argue in favor of the "big bang" approach rather than successive waves of smaller groups that could become stalled in parliaments.

Until now, the scramble to get in line for alliance membership has resembled what Ron Asmus, the U.S. State Department's former point man on NATO enlargement, described as "an unseemly beauty contest" as each candidate touted itself in ways that cast regional rivals in an unflattering light.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - which enjoy strong support from their Nordic neighbors - have claimed that they possess the strongest democratic credentials and would be easier for NATO to accept than their southern rivals. But some NATO experts argue that the alliance's air war in Kosovo and its large peacekeeping force in the Balkans has proved that NATO's primary threat is instability in southeastern Europe.

The Vilnius accord is designed to stop such rivalry and make the case that NATO needs to make a bold leap toward becoming a pan-European security organization, reaching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.