Two years ago at the NATO Summit in Prague the process was set in motion - it is now just about ready to come full circle: on April 2nd NATO will officially expand by seven new countries as Jan Velinger reports.
This Friday seven new countries will officially join NATO in historic expansion, bringing the overall tally of alliance members to twenty-six. Countries from the so-called "New Europe" that used to lie behind the Iron Curtain and were even part of the former Soviet Union: the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Romania as well as - significantly for the Czechs - former compatriots Slovakia. At the Prague Summit in 2002 then-Czech President Vaclav Havel outlined the importance of the step as a means of finally breaking the barriers of the past, uniting Europe in a common future:
"The last surviving remnant of the Iron Curtain - that strange psychological wall that used to separate the old democracies from the post-communist ones is finally breaking down. If the whole of Europe is uniting itself in the name of shared values, it also signifies that Europe is once and for all discarding all the dark features that have accompanied its history to date."
Since then, however, much of Europe has been paradoxically split - divided over the war in Iraq and still looking for answers at how best to respond to the growing threat of terrorism. In that light U.S. foreign policy makers certainly welcome NATO expansion: not only further cementing regional stability but more importantly widening the sphere of influence of the entire alliance for the potential placement of rapid-response troops capable of countering outside threats. On Monday U.S. President George W. Bush welcomed the new NATO countries by saying they would bring "moral clarity", and he did not fail to mention what he sees as the defining threat of our time.
"When NATO was founded the people of these seven nations were captives to an empire. They endured bitter tyranny, they struggled for independence, they earned their freedom through courage and perseverance. And today they stand with us as full and equal partners in this great alliance. Today our alliance faces a new enemy, which has brought death to innocent people from New York to Madrid. Terrorists hate everything this alliance stands for. They hate our freedom, they seek to divide us, they will fail."
For now, questions remain over just how the focus of the newly expanded NATO will shift, whether U.S. forces will be rebalanced within Europe, moving from Germany to other NATO countries. Earlier, when the Czech Republic found itself at the alliance's edges, bases here were discussed, now the focus seems to have shifted to new members Bulgaria and Romania.
Finally, there is the Czech role in NATO and questions over "changes" there. Currently Czech Special Forces are taking part in both NATO and U.S.-led missions in Afghanistan. But, could other theatres of operations beckon soon? Speaking to the German news agency DPA on Tuesday Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda stated that after providing stability in Afghanistan, NATO should now go into Iraq. However it is unclear at the moment how likely such a possibility might be.
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