At its summit in late November in Prague, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will continue its enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe, which began in 1998 when it admitted Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Five aspirant countries seem almost certain to receive invitations--Slovenia, Slovakia and the Baltic nations Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The only real suspense is whether to also include Romania and Bulgaria.
Initially, I shared the skepticism about admitting such a large group. I now believe that NATO should extend invitations to all seven countries.
What changed my mind are the attacks of Sept. 11, the Romanian and Bulgarian governments' vigorous responses to them and the increasing strategic importance of both countries to the war against terrorism.
As Operation Enduring Freedom against Al Qaeda unfolded, the two southern Balkan neighbors volunteered important assistance. They shared intelligence data with the United States and opened their skies for American supply flights to Central Asia.
Bulgaria allowed the temporary basing of U.S. military personnel and equipment on its territory, and Romania sent a combat unit, the "Red Scorpions,'' to Afghanistan. Indeed, the Romanians flew their troops there in their own C-130 Hercules aircraft, a feat that at least one major Western European ally was unable to accomplish.
Both countries have contributed troops to the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, as they have done in Bosnia and Kosovo. While sending their troops abroad, Bucharest and Sofia are successfully carrying out comprehensive and difficult NATO-mandated reforms at home to downsize, professionalize and modernize their militaries.
Aside from continuing to make tangible additions to alliance security, Romania and Bulgaria as members of NATO could help to bridge a "strategic mentality gap" emerging in the alliance. Having only recently cast off the oppressive communist tyranny that stifled them for decades, both countries seem more aware of threats to their freedom than are most Western Europeans, and therefore are more willing to take the fight to terrorists outside Europe if necessary.
Romania and Bulgaria stagnated under ineffectual governments for much of the 1990s, but after peaceful transfers of power they now have embarked upon privatization of their economies and reform of their communist-era judicial and police systems.
They are also coming to terms with the darker sides of their recent histories. Bulgaria's ethnic Turks, the victims of a primitive campaign of Bulgarianization and expulsion in the last spasms of a totally bankrupt communist regime in the mid-1980s, now form an influential component of the ruling governmental coalition.
Bulgaria's refusal to surrender any of its Jewish citizens to the Nazis was the shining example of moral courage in World War II. The Jewish community continues to be a respected element of Bulgarian society and currently numbers the country's foreign minister in its ranks. Attempting to overcome an ancient enmity, Romania's ruling party concluded a cooperation agreement with the parliamentary representatives of the Hungarian minority after last fall's elections.
Bucharest is also facing up to the grisly role its own fascists played in the Holocaust, and relations with the surviving Jewish community are excellent.
Despite this laudable progress, Bulgaria and Romania remain poor countries afflicted with organized crime and widespread corruption, which tough, new anti-crime programs are striving to remedy. Like elsewhere in Eastern Europe, both have yet to find ways to integrate their large, vilified Roma populations into mainstream society.
In Romania, up to one-fifth of the electorate is stubbornly susceptible to the simplistic propaganda of the ultra-nationalist Greater Romania Party, now led by an unstable demagogue. Nonetheless, democracy in Romania and Bulgaria has already been able to set down deep roots. The media are fiercely independent, if often sensationalist, and civil society is playing an increasingly active role in public life.
NATO membership would create a classic "win-win" situation: Bulgaria and Romania would enhance the power of the alliance in the new post-Sept. 11 international security environment, while their inclusion in the most important Euro-Atlantic institution would strengthen the progressive forces in each country. Of course, both of these countries must prove to the U.S. Senate that they are committed fully to being worthy members of the alliance.
In 1998, I had the honor to be in charge on the Senate floor of the ratification of the most recent round of NATO enlargement.
Next year, I hope the Senate will be able to consider the addition to the alliance of seven more countries, including Bulgaria and Romania.
Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.