WASHINGTON, April 1, 2008 – For only the sixth time in its 59-year history, NATO is poised to expand its membership this week.

At the alliance’s three-day summit conference that begins tomorrow in Bucharest, Romania, officials are expected to extend an invitation to Albania, Croatia and Macedonia for NATO membership. The additions would bring the total number of member countries to 29.

NATO was founded on April 4, 1949, when 12 nations — the United States, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and the United Kingdom — signed the North Atlantic Treaty, creating a unique international security alliance.

By signing the treaty, sometimes called the Washington Treaty because it was signed in Washington, D.C., member countries agreed to work together to contribute to their mutual political, economic and military security. As part of the common security arrangement, NATO members pledge to treat an attack on one member nation as an attack against all.

Leaders of Albania, Croatia and Macedonia have spent the last four years working toward this moment, starting with the formation of the Adriatic Charter, a partnership established with the United States in May 2003 to help them work toward NATO membership.

“A common theme from us … has been the appreciation for all that the three countries are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Daniel P. Fata, deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy, said at a Feb. 20 Pentagon news conference that included Albanian Defense Minister Fatmir Mediu, Croatian Defense Minister Branko Vukelic and Macedonian Defense Minister Lazar Elenovski.

The Pentagon has a long-standing, bilateral defense relationship with each country and has helped them achieve defense reforms over the past decade, Fata said, explaining why the countries are ready to join NATO.

In August 2005, the Adriatic Charter sent a combined 12-member medical team to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the group’s first jointly conducted international mission. Albania and Macedonia both are members of the coalition in Iraq.

Albania, Croatia and Macedonia “have made amazing strides in reforming and modernizing their defense institutions,” Fata said, noting they’ve moved from conscripted to volunteer military forces.

Regarding the three countries’ desire to join NATO, Fata observed that the “defense criteria have certainly been met, when it comes to their membership applications.” The United States, he said, will advocate on behalf of the countries’ bids to join NATO at the summit conference.

The alliance first expanded in 1952 to admit Greece and Turkey, with Germany following in 1955 and Spain in 1982. In the third enlargement, in 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were admitted to NATO membership. In the fifth and largest enlargement in its history, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia joined NATO in 2004.

A prerequisite for NATO membership is that countries must show they have the capability to further the principles of the North Atlantic Treaty and contribute to mutual security, in addition to meeting political, economic and military goals established in the 1995 study on NATO enlargement.

For example, a future NATO nation must demonstrate that it represents a functioning democratic political system, that the system is based on a market economy, and that it has made an overall commitment toward peaceful settlement of disputes.

Anticipating future expansions, NATO in 1999 developed the Membership Action Plan to assist aspiring member nations in becoming NATO members. Through the action plan, interested countries may submit individual national programs on their preparations for becoming members while NATO provides feedback and assessment of progress, including technical and political advice.

To join NATO, however, countries must be officially invited to begin accession talks with the alliance at its headquarters in Brussels. The talks take place in two sessions. In the first session, invitees and NATO representatives discuss political, defense and military issues, providing an opportunity to assess whether preconditions for membership have been met.

The second session involves discussion of resources, security and legal issues as well as the prospective member country’s contribution to NATO’s common budget. The assessment is determined on a proportional basis based on the size of the prospective member’s economy in relation to other NATO members’ economies.

Prospective member countries also are required at this stage to submit a timetable to implement measures to ensure protection of NATO classified information and prepare their security and intelligence services to work with NATO’s Office of Security.

In the second step of the accession process, prospective members must send a letter of intent to the NATO secretary-general. Next, NATO prepares accession protocols, or amendments, to the North Atlantic Treaty that allow the invited members to become legal parties to the treaty.

Once the protocols have been ratified by NATO member nations, the secretary-general invites the new countries to accede to the treaty. Upon depositing their instruments of accession with the U.S. State Department — because the United States government is the official repository of the North Atlantic Treaty — the invitees become NATO members.

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