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DoD News Briefing: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
June 13, 1997 6:05 PM EDT

Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen

Unidentified Speaker: Good afternoon. This is Secretary William Cohen's first press conference at NATO. He is joined by the US Ambassador to NATO, Robert Hunter. Secretary Cohen will open with a brief statement, and then he will take your questions.

Secretary Cohen: Fifty years ago this month, George Marshall announced a plan to build a Europe that was peaceful, undivided and democratic. And his plan helped create a Europe united by peace and prosperity after suffering and division that was caused by two world wars. Marshall saw a free and democratic Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals, but communism blurred that vision. And now we are close to seeing the completion of this plan.

Last month NATO and Russia signed the Founding Act which gives Russia a voice in Europe's security dialogue, helping to continue what Marshall foresaw. Next month, the leaders of NATO's sixteen nations are going to meet in Madrid to invite new members to join the Alliance. NATO's members should reach a consensus promptly on which nations to invite. As a contribution to NATO's sixteen current members reaching that consensus under the leadership of the Secretary General on which nations to invite to become NATO members, I took the opportunity to state the view of the United States on this question. At Sintra, Secretary Albright expressed the United States' preference for a small group of initial invitees. And she also made clear our view that the enlargement process must be a continuing one so that the first new members are not the last.

After extensive discussion with Allies and candidate countries, with members of Congress, and within the Administration itself, the President decided that the United States will support Poland, Hungray, and the Czech Republic for the first round invitations. Those three countries have demonstrated the necessary level of progress on military, political, economic and social reform to be suitable invitees. And we look to the accession process to ensure that, as they become members, they take the steps necessary to enable them to make a full contribution to meeting the task and obligations of the Alliance.

The United States recognizes the impressive progress made by Slovenia and Romania. Inviting accession is a highly important action, which carries heavy obligations both for the new and the old members. The prudent course is to defer invitations where the countries are on the right path, but need more time. This approach is all the more appropriate given that the door to membership is going to remain open. So there will be ample opportunities to invite additional members.

There are some other advantages to limiting the number of the initial invitations. The problems and costs of enlargement will be diminished, if only a limited number of countries need to be assimilated into NATO's operations at one time. A limited initial group will underscore that the process is a deliberate one. A small initial group underscores that there are really going to be additional rounds. And we also took into consideration the view that for so momentous a decision, there ought to be a strong consensus in its support. And therefore it's right to act now only in the cases where there is strong unity of view leaving others for later action. It's a basic premise of US policy that there should be a clear commitment by the Alliance at Madrid to relatively early further rounds of membership and specifically, number one; unequivocal commitment to keeping the membership open; two, continuing dialogues focused on membership issues; three, explicit rejection of any European democracy being excluded from membership solely on the basis of geography and four, an ongoing review by the Alliance of the progress of additional nations to readiness for membership. In addition we're going to attach great importance to implementing the measures the Alliance has planned to strengthen the links between NATO and partner countries whether they are seeking membership or not including enhanced PFP, and the EAPC. And with that I'd be happy to entertain your questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I believe you met this afternoon with the French Defense Minister, the Defense Minister of France...

A: I just came from a meeting as we speak.

Q: France has pushed very hard for Romania to join the alliance in the first round. I wonder what his reaction was and did he give you any indication on what the new French Government's stand will be on reunification or reintegration into the military alliance?

A: During our meeting he did express France's interest in Romania. It was a very cordial meeting, our first meeting and the first of many that I hope will take place in the future. Just as he heard me make a presentation during the session in terms of the present decision to support three, we expect to continue our relationship in the coming weeks and months and hopefully years, and will continue our dialogue in terms of issue including the integration of France into full membership and full integration I should say, into NATO itself. The discussions about full integration were put on hold about three or four weeks ago in order to accommodate the attention that was being devoted to the French elections and they have not been resumed at this time. I believe that the new Minister feels that discussions should be instituted again, or reinstituted and perhaps they will be.

Q: Did he indicate that France was willing or anxious for talks on AFSOUTH to continue or is that pretty much ended now?

A: I think that he indicated that the position of President Chirac has not changed. Of course that means that the French have a position with respect to AFSOUTH and we have had negotiations prior to the election cycle that was just concluded. Whether they are going to be reconstituted or not remains an open issue. I don't know at this point.

Q: Mr. Secretary, other countries have expressed their preferences, you mentioned the French and the Italians made it clear their support for Slovenia. They are not going to necessarily get what they want. Is this a definitive American position, that in effect that there will be a veto — there must be three and three alone or are you still open to possible persuasion in the case, for example of a very small mouthful to add to the mouthful, if you like, of Slovenia?

A: Well the President has indicated his decision and indicated that the position was firm. What happens ultimately, of course is a matter of consensus, but we felt it was important, to express the American position and the President was firm on that.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you indicated that one of the rationales for limiting the initial invitees to three instead of five was that it would demonstrate that there would be additional rounds of expansion, which would seem to suggest that if you did four or five instead of three that three would not be any other countries that would be legitimate candidates. Is that the case?

A: That is not the implication. There are two views about this. On the one hand, the view that I expressed that if you have a small group in which there is unanimity, in terms of their qualifications for membership, and you have other prospects, prospective candidates, who have been on the right track, but only for a short time and more time is needed, that sends a signal that those countries and others are likely to be successful candidates in the future. If there is a larger group it is possible to send a signal that because you have a larger group that is admitted on the first accession then the time for future admissions will either be more remote in time or perhaps non-existent. You can argue it either way. I believe the President made the case to say we ought to start where there is a strong consensus on the initial members and then to encourage the other members, who are seeking accession and who are on the right path to accelerate to enhance our Partnership for Peace activities, intensify dialogues to make sure that they continue along this path and that also would indicate that they and others would have a very good chance of gaining accession in the future.

There is another factor involved, obviously. Members of the Senate met with the President last evening in order to express their own opinions. Some favor Slovenia. Some might favor Romania. Others may go further and say it should be much broader. And there are other members of the Senate who are opposed to any enlargement what-so-ever. So there is no real consensus that has developed within the Senate itself, and so I think what the President is doing is setting forth his criteria, saying we have a strong consensus for these three countries. Yes, there will be cost involved, yes, we must measure up to those costs.

All NATO members, -- in terms of the old members and the new members, -- we should carry that case to the Senate and to the other parliaments where ratification is necessary. And so a cost factor is involved, along with the prospect of trying to have a manageable situation where you are trying to integrate three new countries into the NATO operations. The more that are trying to be integrated in the first tranche as such, might complicate it in addition to having additional cost factors. So that was the type of analysis the President, I believe, made in making his recommendation.

Q: If your proposition is being adopted by the allies, did you agree to fix the delay for the next one and when. And also, what guarantee you could offer for the countries such as Romania that they will become members in the second one and not later?

A: I was not sure of the first part of your question. Did we seek a delay?

Q: Yes, and if you all agree to fix a delay, a year?

A: No, we did not seek to set a specific date. What we wanted to do is to send a very clear signal that the door was open. That we were serious about having future candidates be selected for accession and that we would continue to follow it on a regular basis in terms of what kind of progress is being made so that when a decision is made for the next round, which we would hope will not be an unreasonable period of time, that those countries would be qualified at that time. And the second part, I'm sorry.

Q: Which guarantees could you offer the countries such as Romania that they would become members on the second one and not later?

A: What we hope to do, and I will try to play a very active role in this regard, is to meet with the countries, the ministers of the countries who would like to gain accession to NATO and to work with them, and to ensure to them personally that as long as we proceed along the path that they are currently on and the work together with the Partnership for Peace program and other types of institutional organizations, intensify dialogues, working in joint peace-keeping efforts, other types of activity, as long as we see the same criteria that are currently being applied, would apply to them as well. And that we can see the progress has now been solidified, that they are not only on the right track but they are well down that path, then we, I think, can give them assurance that they will be in line for accession. So we intend to work very closely with them, to reassure them that this in not a one shot proposition, that that door is not closed, that it is open, and that we are sending a very strong signal to them and to other countrries who would qualify in the future, that we are open to their accession when they qualify.

Q: Mr. Secretary do you think it would be a good idea to consider sending a paramilitary type force to Bosnia to chase down war criminals, distinct from the SFOR troops and do you intend, or have you raised this subject with the allies?

A: I believe that Secretary General Solana expressed the opinion on behalf of the ministerial that the terms of Dayton are well known, as far as it pertains to war criminals, and there has been no change in our position. Certainly with respect to - that is his position, that is our position. I have not participated in any specific plans.

Q: Mr. Secretary, there has been some public opinion polls that have showed a relative lack of enthusiasm for NATO membership, popular enthusiasm in the Czech Republic. Are you satisfied that the grass roots level, so to speak, that this is supported by the man on the street.

A: I raised that concern with Czech officials. I was surprised to learn of the lack of enthusiasm. I think that there is, perhaps, some sentiment that they assumed that their membership is guaranteed and perhaps that accounts for it. But I did talk with Vaclev Havel and I know that he is going to carry a very strong message to the people.

I think the Czech people, once they focus upon it, see the benefits of admission, that it will enjoy very strong popular support. I think that it is an issue that has been mostly abstract. As a matter of fact, many people in the United States have not focused specifically on the issue and it is something that will become controversial in the future. That is justifiably so. It is a major decision, it involves major implications, and there has yet to be a very sustained debate or dialogue on the subject matter.

The Senate is now starting to focus upon it, the Senate Observer Group, and there will be other members as well. Once the decision is made as to who shall gain entry, then the ratification process will start early next year and during that process I suspect that the public's attention will be very much focused upon it and I suspect the same thing will be true for the Czech Republic in the coming months. So, you have strong leadership that supports it and, I believe, that any sense of complacency would be eliminated by the strong leadership in the Czech Republic and they have that strong leadership.

Q: Would you expect that to be an issue in the Senate ratification, the level of popular support in these countries?

A: I think what would be critical would be the action of the parliament of the government officials who provide the funding that would be necessary for the countries that are admitted, to make the kind of changes that are necessary, that would allow them to complete their obligations under the NATO charter, and, so that's where the focus I think will be, rather than whether it's popularly supported or not. If that were the criterion, then many other countries would qualify, so it's a question of whether they have the resources, whether their leadership is committed to it, whether they take tangible steps to do the things that are necessary to make them a full-fledged member, because they will have full obligations. They have full benefits, but they also have full obligations, and so, that's where the focus will be.

Q: Mark Latey, BBC. You've put some emphasis on the fact that there will be other waves of new members. Do you think that there is a limit to how many new members you can have without losing the effectiveness and military cohesion of NATO and that there would be a fear of having too many members who could turn into, sort of, a mini-UN with all that that would entail.

A: I think that's an issue that concerns all members. In fact, that sentiment was expressed during the course of our discussions today, and that the cohesiveness of NATO itself is at the heart of the organization. We want to maintain that and that, of course, would lend support to President Clinton's selection and recommendation that we have three and that we proceed with some prudence and some deliberateness on our part, because at the heart of it is: Is it a cohesive unit, are we spreading ourselves too thin, are we making the kind of commitments that are necessary, that would provide for the security requirements under the NATO Charter? So, that's of concern to all of the ministers of defense and, again, I think that that would support the President's decision to try and begin on a smaller basis, rather than a larger one.

Q: Mr. Secretary. You have met the new French Defense Minister.

A: I did.

Q: Have you spoken about the issue of the AFSOUTH. And do you think that there will be other discussion about this topic in the coming time?

A: I did meet with the new Minister. I found him to be a very warm and engaging individual. We are hopeful that we can have many more visits together. We did discuss the issue of AFSOUTH, and indicated that the matter, of course, can still be under discussion, that, hopefully, a decision will be made prior to Madrid, so that it can be resolved as to whether or not France will become fully integrated into NATO. We're hoping that France will become fully integrated into the NATO structure. But any discussions would have to wait further deliberations by other parties right now. It has been put on hold for the elections. Whether they are resumed or not is an open question at this point. But, he did indicate, he would like to see the issue resolved one way or the other prior to Madrid. And I think that's a positive proposal.

Q: Minister, Turkey is trying to build a kind of security zone in northern Iraq, and because you are on your way to the Gulf could you tell us some words about your commitment to the security of the area there?

A: Well, we are committed to the security of the Gulf Region. The very purpose of my visit is to stop and talk with heads of state throughout the Gulf area. We are committed to maintaining the security of the countries that we are supporting, and are supporting us. I had occasion to meet with the Emir of Qatar, and had a good discussion yesterday in Washington with him. We will be visiting every other state in the Gulf during a four or five day period of time. But it is to emphasize the fact that we are committed to the security of the region. We have forces in the region. We intend to continue to enforce the U.N. sanctions relative to Iraq and continue to provide security for the entire region.

We have time for two more questions, first the gentleman right there, and then the lady here.

Q: Turkey is invading the northern Iraq. Could you tell us the position of the United States because this separation started like one month before. And no signal that they are willing to withdraw from northern Iraq.

A: I believe that the Turkish Government has decided to attack those groups that they find to be terrorists in nature. And they do not assume any occupation of the territory of northern Iraq. But they have, over a long period of time, been concerned about terrorism directed toward Turkey, and they have tried to eliminate that, so we don't have any position beyond that that the Turkish Government is taking that position on a temporary basis. I don't believe it's long term, but that's a matter that I'm not familiar with any more facts than currently exist.

Q: Mr. Secretary General, the nuclear planning group this morning urged the Russian Federation to ratify the SALT START II Treaty promptly. So far you have discussed this topic, I think, what is your judgment about the status of the nuclear weapons in Russia?

A: We hope that the Russian Duma will ratify START II. We think that the ratification of START II is in the interest of Russia, is in the interest of the United States and our Allies. And we are quite hopeful that the new Minister of Defense, who does support ratification, will use his prestige, and leverage that he might have with the members of the Duma to persuade them that it's in the both the short term and long term interest of Russia to move beyond START II so we can initiate negotiations on START III, and go to much lower levels than currently exist. So we are hopeful that the Russian administration, President Yeltsin's new administration will push very hard for ratification.

The lady here on the side.

Q: Mr. Secretary can you tell us exactly on what criteria Romania and Slovenia failed to qualify for the first wave in the American opinion? And also are you worried about any possibility of instability in the Balkans as a result of Slovenia and Romania not being included since this was one of the arguments raised by the southern flank countries?

A: I think essentially it has to do with the time factor. That while a good deal of progress has been made in a short time, it is still a short time, and there needs to be a longer term commitment to the progress that has been made in terms of pursuing democracy civilian control over the military. The kind of emphasis upon human rights and so forth. It's a very positive path that both countries are on, and yet it's only been for a short time. And so I think it's a temporal factor that was, perhaps, persuasive in this particular case. Whether, as to whether or not their non-admission will be seen as a negative, I think it depends upon the leadership of the countries. To the extent that there is strong leadership that indicates to the people of Slovenia and also Romania, that they must continue on the path that they are currently on, there should be no backlash as such. But we hope to engage both countries in a very active way, so that we can reassure them that we want them to continue the path that they are currently on. And were they to do so then, obviously, they would be very prime candidates in the next round.

Q: Thank you very much.