Senate Plans to Revive NATO Observer Group

Senate organization first developed in 1997 ahead of new NATO admissions

Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire are among the lawmakers interested in resurrecting the Senate NATO Observer Group. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senators are preparing to revive a bipartisan group to further demonstrate the chamber’s commitment to NATO.

The organization being revived is the Senate NATO Observer Group. It was first established in 1997, to help the Senate monitor the work on the expansion of the organization to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The Senate ultimately consented to amending the North Atlantic Treaty in 1998 on an overwhelming vote of 80-19 to provide for adding those three countries.

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina advocated for the observer group to be re-established for the first time since 2007, given the potential for further expansion to former Soviet states and the ongoing concern over Russian aggression.

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula — a move not recognized as legitimate by Ukraine and its Western allies — is among the flash points. Ukraine applied for NATO membership in 2008, but backed off after Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian political figure, was elected president in 2010.

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“Now more than ever, it’s imperative that the United States work closely with NATO to respond to the ever-evolving threats to western democracies, particularly from the Kremlin,” Shaheen said in a statement. “This new Senate NATO Observer Group will serve as a focal point for engagement between NATO and the Senate as these institutions seek to strengthen transatlantic bonds and modernize NATO to respond to hybrid warfare and other threats.”

Shaheen and Tillis are expected to be the co-chairs of the group, which is modeled on the original version. According to a Senate aide, the chairmen and ranking members of the Appropriations, Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Intelligence panels will be ex officio members, and other senators will be appointed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York.

Getting the group back up and running now would help make sure senators are prepared for potential debates on further NATO expansion.

The group will likely include a mix of senators regularly involved in foreign policy debates and some who are not, given the importance of having members aware of developments ahead of the July NATO summit in Brussels.

“We got leadership’s agreement to really just, I think, engage. To make it very clear that we think that NATO is a very critical part of our global security,” Tillis said. “I think it was [Defense Secretary James] Mattis in a public speech a month or so ago [who] said the only thing worse than going to war with allies is going to war without allies.”

If the panel follows precedent, there could be monthly meetings and other engagement with stakeholders ahead of ministerial meetings, as well as the summit.

Former Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Trent Lott of Mississippi, then the majority and minority leaders, respectively, highlighted the importance of the original observer group in making sure the Senate had adequate information for its advise and consent role during the NATO expansion round during the Clinton administration.

“It served as an important line of communication between the Senate and NATO and the Senate and candidate countries in the months prior to the July 1997 NATO summit in Madrid at which Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary were admitted to the alliance,” Daschle said in 2002.

“The SNOG and the information it generated was central to the Senate’s ratification of the protocols of accession in April 1998,” he added, using an acronym for the group.

The current U.S. permanent representative to NATO, Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison, served as a member of the original panel as a Republican senator from Texas. A senior Senate aide said she was among the key advocates for getting the group re-established ahead of the 2018 meetings.

Tillis said there is always the possibility of further expansion of NATO, which would require a two-thirds vote of the Senate. The accession of Montenegro to NATO took place last year.

“The way the maps are moving around there, and the way Russia’s moving in particular, you’re always looking for good solid alliances because there are so many opportunities to train together, to share intelligence and to really just add more security buffers for an increasingly aggressive Russia,” Tillis said. 

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