TURKU, Finland (AP) _ The United States favors adding new members to the 19-nation NATO alliance ``when they are ready,'' Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told his counterparts from the Nordic and Baltic nations Saturday.
The Bush administration has not defined a timetable or plan for expanding NATO, one of several major irritants in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Russia strongly opposed the last NATO expansion in 1999 when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined the alliance.
Rumsfeld also assured the Baltic and Nordic nations they will be included in the administration's consultations on taking a new approach to security and defense, which Rumsfeld called a ``new framework of deterrence.''
On the final stop of a seven-nation European tour, Rumsfeld met in this bustling Baltic Sea city with the defense ministers of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are among nine countries considered candidates for NATO membership, although the alliance is not expected to decide which, if any, to admit until November 2002.
Rumsfeld told Saturday's meeting that the administration has an ``open door'' policy on NATO expansion, but he was not prepared to say whether it would support early entry for the Baltic nations, a U.S. official said.
It was not clear whether President Bush, during his European trip next week, will present a more detailed U.S. position on NATO expansion, the official said. The subject is expected to come up when Bush attends a NATO meeting in Brussels on Wednesday and meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovenia on June 16.
In the Turku talks, Rumsfeld was making the case that new circumstances in the world _ in particular the end of the U.S.-Soviet superpower competition and the spread of ballistic missile technologies _ require a new approach to defense.
Many U.S. allies and friends wonder what this will mean, not only for U.S.-Russian relations but also for NATO and America's military presence in Europe.
Rumsfeld was stressing that, in the U.S. view, missile defense is a necessary component of a new ``framework of deterrence,'' along with modernized conventional forces and renewed emphasis on international cooperation to limit the spread of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, according to a U.S. official participating in the talks. The official discussed Rumsfeld's prepared remarks to the meeting on condition of anonymity.
Rumsfeld was telling the ministers that an effective U.S. missile defense system cannot be built within the constraints of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, the official said. The administration has not said it will withdraw from the treaty, but that is an option.