One of the startling contrasts at the 34-nation assemblage of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe is the self-assurance of NATO countries and the fretting that afflicts Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and other nations which have broken free of Moscow's grip.
Their time for celebration occurred a year ago. Now they face a future in which they are very much on their own -- burdened with economies wrecked by Communist theory, plagued by ethnic and nationalist unrest, tied to a Warsaw Pact that will shortly be dismantled, held at arms length by their prosperous western neighbors and very much at sea about their future security.
When President Bush visited Prague he heard Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel say: "Dissatisfaction, nervousness, insecurity and disillusionment are widespread. . . Rancor, rivalry, mutual denigration, envy and boundless ambition. . . are ever more obvious at every turn."
Perhaps this inspired Mr. Bush to tell the CSCE summit, "We are witnessing in several countries the ugly resurgence of anti-Semitism and other ethnic, racial and religious intolerance" -- manifestations that are obviously incompatible with stable democratic government. "Europe," he said, "is entering unknown waters." But while the president thus focused on Eastern and Central Europe's internal troubles, he had little comfort to offer in the diplomatic realm.
These former captive nations are almost pathetically eager for CSCE to turn into an organization that will protect and empower them. They look to it, too, as a grouping that will draw the Soviet Union to Europe in a non-menacing way, limit expansionist tendencies in Germany, curtail nationalist rivalries in their region and somehow keep the United States linked to Europe.
The United States, however, has worked hard to limit CSCE's scope because it considers NATO a much sounder base for continued U.S. influence on the European scene. This leaves Eastern Europeans torn. They want an American presence as a check against Soviet reentry. Yet doubts arise about how enduring NATO will be without an enemy to justify its existence. Will American taxpayers and/or German burghers rebel? More important to Mr. Havel and his colleagues, there has been no definition about the security role of Eastern Europe: Will it be a buffer zone? Will it have adequate defensive forces? Will it be able to count on CSCE or the European Community or a scaled-down NATO for protection?
These are questions that ought to be settled quickly but probably won't be. Washington is preoccupied by the Persian Gulf crisis and by negotiations on strategic and short-range nuclear weapons. So Mr. Havel's fears may be well-founded and Europe's unknown waters may prove very rough indeed.