WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The Clinton administration has given its answer to the problem of Central and East European security. It is as equivocal as this administration's other foreign-policy initiatives: a proposal that all the countries of the region become members of NATO, but not real members.
Secretary of Defense Les Aspin said October 20 that the U.S. proposes NATO ''partnerships'' that would not include security guarantees. President Clinton is to put this idea forward at the scheduled NATO summit meeting in January. The State Department says these partnerships would be ''a kind of apprenticeship'' to NATO. It is, however, an apprenticeship in going nowhere.
It is a cold response to the appeals for security made by the former satellite states in Central Europe. It is also pointless. NATO's old mission was to assure Europe's security against the Soviet threat, which no longer exists.
If it rejects a new mission to guarantee Europe's security against the internal conflicts generated by ethnic nationalism and territorial revindication, why should it go on existing? Who needs a NATO with nothing serious to do?
Vaclav Havel recently wrote that the Czech Republic wanted to belong to NATO not only to draw security from that membership but to assume an active role in providing security to others. He said that the Czech Republic wants to be bound to the political values of Western Europe in the very practical way NATO membership would provide. So do Poland and Hungary. They, with Slovakia, are at the frontiers of ethnic tension -- Hungary above all, since there are more ethnic Hungarians outside Hungary (mainly in Romania, Serbia and Slovakia) than inside its borders.
The instabilities inherent in this situation are the reason many in the West resist NATO's enlargement. These people fear that NATO could be drawn into conflicts, worsening the consequences of ethnic tensions through the involvement of the major powers. But NATO has already contributed mightily to containing Greek hostility toward Turkey -- both countries NATO members since 1952.
Today's tangible dangers are the possibility of new acts of ethnically motivated aggression and the risk of a conflict inadvertently produced by misunderstanding, misinterpreted signals, or miscalculations of threat and reprisal. NATO is capable of dealing with all of this.
NATO is the military Great Power of Europe today. It is debating its future. Washington debates its future, and the future role of the United States in Europe. No one reaches a conclusion.
The best Washington can do is propose that the armies of the former Communist countries exercise with NATO forces, exchange visits, ''consult'' in the event of trouble. Mr. Aspin suggests that as many as 25 countries might become NATO's ''partners.'' This is an invitation to join a club that's not worth belonging to.
Mr. Christopher's spokesmen call Washington's NATO plan ''a grand strategy'' that gives NATO a new mission. It does nothing of the sort. It is a plan to obfuscate NATO's present lack of a reason to exist, and to keep NATO at a safe distance from Central and East European tensions and trouble. It finesses the question of America's future commitment to Europe.
NATO can only justify its existence by carrying out its formal mission, to secure ''a just and lasting peace in Europe.'' To do that, it must deal with real conflicts and real causes of tension. It can do that by giving membership to those democratic governments that are willing to commit themselves to the purpose of the alliance and commit their military forces, or the principal components of those forces, to NATO's joint command, and thus to the common security.
This can calm the ethnic tensions and historical grievances of the region by securing nations from the aggressions of others, while constraining them to the discipline of dispute-resolution through negotiation and accommodation.
It is possible to imagine new threats, in time, from the East, but that at present is unprofitable and possibly provocative speculation. The real risk today is that Serbia and its neighbors, or Hungary and its neighbors, will plunge -- or be plunged -- into new struggles, difficult to confine.
One can also imagine a general settlement in the region. Columnist Flora Lewis has argued for a conference or congress of the great powers, together with the region's governments, to deal with the issues of potential conflict. Even then a mechanism of enablement and enforce- ment would be needed, which NATO, and only NATO, is capable of providing.
NATO is a solution, or it is nothing.
At present, its members are unwilling to commit the organization to anything that involves risk. But if NATO does not change and take risks, it will die. Central and Eastern Europe desperately need the assurances of security and constraints on conflict that only NATO can provide. Instead they are offered a ''partnership'' without content or function, mere words.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.