U.S. plans to maintain go-slow approach on NATO expansion

January 02, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration plans to stick to a go-slow approach on expanding NATO membership to East European countries despite sharp divisions among U.S. officials and mounting protests from East European leaders, administration officials say.

Less than two weeks before a NATO summit in Brussels, all sides acknowledge that the decision whether to let nations such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary into NATO is one of the most important in the alliance's history.

The issue has become even more pressing for East European governments in recent weeks as their fears of resurgent Russian nationalism have been heightened by Vladimir V. HD aggressive statements and his party's success in the Russian elections Dec. 12.

The prevailing view within the administration, reaffirmed since the Russian elections, is that the West should move slowly to avoid aggravating Moscow's traditional fears of encirclement and strengthening Russians opposed to reform.

On the other side are administration officials who believe that democratic gains in Eastern Europe must be consolidated and that those countries must be protected from historic predators by including them in the alliance.

Providing new details about the debate that has embroiled the Clinton administration, officials said that Secretary of State Warren Christopher initially leaned strongly in favor of expanding NATO's membership to the East. But Mr. Christopher was persuaded to reverse course after Strobe Talbott, who was named last week as Mr. Christopher's deputy, intervened.

On the weekend before a Cabinet-level meeting in October, Mr. Talbott, who has been ambassador at large to the former Soviet republics, typed a memo arguing against NATO expansion and sent it to Mr. Christopher.

Within days, Mr. Christopher and Defense Secretary Les Aspin flew to Europe to explain the go-slow approach endorsed by Mr. Talbott.

Under the approach, to be formally presented at the summit meeting Jan. 10 and 11, the United States and its allies will endorse the principle that NATO's membership should eventually be enlarged. But NATO will not ease expansion by outlining a clear set of standards for admitting new members.

Instead, East European countries and former Soviet republics are being invited to participate in a program of military training and exercises that will allow them to associate with the alliance without offering them formal membership or the security guarantees that come with it.

Reflecting the dominant view within the administration, an official described the approach as a "prudent and evolutionary" way to update NATO without inviting a divisive debate within the alliance over adding members and alarming the Russians. But critics within the administration deride it as a "Russia only" plan that puts off the question of NATO expansion.

"It is the subordination of our hopes for Central European democracy, where democracy is feasible and likely, to our extravagant hopes for democracy in Russia," one administration official said.

When the State Department developed plans for a NATO summit, they thought it would be the perfect opportunity to build bridges to the new democracies in Eastern Europe. The critical questions were: how far to go and how fast?

In Europe, the argument for expanding NATO membership was made by German Defense Minister Volker Ruehe.

But some NATO members, particularly the British, argued against the idea, fearing that it would diminish their influence within NATO and make the alliance less cohesive.

The Pentagon opposed the idea of quick movement to expand NATO. This reflected its anxiety about expanding security commitments at a time of declining military budgets and troop withdrawals from Europe.

The State Department was split. While not advocating immediate membership for East European nations, some officials argued that the West should give a clear signal at the NATO summit that expanded membership was coming.

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