Clinton's Journey to Europe

January 07, 1994

Munich and Yalta, two words etched in the soul of this century before Bill Clinton was born, will haunt the president when he visits Brussels, Prague and Moscow next week in an attempt to establish a credible policy toward Europe in this chaotic post-Cold War era. An extraordinary international propaganda battle has erupted in anticipation of Mr. Clinton's trip, with Eastern European nations seeking NATO guarantees for their security and Russia lashing back with warnings about the consequences of its being isolated.

Washington's response has been a highly Clintonian attempt to placate both sides as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization struggles to redefine itself and its mission. What will come out of the Brussels summit will be a Partnership for Peace proposal allowing Eastern European nations to take part in some NATO military activities but denying them immediate or even early full membership.

Poland's President Lech Walesa has condemned this approach as "shortsighted and irresponsible," a judgment in which many other Eastern European leaders concur. But Mr. Walesa has also conceded that Poland's weak position will force it to accept anything it can get from NATO even if it disagrees with alliance strategy.

His misgivings are shared by American critics of the Partnership for Peace proposal. Robert B. Zoellick, undersecretary of state in the Bush administration, believes it would be less destabilizing to give Eastern European nations security guarantees quickly rather than extend protection should they be directly threatened by a Russia reverting to imperialism.

Mr. Walesa's and Mr. Zoellick's complaints have the joint aim -- shared by many -- of beefing up the military-cooperation content of the Peace for Partnership proposal to the limit that NATO members and Russia will tolerate. It is a worthy undertaking. As Vice President Al Gore said: "The security of the states that lie between Western Europe and Russia affects the security of America."

The president argues that the last thing the U.S. should want would be to establish a new dividing line of East-West conflict -- this one on Poland's rather than West Germany's eastern border. Perhaps as a newcomer to the debate over Europe policy, he sees better than participants and specialists that the U.S. and Russia have global interests and responsibilities that transcend the incessant rivalries between the Atlantic and the Urals.

Russia, after all, is not only a European power but a Middle East, Central Asian and Pacific power. It is also, and will remain, a nuclear superpower -- the only country in the world capable of devastating the United States. So U.S. relations with Russia acquire a dimension unlike our ties with any other country. The intense ideological rivalry of the Cold War era may be gone for the moment. What is left is the U.S. effort to shore up democracy in Russia and somehow extend the U.S.-Soviet success in imposing peace on Europe into a U.S.-Russian quest for stability worldwide.

More U.S. aid may be forthcoming to keep the Yeltsin reformers in power lest they be replaced by authoritarian forces eager to recreate the old Soviet bloc. The U.S. cannot allow such regression and revanchism. There can be no more Munichs and Yaltas, no more abandonment of Eastern Europe to the forces of totalitarianism. Rather, what is needed is what we might call a "Helsinki Europe" in which Russia (plus the U.S. and Canada) are accepted as full members of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe -- the only organization with such a geographic sweep.

The CSCE was launched at Helsinki in 1975 for the ostensible purpose of securing the status quo. The Communists considered their empire consolidated. Instead, the Helsinki undertaking led in the end to the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, the unification of Germany and the triumph of NATO.

It is the task of any American president in this era to give substance to that triumph rather than let it collapse in hypocritical rhetoric. George Bush made the first gestures -- they were only that -- by setting up the North Atlantic Cooperation Council as a forum for Russia and Eastern European countries to discuss joint security arrangements. Partnership for Peace needs to be much more.

In the burst of debate on Europe's future, insufficient attention has been paid to the implications of the American military drawdown on the continent. For four decades, American taxpayers allowed a half of the vast Pentagon budget to be spent on maintaining 300,000 troops to defend Western Europe. Now, with only 100,000 troops, how credible would be an American undertaking to come to the defense of the entire continent?

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