The NATO Summit and Europe's 'Second Creation'

January 09, 1994|By ELIZABETH POND

BONN — Bonn. -- Once upon a time, back in the days after World War II, there were prophets in the land.

They thought of themselves only as tinkerers, improvising to stave off an immediate Soviet threat. But as it turned out, the institutions these statesmen crafted lasted for half a century and withstood all the buffeting of the Cold War and a nuclear balance of terror.

In Europe, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization provided the shield behind which a novel cooperative system of ever-freer trade and European integration could develop. Unprecedented prosperity followed. In an era of 30-minute intercontinental missile paths and one-second intercontinental financial transfers, Western publics became convinced that the industrialized democracies are all hopelessly interdependent.

In retrospect, looking at what he and his colleagues had wrought, the awestruck Secretary of State Dean Acheson proclaimed that they had been "present at the creation."

By now we take their creation for granted. Western Europe, enjoying its longest period of peace since the Middle Ages, no longer even understands why it used to go to war with itself every other generation. The miraculous French-German friendship has survived even German unification. The European Community, having just roused itself from its 1980s slumbers before the onslaught of German unity, has been able to channel German energies into the single market and, yes, the much-maligned Maastricht Treaty. The treaty's European Union (EU), bloodied but alive, is already two months old and is extending the old economic cooperation into home affairs and foreign policy.

As they approach their own day of reckoning at the NATO summit beginning tomorrow, current leaders also think of themselves only as improvisers. President Clinton tries to brush off foreign policy like some pesky fly. British Prime Minister John Major devotes all of his external energies to blocking "federalism" in the European Union. Master tactician Helmut Kohl has exhausted his chancellorship in unifying Germany and fighting off the various Maastricht crises. There are no great visionaries around.

And yet, in a subtler way, today's summons to a "second creation" is as urgent as was Acheson's call 50 years ago. The chal- lenge to Mr. Clinton and his counterparts is to build as wisely as their grandparents did, to forge those post-Cold War institutions and relationships that can ensure trans-Atlantic security and pursuit of happiness for another half-century.

If they wish, they can perform the historic task of drawing the East Europeans -- the real victims of the division of Europe over the past four decades -- into the Western system. Eventually, if this incorporation of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and the Baltic states works, that example might even draw Ukrainians and Russians into the order.

A senior German diplomat who insists on anonymity sums up the opportunity -- and the danger -- in the run-up to the NATO summit this way: "This is a critical period, comparable to the formative phase at the end of the 1940s, and just as important. We could get it right. We could get it terribly wrong" and end up with a corrosive resort to "every man for himself."

A great deal depends, he adds, on Mr. Clinton's presidential debut on the continent at the summit. He is not seeking some dramatic gesture like admitting Central Europeans as NATO members, but he does wish for such simple American steps as paying attention to European policy for the first time in this administration, building on the GATT treaty that has finally been wrestled out after seven long years, and welcoming Europe's own integration process whole-heartedly.

If the U.S. president associates himself with the consolidation of the Western cooperative systems in the EU and its expansion eastward -- and if the West manages to avoid aggravating instabilities further east -- Mr. Clinton can reap a triumph, the diplomat suggests.

Jamie Shea, present press spokesman and past one-man think-tank at NATO, describes the president's chance in similar terms: Evolutionary transformation of the NATO alliance and a devolution of some of its responsibilities to Europeans at the January summit "should give Clinton a foreign-policy success in Europe and re-cement the trans-Atlantic relationship." That operation "will give us the political capital" to advance the eastward spread of Western stability, he contends.

Chancellor Kohl, dogged friend of the United States and senior leader in Europe in both tenure and might, also sees positive prospects. A real trans-Atlantic partnership is now possible, he says, because "everyone in the Clinton administration does accept further European integration" with a unanimity that even the supportive Bush administration did not muster. And because domestically the Clinton administration embraces European-style social compassion rather than condemning Europe's social net as "socialist" and suspect.

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