Think Again

January 10, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris -- It was a bad mistake to formulate the security problem in East-Central Europe in terms of NATO membership for countries there. Doing so has destabilized an already unstable situation. Russia, after the electoral success of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has no need for phantom threats from NATO.

It also was pointless to talk about an expanded NATO. In the short term, membership simply is not a practical prospect even for Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic. NATO is a military alliance with an integrated multinational command and integrated logistics, communications and intelligence systems developed over more than 40 years. It is the military instrument its members. The relevant question is not whether to give it new members. It is whether this military instrument of the Western powers can be used to stabilize a highly unstable situation.

This instability is in part the result of what is happening in Russia. Obviously there is anxiety about Russia's future, an anxiety justified in general terms, even though Mr. Yeltsin poses no threats to his European neighbors and has even said that he would like Russia to join NATO. It is necessary to consider the possible alternatives or successors to Mr. Yeltsin, of whom Vladimir Zhirinovsky provides an alarming instance. The second reason the region is unstable is because of the unsatisfied ethnic and territorial claims of the various peoples there.

These are not, yet, the claims of governments, except in the former Yugoslavia. The other governments of the area mostly continue to conduct themselves with prudence and good sense.

People do otherwise. Russia's Mr. Zhirinovsky has made aggressive comments about Germany, Bulgaria and Romania. Right-wing elements in Germany currently claim territory in Poland and property in the Czech Republic. The situation of ethnic Hungarians is difficult in Romania, Slovakia and Serbia.

Serbia has unwelcome Albanian as well as Hungarian minorities. NATO members Greece and Turkey are implicated in the unrest because of Greece's support for Serbia and hostility toward the new Macedonia, and because of the Turkish and Muslim minorities in the Balkans.

Enlarged NATO membership is not a solution to these problems. What is needed is a practical guarantee of the integrity of Central and East European frontiers. Peaceful and negotiated change obviously is acceptable, but military aggression, overt or covert, is not -- and this is something a military alliance can deal with. The West failed disastrously -- and continues to fail -- to block ag- gression and genocide inside Yugoslavia. It had better not fail its second chance.

A guarantee of stable frontiers in the region bordering the old Soviet Union would contribute to the stability of Russia itself, and to that of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and the other Baltic states. To offer such a guarantee does not ''expand the bloc'' in a way threatening to Moscow. It offers an assurance of regional stability, to which the Russian government can have no legitimate objection. It also avoids the issue of a Russian veto over NATO affairs.

The American ''Partnership for Peace'' plan does give Russia that veto in practice, while denying it in principle. President Clinton said last Wednesday that his plan ''will lead ultimately to some more countries'' coming into NATO. His national-security adviser, Anthony Lake, said the plan sets in motion ''a dynamic process that is explicitly opening the door'' to NATO membership for the East European countries, a door ''that we hope they will walk through.'' That makes it certain that the Russians will object.

At that same luncheon with the Washington press, Mr. Clinton said that it ''would be a critical mistake'' to offer NATO membership to states on the border ''of the old Soviet Union'' -- Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania -- because to do so would be perceived as an act directed against Russia. That concedes the veto. The administration can't have those countries both out of NATO and walking through its door. Pretending that it can has earned for Mr. Clinton the negative consequences of both courses.

It would be far better for Mr. Clinton to abandon ''Partnership for Peace'' and think again. With the president and his entourage already in Brussels, committed to their plan, the best thing Washington's NATO allies probably can do is to waffle and postpone, so that this idea can fade away and Washington have the chance to come back with something more serious. As the plan now stands, it not only disappoints Central and East Europeans, and Russians, but angers them as well, which is not only damaging but foolish.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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