Betwixt Prague and Moscow

January 13, 1994

President Clinton's artful Partnership for Peace proposal to delay full NATO membership to Eastern European nations clamoring for protection from Russia will have a life of its own. He will find that the "creative ambiguity" of diplomacy often has a way of creating concrete developments and institutions not foreseen at inception.

In extending NATO's reach eastward, Mr. Clinton has been wary about offering a security guarantee in which an attack against, say, Poland or Hungary would trigger an alliance-wide military response. His caution reflects the drawdown in U.S. troop strength in Europe and uncertainty whether Congress would back such a commitment.

During his meetings in Prague yesterday with the leaders of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, the president found the NATO pledge to consult with "partners" in case of a Russian attack was regarded as only a "first step" -- and an inadequate one at that -- toward full membership. So, with typical sweep, Mr. Clinton declared: "The question is no longer whether NATO will take on new members, but when and how."

When and how are precisely the details Eastern European nations will be trying to define in the months ahead. As NATO begins to include their military officers in alliance planning and joint maneuvers, this will help establish criteria -- yet to be specified -- for full NATO membership. And if the nations of the east can get agreement on criteria, NATO will be hard-pressed to deny membership to those that meet requirements.

When the president gets down to talks with the Russians today, he will find his situation quite reversed. Although he succeeded in putting off immediate expansion of NATO membership lest it provoke and play into the hands of President Boris Yeltsin's revanchist opponents, his discussion partners in Moscow will surely know it is an awakened Russian bear that is Europe's bugaboo.

Whether they will be mollified by Washington assurances that former Soviet states can also be admitted to NATO is doubtful. If the alliance has been losing a sense of purpose now, think what would be left if its supposed security blanket were extended from the Atlantic to the Urals. Its mission then would be to keep its many members from one another's throats -- note the civil wars in former Yugoslavia -- rather than providing protection against an outside enemy.

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