NATO looks east, with reassurance and reticence


WASHINGTON -- "NATO enlargement is on track and it will happen,'' Secretary of State Warren Christopher told delegates of 12 former Soviet-bloc countries now interested in joining NATO. The statement was short and clear, but still not quite persuasive to new democracies that have been knocking on NATO's door since their liberation from the Soviet Union, and have watched the Clinton administration defer their applications for membership ever since.

The early applicants for membership in NATO -- Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary -- have waited patiently. They have followed all suggestions for advancing their countries' case. They have joined Partnerships for Peace and taken part in maneuvers. They have participated in peacekeeping in Bosnia. They have watched Russian opposition grow and have worried about when or whether their turn for full membership will ever come.

Full membership means full guarantees, including the essential guarantee of military solidarity and help in case of attack.

''We're trying to be very clear in our position, and we're not interested in alternate solutions that would not assure full membership,'' the Polish foreign minister underscored recently. Poland knows as the Czech Republic knows what it is like not to be protected, not to be part of the Western powers alliance.

NATO was founded in response to the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia and after other countries in Eastern Europe had lost their independence and democratic institutions to Soviet forces. The goodwill and sympathy of the democratic West did not preserve Czech freedom or Polish self-government from Soviet appetites. But no member of NATO was assaulted by the Soviet Union -- even though Greek independence was in grave danger at the time, and Italy was threatened by a progressively disruptive mass Communist Party.

Stalin's westward drive was stopped by NATO -- an alliance of independent democratic states held together by political and military goals and by the principle of collective security according to which an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America should be considered an attack against all. NATO was a great success, the most successful alliance in memory, but NATO came too late for Czechoslovakia, Poland and other once-independent states absorbed by the Soviet bloc. Those states know what it is to be outside a highly successful alliance.

It is no wonder then that the countries which suffered most from the Soviet Union should have become the most enthusiastic about NATO membership. But only the new democracies of Eastern Europe worried about surviving in a ''security vacuum'' have pressed the case consistently since 1992. Key Pentagon leaders -- like Gen. John Galvin -- initially thought very well of NATO enlargement. But after opposition to NATO's expansion intensified in Russia, second thoughts multiplied in the United States.

Though Soviet opposition to NATO's expansion disappeared with the Soviet Union itself, it was not for long. Boris Yeltsin first told Lech Walesa he had no objection to Polish entry, but he soon thought otherwise. Today there is no issue on which there is broader agreement in Russia's political class than opposition to NATO enlargement -- all are against it.

No offense

Neither George Bush nor Bill Clinton was willing to offend the Russians by pushing the boundaries of NATO eastward. And neither had any proposals for an alternative arrangement for protecting Central Europe without offending Russia.

The Clinton administration's Partnerships for Peace program was a stop-gap ad hoc adaptation that offered few military benefits and satisfied no one, even though NATO's role in Bosnia has provided real military exercises for the ''Partners.'' But for Central Europeans observing the conflict, NATO's passivity in the face of Bosnia's destruction was the defining experience.

Now, with anti-democratic forces growing stronger in Russia, a Russian presidential election looming, and a reactionary Russian Parliament seeking to restore the Soviet Union, anxiety in Central Europe has escalated sharply.

Warren Christopher's reassuring remarks in Prague concerning NATO membership were a response to this increasing concern about the security vacuum. ''NATO has made a commitment to take in new members and it must not and will not keep the democracies in a wailing room forever,'' Mr. Christopher declared.

His declaration, though strong, was ambiguous. It offered no specifics about when or which democracies would be included. Now that, too, has become a problem: Will the democracies not included in the first tier of new members be regarded as fair game? Will they be seen as consigned to Russia's sphere of influence as after the Yalta Treaty? That is the type of geopolitics preferred by various European allies. That certainly was Stalin's response. It could be today's Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov's.

Do NATO countries dare to risk damaging relations with Russia by accepting the Soviet bloc for membership? Would the U.S. Senate agree to such an expansion of NATO? These are hard questions whose answers could shape the next half-century as surely as Yalta shaped the past five decades.

Jeane Kirkpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/26/96

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