However it turns out, all will be less secure

March 20, 1997|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- This week's meeting in Helsinki between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin arrives at a moment when Washington is disposed to underestimate Russia and overestimate China.

Policy toward China is a matter of big and anxious debate in Washington. The conventional wisdom now has it that China will be the superpower of the 21st century, ready and able to challenge the U.S., while Russia will indefinitely remain in political disarray and economic anarchy.

Ten years from now the opposite could actually be true. China has its ideological and leadership crisis still ahead of it. Its industrial boom owes everything to foreign investment and foreign markets. Its internal economic, political, and regional tensions are acute.

A disastrous transition in Hong Kong -- which is more likely than not; trouble with Japan or Taiwan, or with Southeast Asia over Chinese claims in the South China Sea, could dry up that investment and those markets. China has not demonstrated a capacity for self-sustained, autonomous, industrial development and technological innovation.

Russia has. Soviet Russia made itself a superpower out of its own resources and national determination, sufficient to keep the United States intimidated between 1945 and the late 1980s. Less than 20 years ago influential American groups questioned whether democracy could really prevail against the Soviet challenge.

Russia has renewed leadership. It has Alexander Lebed in the wings, who wants to be a DeGaulle. It would be most unwise to conclude that Russia cannot again become a major international power. It has been one for the past 250 years.

The U.S. treats China with respect and caution. It deals with Russia today in a summary manner. Mr. Clinton will clap Boris Yeltsin on the back, and the press will be told how pally they are, but Moscow is aware that the U.S. considers itself in a position to do as it chooses in Central and Eastern Europe.

Those of Washington's allies in a mood to demur over NATO's expansion will be told that the issue before them is not NATO's future but rejecting the friendship of the United States -- or so Zbigniew Brzezinski advised the Senate in a March 5 briefing. Mr. Yeltsin will be told in Helsinki that NATO expansion is not open to discussion. The discussion will merely concern the modalities of Russia's acceptance of NATO expansion.

Buffer zone

Mr. Yeltsin will demand that expansion in no circumstances extend to countries once members of the old Soviet Union. If this were done, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus would be assigned to a buffer zone between NATO and Russia, their independent future implicitly compromised.

The U.S. will of course refuse to concede that any country can be excluded from NATO. Yet it will already have conceded this, since the countries left out now, who are on Russia's border, will have no choice but to search for individual accommodations with Russia.

The U.S. will say that NATO's expansion will resume in the future. But in the eyes of everyone, there will have been a new Yalta. The U.S. will have redrawn a line of political division in Europe between the states it is now prepared to defend and those excluded from its security guarantee.

I speak of the United States rather than of NATO because in this matter the other 15 NATO members will have little say. Expansion is the latest stage in a transformation of NATO that has been going on now for some time.

From the alliance of major and minor powers it formerly was, with a shared and clear military mission, NATO is being turned into an organizational extension of American political power in Europe. This is seen in Washington as part of a continuing and benevolent consolidation of democratic world forces under American leadership.

The change was made clear, paradoxically, during last year's negotiations over creating a ''European pillar'' in NATO and a new command structure. These ended in a strengthened U.S. position, and defeat for the French and other would-be reformers.

Neither the Senate nor the American public has yet awakened to the implications of expansion for America's own security. It is possible that the Senate will not extend military and nuclear guarantees to new members. That would provoke a crisis in U.S.- European relations, and a realignment of forces in Central Europe.

Senate opposition is the only thing that can stop the train of expansion. But a Senate failure to ratify expansion, once it began, would do more damage than expansion itself risks doing.

The strangest thing of all is that none of this was necessary, and whatever happens, in the end it will leave everyone less secure than they are now.

8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/19/97

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