Of the Clinton-Yeltsin summit, Americans...

IN THE AFTERMATH

March 22, 1997

IN THE AFTERMATH of the Clinton-Yeltsin summit, Americans ought to be more concerned than ever about the implications of the U.S. decision to push ahead with the eastward expansion of NATO. While attention focuses on Russia's continued opposition this development, the greater danger may lie in U.S. military commitments to the defense of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic that lack muscle and credibility.

President Boris Yeltsin, describing the "parameters" of a proposed NATO-Russia security charter, said, for one thing, that it would require "non-proliferation of nuclear weapons to new members." This is something Americans need not worry about since missiles stationed in Western Europe (as well as the U.S.) can easily strike the Russian heartland.

What should alarm Americans was Mr. Yeltsin's further assertion that the charter provides for "the non-use of the military infrastructure which remains in place after the Warsaw Pact in those countries of Central and Eastern Europe." If NATO cannot use the airfields, barracks, electronic facilities and other military assets of its new members, then how can it fulfill NATO's fundamental undertaking to come to the defense of any member state under attack?

President Clinton indicated at the close of the Helsinki summit that his signature on the proposed NATO-Russian charter will be sufficient, that approval by Congress will not be required. If true, FTC this should sound alarm bells on Capitol Hill, especially in light of the administration's earlier assurance that no Western forces will be permanently stationed in the Alliance's new eastern sector. Is NATO's enlargement wise? And if so, will its eastern defense shield be too flimsy?

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There is, of course, an understandable rationale for Mr. Clinton's approach. By pushing ahead with NATO expansion, he can counter Republican charges that he has dragged his feet on this highly debatable initiative. And by keeping to a minimum the actual U.S. presence in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, he can avoid the staggering costs that would be required by a full forward-basing strategy.

This is too serious an initiative to be left entirely to the discretion of the executive branch. Congress has an obligation, woefully shirked so far, to hold extensive hearings on the NATO move eastward and to insist on some form of legislative approval. The study should be done quickly, before the U.S. is irrevocably committed to a course that puts NATO forces at risk, provokes xenophobic impulses in Russia and undermines some of the peaceful promise associated with the end of the Cold War.

In an attempt to mitigate the bitterness of the dispute over NATO expansion, President Clinton wisely offered Russia membership this year in the Group of Seven (soon to be Eight) industrial powers and U.S. support for its entry into the World Trade Organization next year.

He also pledged government guarantees for greater U.S. investment in the Russian private sector. This was a reward for Mr. Yeltsin's government shake-up just before the summit to put economic reformers in power. The Russian leader was quick to deny it was a "poker chip" to offset his disappointment over the NATO question.

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On nuclear arms control, there was an attempt by the two presidents to break out of a nagging stalemate. Under the terms of the START II strategic arms reduction treaty, Russia would have to spend billions of scarce rubles if it wished to have the full, permitted number of single-warhead missiles in place of its present multi-warhead arsenal. So Mr. Clinton offered to extend the deadline to 2007, this in expectation that there would be a START III treaty that would make such a perverse buildup unnecessary and reduce nuclear arsenals to only one-fifth of their Cold War peak.

Any progress, however, would depend on the approval of a Russian Duma angered by NATO expansion and an American Senate where there is significant opposition to administration policies, including Mr. Clinton's restated support of the 1972 ABM anti-ballistic missile treaty. So U.S. legislative input is strong where it could be detrimental (on nuclear policy) and weak where it is needed (on NATO expansion.)

With a NATO summit in Madrid due this summer, the momentum confirmed at Helsinki probably cannot be stopped. The Atlantic Alliance is to advance closer to Russia's borders. But while there is still time, President Clinton needs to pursue the somewhat contradictory two-pronged approach of trying to ease Russian fears while injecting greater credibility into the West's new military commitments.

Pub Date: 3/22/97

The Clinton-Yeltsin summit; Disagreement on NATO: Will Alliance's expansion eastward be credible?

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