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Rethinking NATO: Giving Everyone a Seat at the Table : Alliance: Clinton should look to the 1815 Concert of Europe as his model. Including Russia as part of the new security community is the key.

January 16, 1994|Charles William Maynes | Charles William Maynes is editor of Foreign Policy magazine

WASHINGTON — The past week may convince Bill Clinton that his most recent predecessors were right: Foreign policy is every President's strong suit. It offers political escape, personal prestige and policy dominance.

Before his trip to Europe, the President was on the defensive. The Whitewater affair was stalking him politically. Health-care reform was under attack by some Democrats and all the various interest groups. His nominee for defense secretary turned out not to have paid Social Security for his maid. And critics denounced as inadequate the Administration's "Partnership for Peace" proposal, which denied the Eastern Europeans security guarantees against aggression while allowing Russia, as well as the Eastern European countries, to establish closer ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Eastern European leaders vied to heap scorn on the proposal before it had even been presented. The French were threatening to rain on the President's European parade by pressing Clinton at the NATO meeting for military commitments on Bosnia he did not want to make.

Then came the Brussels trip. Suddenly, a man known as Bill Clinton at home was presented to the world as William J. Clinton. The man known at home as the Democratic occupant of the White House was transformed abroad into the President of all Americans. The headlines abruptly turned favorable. Foreign carping ceased. The Eastern Europeans signed on to "Partnership for Peace." The French compromised on Bosnia. The President announced an agreement among Russia, Ukraine and the United States that will lead to the destruction of nuclear-tipped missiles on Ukrainian soil now targeted against the United States.

In short, it was a pretty good week. How did such a reversal of fortune occur?

One reason is that, in the final analysis, the East and West Europeans really had no choice but to follow the American lead. The Eastern Europeans may have wanted formal security guarantees and immediate entry into NATO. But if they could not get these, were they going to turn down closer military ties with the West?

The Western Europeans may have wanted to press the Americans to become more engaged militarily in the Bosnian imbroglio. Yet, if Clinton had said the United States was willing to take decisive measures militarily, would they have followed?

But the most important reason for the President's triumph last week is: He was more right than his critics about his "Partnership for Peace" proposal.

The critics contend that a historic opportunity may be lost. They worry that NATO must be "out of area or out of business." They urge, in the words of Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, that NATO "project stability beyond NATO's current borders;" that it engage in crisis management and peacekeeping, and that it "lay the foundation for the integration of the East through expanded membership." But it is highly questionable whether the expansion of NATO could accomplish any of this.

Eastern Europe had common borders with the Soviet Union but does not with Russia. Stability is threatened in that region not because of a threatened Russian attack but because of boiling ethnic and economic conflicts.

Leaders of Slovakia have made it clear that the reason they want to enter NATO is not because they fear an attack from Russia but from Hungary, which is troubled over the plight of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia. Hungary is also troubled by discrimination against Hungarians in Romania. Poland recently revived the fortunes of former communists because of the economic effects of shock therapy.

Farther east, there are legitimate concerns about relations with Russia, but no one is proposing to extend NATO to the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine because that would clearly trigger an immediate Russian reaction.

Nor would an expanded NATO be better equipped to engage in crisis management or peacekeeping than the current NATO. It would still be ineffective in Bosnia for the same reasons: Because no major state wants to send large numbers of troops into combat to end what is largely a civil war. That reality will not change if Polish or Czech defense ministers sit at the table in Brussels.

Could the inclusion of the Eastern European states into NATO "lay the foundation for their integration into the West?" What the Eastern Europeans need is entry into the European Union. Postponing full membership, the EU has signed association agreements with several Eastern European states in the past two years. But EU members have delayed ratification for months. Portugal has claimed it was short of translators. Belgium has complained about "internal procedural problems." France cites legal difficulty. And Germany has been held hostage by the doctor's lobby, which objects vehemently to a provision that permits Eastern European doctors to practice in Germany. The EU now enjoys a trade surplus with impoverished Eastern Europe.

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