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NEWS ANALYSIS

NATO-Russia Pact a Victory for Clinton

May 15, 1997|TYLER MARSHALL and JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The agreement reached in Moscow on Wednesday binding Russia and the Atlantic alliance in a new, formal relationship stands as a clear victory for proponents of NATO enlargement and, by definition, for President Clinton.

"The agreement . . . forms a practical partnership between NATO and Russia that will make America, Europe and Russia stronger and more secure," Clinton told reporters Wednesday.

Even ardent opponents of extending America's nuclear defense commitments deep into Central Europe applauded the accord as an important step.

"A breakthrough," said French defense specialist Francois Heisbourg, an outspoken critic of North Atlantic Treaty Organization enlargement. "Everybody is better off with the Russians accepting to be part of this process rather than sulking in their corner. That said, it is still not clear why NATO needs to expand."

At best, the accord offers a start for a new era of cooperation between Moscow and NATO, adversaries who engaged in a nuclear standoff for the better part of five decades and who have circled each other warily in the years since the end of the Cold War.

Creation of a permanent Joint NATO-Russia Council would give Moscow a presence at alliance headquarters in Brussels and, at least potentially, add a new dimension to European security matters.

"The political effect of this council could be important," noted Frederick Bonnart, editor of NATO Sixteen Nations, an independent magazine published in Brussels that follows alliance affairs. "For example, a NATO-Russia council appeal to stop fighting in Bosnia would carry much more weight than an appeal from NATO alone."

At worst, Wednesday's agreement makes Russia an accomplice to the expansion process it has so intensively resisted and commits it, however reluctantly, to a working relationship with an enlarging NATO--an alliance that the United States sees as the key to preserving peace in Europe.

It also brings troubling questions raised by enlargement one step closer to the front burner: How much will the humiliation of Moscow's having to accept enlargement weaken Russia's beleaguered democratic forces? What is Moscow's trouble-making potential once it has a voice, albeit no veto, in NATO affairs? What will happen to Moscow's relations with prospective NATO member countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic?

Whatever the answers, European security specialists believe that failure to establish some kind of working link with Russia in advance of enlargement would have diminished NATO as a force for European stability and strengthened the arguments of enlargement's opponents--arguments that claim expansion will turn Russia against the West and merely replace Europe's old divisions with new ones.

For Clinton, Wednesday's agreement brings the premier foreign policy initiative of his presidency a significant step closer to reality. It weakens anti-expansion arguments, and it is likely to play well in the Senate, which must ratify the admission of any new members.

The agreement seems likely to ease concerns of some members of Congress that enlargement would generate a dangerous new break between Russia and the West.

An important element of administration strategy has been to simultaneously embrace Russia on a series of other issues, such as inviting it to next month's Denver meeting of the Group of 7 industrial nations as a full partner.

In a related move, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday evening unanimously approved a change in the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty that will allow Russia to position more tanks and armored vehicles along its northern and southern borders.

Marshall reported from Washington and Dahlburg reported from Paris.

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