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At Ground Zero in the Post Cold War World

May 25, 1997|Martin Walker | Martin Walker, a contributing editor to Opinion, is U.S. bureau chief of Britain's the Guardian and the author of "The President We Deserve: Bill Clinton's Rise, Falls and Comebacks" (Crown)

WASHINGTON — President Bill Clinton flies to Paris this week to seal the foreign-policy triumph of the decade, the formal acquiescence of Russia's President Boris N. Yeltsin to the American design of a redrawn map of Europe.

The end of the Cold War has been hailed at various moments since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This, in Clinton's view, is the new historical stage, and the future starts here--with the birth of the post-Cold War era.

"This is a fundamental departure from the way geopolitics have been practiced by nation-states. We are trying to write a future for Europe that will be different from its past," Clinton told me in an Oval Office interview Friday. "What we have done is to create a balance of power that restrains and empowers all those that come within the framework of the agreement. We have the capacity to create a new reality, to define our greatness in ways that do not entail the necessity of dominating our neighbors."

Yeltsin's signature on the Founding Act, which brings Russia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's councils, not only confounds foreign-policy gurus who said the Kremlin's opposition to NATO's enlargement could never be overcome; it is also, for the White House, the crucial landmark on Russia's bumpy post-Cold War journey into the strategic family of the West.

NATO has indeed been transformed. No longer the military alliance dedicated to the defense of Western Europe against a Soviet threat, it is becoming a transatlantic security system designed to include Russia, rather than isolate it.

That is the real echo of the original inspiration of NATO, and of America's grand strategy for the Cold War, devised 50 years ago. Its genius was to comprehend that stability in Europe and Asia would hinge on the nurturing of the wartime enemies, Germany and Japan, into democratized partners and allies for the future. And that, at last, is the promise of this new NATO to the old Cold War foe in Russia.

The implications of this development stretch far beyond Europe, to Beijing.

China has already complained of "a new containment" in America's restored diplomatic links to Vietnam, its strengthened security pact with Japan and last year's dispatch of two aircraft-carrier task forces to the Taiwan Strait. Russia's strategic decision to work with and in NATO, rather than oppose it, is a serious setback for Beijing.

It blocks, or at the least seriously hinders, China's attempt to play the Russian card in its diplomatic jockeying with the United States. With a series of state visits, arms and trade deals, and, most recently, a proclamation in Moscow by China's President Jiang Zemin of "a strategic partnership" with Russia, Beijing has courted its Eurasian neighbor.

This week's signing ceremony in Paris is the clearest evidence yet that Russia is shrugging aside this Chinese appeal and is prepared to go along with the U.S. policy of enlarging the traditional Atlantic alliance community to include Eastern Europe. The trick now for U.S. and NATO policy will be to consolidate this into a permanent Russian policy commitment. But, already, it has paved the way for the NATO summit in Madrid this summer to bring Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the alliance, with other Eastern European countries explicitly invited to join in the future.

Clinton insists this first round of NATO enlargement "will not be the last." Slovenia, Romania and traditionally neutral Austria seem likely candidates. The Baltic states, still the most neuralgic question for Moscow since they are former Soviet republics, remain the critical problem, since it is hard to see how any military guarantee to them could be made meaningful unless and until Sweden and Finland drop their neutrality and join the alliance. The more NATO becomes the transatlantic security system, rather than the old military alliance, the easier that will be.

If the NATO enlargement process continues unfolding to plan, it stabilizes Russian's European frontier. It has already got the Russian officer corps into the beguiling habit of working with NATO, building on the remarkably successful experiment of incorporating Russian military units into a NATO command structure and a U.S. army division in the Bosnian peacekeeping operation.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, with understandable hyperbole, has said the creation of NATO in 1949 was the great achievement of Harry S. Truman's presidency, and that Clinton's success in securing NATO's enlargement fulfills Truman's vision. But this is more than a grand project of Democratic presidents. It completes George Bush's historic promise at Mainz, in May 1989, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, that U.S. foreign policy would secure "a Germany whole and free in a Europe whole and free."

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