FOR THOSE who believe that Europe's problems are best tackled by inventing new acronyms and institutions, the good times are back. Last week, ministers from member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation presented the East Europeans with a grand plan for security co-operation. Tomorrow Boris Yeltsin will have a chance to feel the vision when he meets Nato's senior officials in Brussels.
Entitled "Partnership for Peace" (P for P in military parlance), the plan, originally concocted by the United States, proposes a series of agreements with all former Communist states, offering assistance in training, peacekeeping operations and even joint military manoeuvres.
A tiny snag remains, however. While all Western governments have expressed satisfaction, most East Europeans - whose problems the proposals are meant to address - have given them the sort of reception most people reserve for their tax inspector: they promised to sign on the dotted line, but wondered about the consequences.
P for P should really stand for "Plan for Prevarication". Almost everything now offered by Nato has been offered before and failed to persuade anyone. As the leading German commentator, Christoph Bertram, remarked, the Alliance's current scheme is intended merely to keep "the Russians happy and the East Europeans hoping".
The reasons offered by the West for opposing Nato's eastward expansion vary from the harmlessly nave to the outright duplicitous. Those who wish to duck the issue argue that, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet empire, it is impossible to define Europe's frontiers and say which countries fall within it. And those who tell the East Europeans that, with the end of Communism, they have nothing more to fear, insist in the same breath that Nato should be maintained to protect the West. The most fervent believers in a Europe "whole and free" are also the continent's greatest dividers.
Nato bureaucrats fear that admitting new states would embroil the alliance in many Yugoslav-type conflicts and saddle the organisation with myriad social and economic problems. In fact, the countries that have disintegrated since the end of Communism (Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) are the exceptions, rather than an indication of things to come: in all three, the very nature of the multi-ethnic state was questioned. Other East European countries certainly have ethnic minority problems, but disintegration is not one of them. Western governments may be toppled for failing to lift local economies from mere zero- growth levels, but East Europeans have suffered a drop of more than a third in their living standards without any street violence. Tyres are burnt and airports closed by protesting workers in Paris and Brussels, not Warsaw or Budapest; terrorism is a feature of Northern Ireland, the Basque country and Corsica, not Silesia or Transylvania.
Nato officials also like to claim that offering East Europeans security guarantees is counter-productive because similar guarantees offered in the Thirties failed to prevent these countries being occupied. But the lesson of the Thirties is not that security guarantees are unwarranted but that promises not backed up by deeds are worthless. Arguing that Nato cannot uphold any security guarantees is tantamount to suggesting that today's leaders are no better than Neville Chamberlain. And far from requiring security guarantees, the East Europeans want genuine burden-sharing. They are not worthless supplicants: whenever their security needs were ignored in the past, all Europe was ultimately plunged into disaster.
For four years the East Europeans have been offered make-believe institutions. The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe was the first, but it remained an irrelevant umbrella for …