Map of Europe Redrawn at Summit in Madrid: Will U.S. Avoid Serious Mistakes in Past Efforts?

Article excerpt

MADRID - It used to happen every 50 years or so: The great powers would meet for a congress, solemnly redraw the map of Europe and then go home boasting they had brought peace for half-a-century or so.

The system worked for a while. Its greatest triumphs were the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the Congress of Berlin in 1878.

Then Neville Chamberlain fed Czechoslovakia to Hitler at Munich in 1938, saying he had secured "peace in our time" - a phrase from the Church of England's "Book of Common Prayer" - but setting the stage for the hell of World War II.

It's taken 60 years for European congresses to come back into fashion.

But last week's NATO conference in the splendid IFEMA conference complex north of Madrid certainly fitted the bill. In theory, it was just the regular business-as-usual meeting of the 16 foreign ministers of the member nations of the North Atlantic alliance.

Just another so-called "June-ministerial" in the cosy cycle of regular alliance business over the past 48 years. Nothing unusual about that.

ECHOES OF 1919

But the heads of state of Europe, both East and West, didn't treat it that way. They all came here, not just the NATO leaders, but the heads of state and prime ministers of virtually all nine wanna-be nations clamoring to join the alliance.

Eduard Shevardnadze was here from former Soviet Georgia; Heydar Aliyev from Azerbaijan, Levon Ter-Petrosian from Armenia, even Alexander Lukashenko from Belarus, the one current European leader to have commented favorably on Adolf Hitler.

Because of this star-studded turnout, Madrid seemed more like Paris Peace Conference of 1919 than any gathering before or since.

Like the Paris Peace Conference, which culminated in the Treaty of Versailles, the NATO meeting here was a celebratory peace conference designed to draw up new security arrangements for all of Europe after a long war.

The Paris Conference settled the Great War. The Madrid meeting wraps up the Cold War. The 1919 meeting was probably the last gathering to have so many leaders of obscure groups and republics that had just attained independence, or hoped to.

AMERICANS TAKE LEAD

In both cases, the star of the show was a president of the United States hoping to settle the problems of Europe: Thomas Woodrow Wilson then, and William Jefferson Clinton now.

There was an echo in many of the small nations and ethnic groups attending both conferences. The Czechs were invited to join NATO at Madrid. Seventynine years earlier in Paris, they won their independence after 300 years in the Hapsburg empire.

But in 1919, the Czechs convinced Wilson and his eager team of map drawers to include Slovakia, a neighboring land with no history of Czech overlordship. The Slovaks never stopped resenting the shotgun marriage.

This time, Slovakia came as an independent nation itself. But American leaders in 1997 are as in love with the Czechs and as deaf to the Slovaks as their predecessors four generations ago.

Then, the charismatic Tomas Masaryk wooed and won President Wilson's assent to self-determination for the Czechs. Neither leader gave a thought to the Slovaks.

At Madrid, Czech President Vaclav Havel showed equal skill at wooing President Clinton and his Czech-born Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. His reward was to win first-wave entry into NATO for Prague.

Neither Mr. Clinton nor Mrs. Albright paid any attention here to the Slovaks. No one expects them to be in the second wave of NATO expansion, either.

THE CONSEQUENCES LINGER

Poland won its independence at the Paris Peace Conference and NATO membership here in Madrid. The year after the Versailles Treaty, the Poles had to fight Russia to keep their independence. Now they have a North Atlantic Alliance behind them and calmer prospects. …