PRESIDENT Clinton's plan for a NATO "partnership" with Eastern
Europe and Russia may sound like an advertising slogan; but it is
hard to overstate its importance. It is the first step toward
Eastern Europe's membership in NATO. United States Secretary of
State Warren Christopher also presented it in Budapest and Moscow
as a first step toward Russian membership in NATO.
The Clinton administration has taken what most people had
assumed would be a damage-to-Russia issue - expansion of NATO - and
turned it into a plus for Russia. After all of the ridicule heaped
on this administration's foreign policy, the White House deserves
applause for correcting the Bush administration's worst mistakes.
In December 1991 President Boris Yeltsin declared that Russia's
goal was to join NATO. Then-Vice President Alexander Rutskoi
declared the expansion of NATO inevitable and called on NATO for
stability as Russia withdrew forces from former East-bloc
The Bush administration did not respond, nor did NATO. The West
merely repeated that NATO would not offend Russia by expanding
eastward. Given circumstances and history, this was a strange
disinterest. Not surprisingly, Mr. Rutskoi began looking elsewhere
for other, less passive sources of stability. Russian diplomats
decided it would be undignified to offer to join NATO if they would
only get spurned for it.
Yet the East Europeans kept trying to join NATO. In 1992 and
1993 they wore down the resistance of NATO diplomats. But the
diplomatic circuit took its toll in return: It "whittled down"
the issue to one of gradual inclusion of Central Europe without
Russia. Russia warned that this would isolate it, and Mr. Yeltsin
insisted that Russia should be included at the same time as the
Finally, after two years of waiting, Yeltsin is getting a
positive response. He has welcomed the "partnership" plan. NATO's
doors are again opening. The whittling down of the proposal now
needs to be reversed. Even at its best, the partnership program is
still only a first step. It would be wise to start thinking now
about the next steps.
The schedules that have been discussed for admission of the East
European countries are tortoise-paced. The German defense minister
speaks of membership by the year 2000, and only for the Central
Europeans - even this is widely considered "too fast." Meanwhile,
the Easterners are undergoing revolutionary changes. At the present
pace, the entire opportunity could be lost before the West is ready
to act on it.
The Clinton administration's partnership plan has been treated
as if it were something that delays membership for Central Europe
even further. But actually, Clinton's plan removes the presumption
of Russian hostility and the sources of gridlock. Once the air
clears, it may be seen that targeting the year 2000 for membership
would be unreasonably slow.
Dilatoriness is also buttressed, however, by arguments about
"prerequisites." All manner of preconditions for NATO membership
have been dreamed up in the last couple of years.
While Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and Mr. …