NATO Membership Would Aid Democracy in Russia
Ira L. Straus. Ira L. Straus is Us coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia ., The Christian Science Monitor
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 countries.
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 East Europeans.
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. …