NATO in 1997 and Beyond

All agree that Russia must be a part of the new European security structure

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Slowly, and with considerable grinding of gears, the Atlantic community is moving toward a security design for post-cold-war Europe. Nearly 50 years ago, the Soviet threat made it relatively easy to improvise NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Now that menace is gone, leaving a cacophony of awkward, divisive questions.

Is NATO still needed? If so, what should be its form, mission, membership, and scope? No one seriously opposes its existence - not applicants, members, or even the Russian Federation, successor to NATO's old adversary, the Soviet Union. Moscow wants to reduce American influence in Europe; so does France, for its own reasons. All the others find comfort in the presence of the American power that defeated the Nazi-fascist Axis, then revived Western Europe and kept it secure until the Soviet regime collapsed.

Eighty years of experience, down to the Bosnian war and the Dayton accords that ended it, has shown that Europe needs American political and military strength for stability and peace. The US is perforce a European power. NATO is the keystone of the Atlantic community.

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NATO must adapt to changed circumstances. The sharpest controversy is over expanding its membership into Central Europe after the web of Soviet occupation. Moscow protests that the alliance is a cold-war contrivance, still directed and intended to isolate Russia. It professes to see the admission first of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, planned for NATO's 50th anniversary in April 1997, as a hostile move. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin recently declared, "We are firmly opposed to plans to move NATO military infrastructure up to our borders."

There are no such plans, unless he considers the former Soviet Union's western boundary to be "our borders." Poland does adjoin the strange little Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, the former German Konigsberg plus a bit of East Prussia, but Poland's real eastern neighbor is Belarus. Hungary touches Ukraine, and the Czechs are completely removed.

Assurances for Russia

Russia already has the assurance that NATO will base neither nuclear weapons nor foreign troops on new members' territory. It is understood that the Baltic states, a sensitive area for the Russians, will not be brought into the alliance. NATO has drastically cut its troop levels and military budgets. US troops in Germany have been reduced by 65 percent. NATO's nuclear strength has been cut by more than 80 percent. The once-massive ground formations are being reconfigured for rapid reaction to local conflicts or humanitarian emergencies. Russian soldiers are in NATO's IFOR in Bosnia. All agree that Russia must be a part of the new European security structure.

The West does well to take Russian objections into account, even if not at face value. In this delicate period of adjustment, pushing the Russians around could help nationalist demagogues exploit people's feelings of alienation and humiliation.

For all the consideration that it is both wise and politic to extend to Moscow, however, Russia must understand that it cannot veto a Western policy of vital import. NATO was formed as a military alliance to deter aggression and preserve the peace. That remains its purpose at a time when threats to peace arise in new forms, urgently demanding imaginative political rather than military response. The fundamental reason to expand into Central Europe is expressed in the fact that nations there clamor for admission. They are not being recruited, let alone dragged in.

Confidence from NATO

Russia is on the road to democracy. Its armed forces are tattered and demoralized. Central Europe does not need NATO as a bulwark. It needs the confidence that association brings - the sense of security, the key to Europe's recovery after 1945. After generations on the eastern edge of Europe (remember Neville Chamberlain in 1938 on Czechoslovakia, "that faraway country of which we know so little"), the people of the region want an unmistakable European identity, not as doormats in a gray zone between clashing great powers.

There is reason to worry about danger from the East. Poles remember Stalin and Hitler attacking and carving up their country in 1939; Czechs will not forget the Soviets crushing their democracy in 1948 and then invading to stamp out "socialism with a human face" 20 years later; nor will Hungary ever wipe from its memory the picture of Soviet tanks in the streets of Budapest in 1956. Reminded that Russia today is powerless, they reply that Russia recovered from the Crimean War and resumed its expansion. It picked itself up again quickly after the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Completely on the ropes in 1917, defeated and dismembered, it came back more powerful and aggressive than ever as the Soviet Union. When a prominent member of the Duma recently urged Central European countries to be neutral, with a Russian guarantee, many saw Russia staking out options for the future.

The Russians are a dynamic people and will once more recover from adversity. The Germans survived their catastrophe to emerge in a new role, not again as a loose cannon but as an integral part of a secure Europe inside the Atlantic community. Russia also must learn its limits and the advantages cooperation holds over conquest. Partnership is the name of the game, and where Europe is concerned, good relations between Russia and NATO is one of the first lessons for both sides.

Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS News, currently writes on world affairs.

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