PARIS AND BONN — If the term "whirlwind tour" weren't already part of the language, it would be coined to describe the nine-city round of capitals, including Bonn, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, and Beijing, the new United States secretary of state has undertaken.
The most important part of the journey, however, may be what Madeleine Albright is calling "the road to Madrid."
The Spanish capital is not on her tour, which ends on Feb. 25. But it will be the site of one of the most momentous decisions since the end of the cold war: the July selection of a few East European nations - former Soviet allies - for entry into NATO.
On this tour, Ms. Albright aims to rally European allies and reassure Moscow that an expanded NATO will not be a humiliation or a threat to Russia.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, former members of the now-dissolved Warsaw Pact have been seeking closer ties with the Western alliance. They want full acceptance as Western democracies, and they remain concerned about the military threat from even a much-weakened Russia.
NATO has been struggling for years now with how to offer these countries membership in the club without provoking Russia. The naming of a short list of prospective new NATO members - sure to include Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary - will inevitably send a signal to those not on the list.
Hence the need for close consultation with NATO partners in the crucial months before Madrid.
While US diplomats have been careful to avoid lobbying for candidates, other European partners have not. France, for example, is publicly backing Romania's candidacy. On Feb. 17, a new Bulgarian government announced for the first time that nation's desire to join NATO.
In addition to reassuring those left out of the first round of NATO expansion, US diplomats have also been eager to smooth over prickly relations within the alliance, especially with France.
Relations between the US and France soured into public insults last year, after Washington rejected French demands that a European take over NATO's Southern Command, which includes the US Sixth Fleet. France had threatened to block NATO expansion until the issue was resolved.
But in Paris Feb. 17, the new mood was upbeat and cordial. French Foreign Minister Herv de Charette said he aimed to dispel "clouds" in US-French relations and greeted his new American counterpart with a four-cheek kiss - a special sign of respect.
Albright returned the favor by frequent recourse to what French observers described as "nearly flawless" French.
The key sticking point in French-American relations - NATO's Southern Command - was not resolved, but French diplomats say that the issue will not block progress at Madrid. French diplomats also played down their calls for a mini-summit in the runup to Madrid.
Germany, keen to ensure peace and stability on its eastern borders, was an early and fervent supporter of NATO enlargement. But more recently, the drum-banging for swift enlargement has come from Washington.
German analysts say this is a bid to build support for NATO enlargement in the US, especially within Congress. The Clinton administration "has to make the point [for NATO expansion] very strongly or it won't be able to get what it wants. The absolute worst case would be to sit down and get the protocols of an agreement signed on both sides, and then have it fail in the Senate," says Klaus Becher, senior research fellow at the German Society for Foreign Policy.
All these concerns make Albright, described by one Berlin newspaper as "the strong woman from Washington," a figure of interest for Germans.
French commentators also praised her for her grasp of European issues. "This daughter of a Czech diplomat, whose country was abandoned by democracies too cowardly to face Hitler, is an interventionist without complexes," comments the conservative daily Le Figaro. "She will ensure that the US assumes the responsibilities inherent in its status."
Albright's visit comes at the end of a busy week for Moscow, in which the German and Italian foreign ministers also visited in a concerted effort to convince Russia that NATO expansion does not pose a threat to its security.
Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov offered a new suggestion Feb. 16 as to what it would take to reassure Russia. In a televised interview, he said that some of Moscow's concerns could be met by revising the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty so as to limit or ban the movement of forces from one NATO state to another.
But he stood firm by his insistence that under the NATO-proposed charter that would govern relations with Russia, Moscow should have the same veto power as any full NATO member over issues affecting its interests. Western officials have shown no signs of readiness to agree to this.
Speaking at NATO headquarters in Brussels Feb. 18, Albright proposed a joint military brigade between NATO and Russia. "We recognize that Russian leaders oppose the enlargement of our alliance and that this is not likely to change. But neither will we change," she said. "Our alliance is a positive alliance; it is not directed against any nation; and it need not be feared by any nation that does not seek first to instill fear in others."
* Peter Ford in Moscow contributed to this report.