SUNDAY evening, the heads of 35 nations of Europe and North America begin what some are billing as the peace conference that marks the end of the cold war division of Europe into East and West. This is only the second summit meeting in the 18-year history of a once-obscure affiliation - the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). It is the only major framework that spans the disintegrating East-West divide to give the Soviets and their former bloc members a voice in European affairs.
The leaders will conduct three main items of business next week. First, they will sign a treaty to scale down Soviet conventional forces in Europe roughly to the level of NATO forces. The member nations of NATO and the Warsaw Pact will sign a mutual non-aggression agreement. And CSCE will begin to become a full-fledged institution with regular meetings and a permanent secretariat based in Prague.
United States officials, more than any other major participants, are reluctant to grant the Paris conference too strong a role in shaping the new European order.
The Bush administration sees the shadows of both Versailles, where the humiliation of the defeated Germans led to bitter aggression later, and Yalta, where the Iron Curtain was drawn. It seeks neither to humiliate the Soviets nor to drop its guard against Soviet aggression.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev proposed the summit a year ago. The US agreed to attend only on the condition that the conventional-forces treaty was ready to sign.
Americans are prepared to strengthen CSCE but are skeptical that it is ready to take on any of the security concerns NATO now handles. Americans have stressed instead the notion that NATO can expand into the political arena.
Part of the American reluctance is practical. CSCE so far operates based on UN-style consensus; any of its 35 members can veto a decision.
But part of the American concern is political. The US dominates NATO, so is inclined to want to expand its range. CSCE is a larger and more diverse group.
``I think one has to be cautious about approaching CSCE that it not create illusions,'' says a senior Bush administration official. ``So there is some concern that we not be too grandiose'' in setting its scope and establishing its bureaucracy.
Perhaps the strongest new feature proposed for CSCE is a verification center, probably based in Vienna. The center would collect information on security around the continent. Eventually it might include a conflict-resolution center to help settle threats of violence and keep outbreaks from escalating.
In the West, enthusiasm for shifting international security concerns to CSCE has cooled since a year ago. The cooling is attributed to events from the headlong reunification of Germany to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's sobering reminder of the importance of military power.
``Every member of NATO wants to keep it,'' says Jenonne Walker, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former director of the State Department's Office of Theater Military Policy.
Yet she finds no enthusiasm in Europe for expanding NATO from the military into the political arena, as the Bush administration promotes. This is seen as an American power play, she says.
Most of Eastern Europe is eager to join an international framework that allows it to shed its long enclosure in the East bloc, according to Madeleine Albright, president of the Center for National Policy. Poland remains most attached to the NATO, Warsaw Pact arrangement of the Eastern nations because of its fear of German aggression.
From the beginning, CSCE was a Soviet initiative. Under President Carter, the US found it to be a useful forum for bringing human rights complaints against the Soviets under the Helsinki Final Act - a CSCE document.
Now, says Stanley Sloan, senior specialist in international security at the Congressional Research Service, the Soviets are desperate for a role in Europe and its security organizations. ``Only the US can give [CSCE] the strength they need from it,'' he adds.
``Gorbachev is looking for legitimacy,'' says Jay Kosminsky, deputy director for defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
The US ought to instead support CSCE membership for the Baltic and other Soviet Republics that seek independent membership, Mr. Kosminsky says.
The US does support Baltic membership publicly. But the support is passive, says Heritage Foundation European expert Douglas Seay, explaining that the US is more concerned not to upset the stability of an imploding Soviet Union than with supporting independence there.
The larger question for the Americans, says Jenonne Walker, is: ``Will the US continue to be dragged along [with CSCE]? Or continue to base its leadership of Europe on its declining need for protection against a Soviet surprise attack?''