AT NATO headquarters today, Czechoslovakia's President Vaclav Havel is expected to seek closer ties to the Atlantic alliance. It is the first visit of a leader of a former Warsaw Pact country to the alliance's central offices in Brussels. Feeling adrift and without any security guarantees, the Eastern European states are casting about for an anchor. Now that the military alliance of the Warsaw Pact has broken up, some politicians, such as members of the Polish lawmakers, would like NATO to grant their country an associate membership.
But, says a NATO diplomat, "there is no halfway house" in guaranteeing full, mutual security, as NATO is set up to do. Still, "there is endless room for expansion [of ties] short of membership," he adds.
As a result of the NATO summit last July, a liaison has been established between the Atlantic alliance and members of the former Warsaw Pact countries via their embassies in Brussels. This communication channel is apparently heavily traveled, at the moment being used mostly for briefings, such as the results of the United States secretary of state's recent Middle East trip.
But the relationship between NATO and Eastern Europe could easily evolve, says the NATO diplomat, from one of sharing information to "real consultation," in which NATO seeks the opinion of Eastern European countries on such themes as the development of the 34-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
There is also room to develop military-to-military contacts with Eastern European countries, whose armed forces have led an isolated existence for decades, the diplomat says. And then there are NATO's less-known activities, in fields such as science and the environment, which could benefit Eastern Europe.
Talking about NATO membership now "is indeed premature," Mr. Havel said earlier this month. NATO, unwilling to antagonize the Soviets, is not interested in expanding its membership, which would also change its identity. And, said Havel, his country could not handle the financial burden of being a NATO partner.
The options, then, Havel said, are to set up a series of bilateral agreements with Poland, Hungary, the Soviet Union, and Germany, and for more cooperation and support from NATO, "which is the only [security] association in Europe at present which is really in working order."
NATO "is making sympathetic noises and giving encouragement," says Michael Dewar, assistant director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Although he sees this as mostly rhetoric, "atmospherics are very important." The Eastern European nations need to feel that the West is behind them.
Security specialists agree that Eastern Europe will have to put up with an unclear security outlook for some time to come. However, they don't see this as particularly dangerous.
"The Soviet Union is a blunted superpower," says Mr. Dewar. "It has far too much on its plate to pose a foreseeable threat."
And other problems in Eastern Europe, such as rising nationalism and miserable economies, are of a sort that NATO membership, or even some kind of observer status in NATO, could not solve, anyway.