WHEN NATO looks East, it sees two contrasting pictures: the dawn of an era of cooperation between former enemies and a dangerous period of uncertainty and unpredictability.It is alarmed by the second picture, and is trying to keep the new enemy, instability in the East, in check by forming as many links to the region as it can. Its strategy is to help these countries by passing on NATO's democratic traditions. This can be as basic as explaining how to restructure armed forces so that they are purely for defense purposes or reviewing what the relationship between armed forces and civilians is in a democracy. Until recently, the forum for channeling ideas like this has been a loose liaison between the Atlantic Alliance and members of the former Warsaw Pact. But last Friday, NATO cemented this relationship by launching the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), made up of NATO members, former Warsaw Pact members, and the Baltic states. Unlike the liaison arrangement, the NACC will involve regular meetings of foreign ministers and ambassadors and will draw up a work agenda. However, for all its attempts to support reform in the East, NATO can't keep up with the pace of change, especially in the new Commonwealth of Independent States. After US Secretary of State James Baker III visited five of the former Soviet republics last week, he spoke of the "dangers" caused by the breakup of old structures, a chief one being the uncertain future of the republics' nuclear arsenal. NATO Secretary General Manfred Worner said the possibility of nuclear arms reaching third-world countries was particularly worrisome. For the moment, alliance members have to be satisfied with promises from Russian President Boris Yeltsin and presidents of the Commonwealth states that nuclear weapons will be under one safe, central command; that they won't be exported; and that arms agreements will be adhered to. These promises hardly assure the alliance members, though Mr. Worner found some comfort in Mr. Yeltsin's surprise message last week that Russia would like eventually to be admitted to NATO. "It's a very positive message as to the role which NATO plays" in Moscow's eyes, he said. The alliance, he added, has "taken note of" Russia's interest in NATO membership. The Central and East European states, long advocates of NATO membership, did not push the point in Brussels last week. They say they are satisfied for now with the increasing contact between their countries and NATO. Poland's foreign minister, Krzysztof Skubiszewski, said of Friday's historic meeting: "Today was an important step forward, increasing the sense of security on the part of the Central European countries." Membership has become a back-burner issue, not only because NATO is clearly not going to take steps in this direction any time soon, but also because of an ambiguous statement which the Central and East European countries are interpreting in its most positive meaning for them. This statement, in which NATO says that the security of the states to the East is "inextricably linked" to that of NATO, is read by many states in the East to mean that NATO would intervene. "NATO is quite clear that [our] security is indivisible," said Hungarian Foreign Minister Geza Jeszenszky on Friday. "So I think, quite clearly, this extends to us." NATO, however, says the statement is not to be equated with "security guarantees." With events unfolding as they are, NATO may have to clear up this ambiguity sooner than it wants.