WHEN NATO members approve a United States proposal for stalling Eastern Europe's entry into the Atlantic Alliance at their summit in Brussels next week, it will be with the full support of West European leaders.
Members of West Europe's European Union (EU) may have declared last year, with the entry into force of the Union's Maastricht Treaty, that they intend to build their own ``European'' defense identity. But EU leaders appear perfectly content - indeed relieved - to follow an American lead in stalling demands from Central and Eastern European countries for rapid integration into the Atlantic fold.
Foremost among West Europe's reasons is a desire, as stated by sources close to French President Francois Mitterrand, ``not to provoke the Russians'' at a delicate time in Russia's post-Soviet evolution. (East European view, Page 6.)
Nor do West European leaders mind letting President Clinton take the heat from East Europe's leaders when he meets with them in Prague, after the NATO summit, to explain the new ``Partnership for Peace.''
``Certainly Clinton will hear some unpleasant things in Prague,'' one French official says. ``But that's partly the Americans' fault'' for having encouraged the East Europeans in their hopes for quick NATO membership. ``France was always more prudent.''
But there are also reasons for satisfaction with the go-slow on NATO's expansion that are particular to certain countries. Britain is not eager to see any expansion of the Alliance that might dilute its ``Atlantic'' character and weaken the historical Anglo-American ``special relationship.''
For their part, the French want to avoid any extension of the US role in Europe that enlargement of the United States-led alliance would entail. France also wishes to develop its ``European pillar'' of the continent's defense, especially with the Clinton White House sounding more supportive of such plans than any previous US administration.
Even Germany, whose defense minister was the original Western force calling for NATO expansion, has toned down its position - especially after the attempted Russian putsch in October, and the strong showing of neo-imperialist parties in Russia's parliamentary elections in December.
``If the Europeans support this plan, it's because it fits nicely in the pattern of preserving as much as possible of the status quo,'' says Philipp Borinski, a specialist in security issues with the Research Group on European Affairs at the University of Mainz, Germany. ``The Germans may appear to be pushing a bit more, [but] I suspect they're really quite satisfied with this plan.''
Beyond the unanimous official endorsements, however, satisfaction with the membership delay is not universal. Some analysts say the ``partnership'' solution puts too much stock in a potential Russian threat and once again - after the EU's similar go-slow to the East on Union membership - sends the East the wrong signal.
Dr. Borinski himself says the plan is ``not wise at all.'' He worries it could lead to a ``self-fulfilling prophecy,'' where keeping the East out of the Alliance - and the EU - abets the kind of internal political tensions and economic underdevelopment that keeps Eastern Europe from qualifying for the Western institutions.Even if Eastern concerns about Russia are more ``phantasmic'' than real, as French security specialist Frederic Bozo says, NATO must pay more heed to the effect of such worries, he says.
For some private European analysts, the solution NATO should follow is to offer membership to Eastern Europeans - even while proposing to Russia a special security ``partnership'' as a sign of encouragement to the democratization process there and to address fears of an advancing NATO threat to Russia.
STILL, many analysts appear satisfied with the ``partnership'' NATO will offer to the East - one reason being that the Alliance may not be in a position to offer the security guarantees that membership would include.
``Membership would only be meaningful if it offered solid security guarantees,'' says Ole Diehl, a specialist in Eastern European security at the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Bonn. ``But if you look at the budget and manpower cuts programmed for the Alliance countries, it becomes clearly unrealistic to extend security guarantees when you can't implement them.''
Another problem, he says, is that offering membership to some in the East would have divided Eastern Europe between those ``under the Western blanket'' and those not, and could have increased instability.
Any European misgivings at NATO's summit are likely to come not over Eastern Europe, analysts say, but over the internal evolution of the alliance and recent US proposals to encourage a ``European identity'' within NATO. The US will propose creation of a ``Combined Joint Task Force'' that would put under European command forces for specific actions - presumably those in which the US did not wish to engage its troops.
The French see the proposal signaling a US shift away from its postwar supreme authority over European security. But other European leaders worry that it portends a US disengagement from Europe - or of the responsibilities the new ``separate but not separable'' forces, to quote American terminology, would demand.
``Certain countries will find it more comfortable to maintain an Alliance dominated by the US - and little demanding in terms of national contributions,'' says Mr. Bozo. Pronouncements for a ``European defense'' aside, he adds, some EU members may find the status quo more appealing than a Europe-led defense.