PRESIDENT Clinton is scheduled to leave tomorrow for Europe on his third and most ambitious trip abroad as president.
The trip comes at a difficult time for Mr. Clinton, whose mother died early yesterday morning. At this writing, however, his European itinerary is going forward unchanged.
The stakes that turn on this trip were neatly dramatized by last month's Russian elections. The wave of votes for the party of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky sent a clear signal that market reform and democracy are not coming along comfortably in the East.
``We're at a moment of extraordinary strategic importance,'' said a senior White House official this week. Some of the historic questions the adviser cites are:
* Whether market and democratic reform will continue in the former East bloc.
* Whether border states will be able to trust Russia as a good neighbor.
* Whether Ukraine will give up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons.
* Whether Central Europe must look ``to the East in fear or to the West in confidence.''
* What shape NATO, the most successful strategic alliance in history, will take.
* What the world trade agenda will be now that the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is concluded.
Mr. Clinton's trip begins with a NATO summit meeting in Brussels. He then flies to Prague to meet with leaders of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary - countries he wants to help integrate into the West without isolating Russia.
He then goes to Moscow for a strong public show of support for President Boris Yeltsin and his reforms. White House officials hope Clinton can make contact with many reformers from outside Moscow while there, but he has refused to meet with Mr. Zhirinovsky.
Next weekend, Clinton plans a few hours in Minsk, Belarus. The stop is a form of appreciation to Belarus for agreeing to give up the nuclear weapons on its soil. The White House has been negotiating with Ukrainian officials in Washington this week, trying to get them to take the same step. Administration aides say that Clinton will not meet with Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk in Moscow unless solid progress is made.
Clinton's last stop, on Sunday, January 16, is a meeting in Geneva with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.The central effort of the Clinton trip will be to strengthen ties to Eastern Europe by blurring the boundaries of NATO, the club Eastern Europeans most want to join.
What administration officials have stressed all week is that they want to avoid drawing new lines of division in Europe. While many nations in Central Europe want to secure their membership in the West with NATO membership, American officials and those of many other NATO countries want to avoid any clear-cut in-or-out status among would-be new members.
A major reason is that an enlarged NATO whose bounds include former Soviet satellites, and even former Soviet republics, could threaten Russian conservatives and promote reaction against President Boris Yeltsin and his reforms. The bottom line is that Russia could eventually strike out once again to expand its territory.
The US-promoted solution that NATO will propose next week is called Partnerships for Peace. It is an invitation to all former Warsaw Pact nations, all the former Soviet Republics, and Europe's neutral countries to enter a cooperative relationship with NATO.
It is not NATO membership, and it does not guarantee eventual NATO membership. But it is preparation for eventual NATO membership, says a senior White House official. Entering the partnership would oblige the countries to commit to democracy, peaceful resolution of international disputes, civilian control of the military, transparent (nonsecret) defense budgets, and a military compatible with NATO.
In return, partnership members would be brought in to NATO planning committees, participate in NATO missions, and generally develop habits of cooperation both with NATO members and with each other. They also would have a commitment from NATO for consultation if they face an immediate threat.
``It's really a very clever ploy/solution,'' says Catherine Kelleher, a European security specialist at the Brookings Institution. ``It buys time for the administration and the West European governments.'' She estimates that three or four years will pass before NATO members need to make further decisions about new members. Right now, she says, ``the nasty secret is that no one except some Germans want to open up'' NATO.
The Partnerships for Peace is proving a harder sell with the East. Two American emissaries, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili and Ambassador to the United Nations Madeline Allbright, are now in Europe pitching the proposal.