THE NATO summit meeting that concluded Jan. 11 in Brussels may be recorded as a somber turning point when the history of this decade is written. It could well mark the time when the young democracies of Central Europe, which have done almost everything that the United States and Western Europe wished of them since the end of the cold war, lost faith that they would receive something of great value in return.
The success of vitriolic nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his party in last month's Russian parliamentary elections should have sent a wake-up call to the US and Western Europe that dangerous scenarios still can be constructed on the eastern borders of NATO and that the alliance must act to prevent them.
The NATO summit offered an ideal opportunity to establish clear criteria and an explicit timetable for the expansion of alliance membership to include the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and perhaps Slovakia - countries too often sacrificed to geopolitical expediency in this century.
Instead, NATO leaders scrambled in the opposite direction, offering what an unnamed Clinton administration official described in the press as ``a frame on whose canvas we can paint whatever we want.'' In other words, they offered everything and nothing.
The canvas, invented in Washington and endorsed at the summit in Brussels, is called ``Partnership for Peace.'' Sadly, it does little more than give a name to existing initiatives with the former Warsaw Pact, promising occasional joint exercises and training opportunities. In its effort to be diplomatically correct, Partnership for Peace does not even differentiate between the increasingly successful democracies of Central Europe and the republics of the post-Soviet Union that teeter between civil war and fascism. All are offered the vague hope of NATO membership at some distant time, which is tantamount to no hope at all.
It still may not be too late for opponents of NATO's enlargement to take a close look at their logic. If, as some argue, nationalists inside and outside the Russian Army have popular support and are prospects for future leadership, then it is time for Europe and the US to signal the limits of their geopolitical tolerance. Would NATO really stand by while Russia renewed its military intimidation of Poland, a country that borders Germany, the world's third-largest economy and the linchpin of the European Union? If so, then NATO may as well disband tomorrow. If not, then what is stopping a clear demonstration of NATO's stake in Central Europe?
Others contend that Mr. Zhirinovsky is an electoral quirk who will fade away if NATO does not feed his rhetoric of foreign encirclement. That is appeasement. The appeal of Zhirinovsky and like-minded Russian leaders does not rest on facts and compelling logic. If anything, it rests on their image as individuals who can scare the daylights out of the ``devious'' West and earn Russia ``respect'' abroad.
NATO needs to show that it is not frightened but resolute. And it needs to demonstrate in practice that its intentions in Central Europe are purely defensive. Would the alliance rather wait to pursue enlargement until, during, or after Zhirinovsky's run for the Russian presidency, which surely will occur by 1996 at the latest? That would be bad timing.
Still other opponents of NATO enlargement contend that it would elevate minor relationships with Central Europe at the expense of stable US ties to post-Soviet Russia.
That argument assumes that enlargement would occur in an otherwise unchanged environment. Clearly, the admission of Central European countries to the alliance would need to be accompanied by a more energetic US partnership with reform-minded leaders in Moscow.
Bilateral US ties with Russia - the only other military power with Atlantic and Pacific borders - are vital and must be multifaceted, supported by significant amounts of financial assistance, and managed at the highest levels in Washington.
If there is to be a NATO Partnership for Peace, it should focus primarily on Russia and form part of Russia's broader integration with the West, probably including membership in the Group of Seven and other key global economic clubs.
Observers recently have discerned two competing Russian foreign policies. One is a policy of imperial reassertion in Russia's ``near-abroad,'' the regions of the ex-Soviet Union and ex-Warsaw Pact. This policy is run out of the Defense Ministry and endorsed by the likes of Zhirinovsky. The other is a policy of integration with the ``far-abroad'' - the US, Western Europe, and Asia - and disengagement from empire. It is run out of the Foreign Ministry. President Boris Yeltsin remains on the fence.
There is no question which of the two Russian foreign policies is in the better interests of the US. Yet Washington does little to support it. An excessive US military withdrawal from Europe and timid NATO responses to Central Europe hand victory to the Defense Ministry nationalists on a silver platter.
The US could still help the other side. A demonstration of resolve to enlarge NATO in the near future, a clearer message of solidarity with Russia's democrats, and an extension of meaningful economic and political partnerships to Moscow would strengthen Mr. Yeltsin's hand against those who argue that confrontation and nationalism are the best course.
Far from aggravating the tensions with Russia or complicating Yeltsin's relations with his right wing, a bolder NATO stance would fill the security vacuum in Central Europe and dampen the bluff and bluster of Russians such as Zhirinovsky. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.