ONE day after NATO leaders made a historic shift in orientation toward the East, President Clinton arrived in Central Europe to make the pitch in person.
He left the following day - yesterday - with strong indication that one and possibly more of the alliance's former enemies would begin steps toward a relationship.
Mr. Clinton walked the narrow cobbled streets of medieval Prague with Czech President Vaclav Havel to a boisterous pub frequented by Czech intellectuals. He played saxophone in a venerable, smoke-choked nightclub. He sat with businessmen in a Prague department store converted to a Kmart.
He also met one at a time, then together, with the leaders of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic - the countries most ready to enter the bullpen for eventual NATO membership.
Clinton's message to the Central Europeans was that NATO's new US-designed Partnership for Peace program for non-NATO Europe is indeed a step toward full NATO membership. Some leaders of the four so-called Visegrad countries had felt that the Partnership for Peace was just a ploy to fend them off.
The Partnership is ``not a permanent holding room,'' Clinton said after his meetings. It ``changes the entire NATO dialogue'' so that membership for the alliance's former rivals is no longer a matter of when, but how.
The Czechs gave the most enthusiastic response. President Havel endorsed the Partnership, welcoming NATO's role as the ``stabilizing core of European security.'' After meeting with Clinton, Mr. Havel said he did not regard the Partnership as a substitute for NATO membership, but as a steppingstone.
The leaders of the other three Visegrad countries joined Clinton and Havel at a brief press conference after their lunch yesterday at the US ambassador's residence. ``Our countries have very similar views on the subject,'' Havel said.
Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec told Czech Radio that the country could probably enroll without parliamentary action.
Clinton argued in his meetings, according to aides, that the stability of Central Europe is a vital concern to the United States. He also discussed possible new economic and social initiatives for their countries. But new assistance would stress the shoring up of social safety nets more than pushing faster privatization, White House officials say. The layoffs associated with going private have been socially disruptive and economically difficult in much of Eastern Europe.
He also endorsed stronger regional ties between Central European countries and called for a special conference this year sponsored by the US on trade and investment in the Visegrad nations.
Clinton's meetings during his 24 hours in Prague were forecast by policy analysts to be the most difficult of the trip. The leaders here wanted a more immediate membership in NATO, with its mutual security guarantees, to lock them into the West.
US officials say Central Europe does not fear an attack from Russia in the near future. Rather, Visegrad officials tell their US counterparts that the longer-term insecurity of living in a power vacuum could destabilize domestic politics, undermining public confidence in reform.
So the prospect of NATO's security guarantees offers a comfort zone, an assurance that a resurgent Russian expansionism could not once again destroy democracy and market reforms.
Many Western experts estimate that the Russian military is so deteriorated that it would take five or more years for it to be ready for a major act of aggression. But NATO is also concerned about the domestic stability of Russia. Too fast an expansion of NATO among former members of the Warsaw Pact could provoke a reaction, especially in the Russian military establishment.
Even without the full expansion of the NATO security umbrella, experts such as Lawrence Korb of the Brookings Institution say that the alliance would not stand by for a Russian attack on Warsaw or Prague. To do so would be to roll back the clock 50 years to the beginning of the cold war, he says.
The tug of war becomes tougher for nations such as Lithuania, whose expressed interest in NATO membership drew a sharply negative Russian response. NATO member nations would probably try to avoid such a direct provocation of the Russians. The Partnership allows member nations to participate in joint missions and planning sessions with NATO members. It carries no security guarantees, except the right to ``consult'' NATO if under direct military threat. The Partnership is also open to Russia itself, although Russia is expected to want to set its own terms of engagement with NATO - one way or another.
The Clinton vision is that the future security of Europe lies in the military, economic, and political integration of East and West.
One reason the US designed the Partnership for Peace - rather than direct NATO recruitment - is so that potential NATO members can prepare to pull their weight in the alliance. The Partnership is meant to develop a working compatibility between military forces and staff-level liaisons of NATO members and Partnership members. To join the Partnership, a nation must have a democratic government, a civil-ian-controlled and NATO-compatible military, and public defense budgets.
``I have come to Europe to build a new security for the transatlantic community for the 21st century,'' Clinton said. He told the Visegrad leaders: ``The security of your states is important to the security of the United States.''