BILL CLINTON is president of a country that Europeans recognize as the world's greatest power, the leader of the Atlantic security alliance for the past 45 years. The cold-war Soviet threat may be over. But it is as a leader of a great nation that President Clinton traveled to Brussels and Prague this week; media images of the trip aside, it is on those terms that European leaders will assess Clinton's trip, take his measure, and decide what role the US is prepared to play in a changing Europe and a changing NATO.
Exactly what Clinton may have told NATO colleagues in Brussels, or the leaders of the Visegrad nations - which want to join NATO - in Prague, is not known. What seems clear for now, after rhetoric is cleared away, is that the United States is continuing a slow but steady move away from a central role in European affairs. This approach is evident more by what the US is not doing than by what it is doing, and it reflects the White House view that after the cold war Americans want their president to focus resources on domestic issues and not get embroiled in overseas problems.
The two NATO issues that help clarify this are Bosnia and the Partnership for Peace plan, offering Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia eventual NATO membership.
On Bosnia: The president made headlines by again threatening Serbs with airstrikes if they do not cease the shelling of Sarajevo. But Clinton's threat cannot be taken too seriously. It was a response to the French, who raised Clinton's former statements about military action in Bosnia both to embarrass him, and to show NATO allies that the Americans do not have resolve and are not to be counted on for security - hence the need for Europeans to create their own security alliance outside NATO, such as the Western European Union. As the president of a great country, Clinton could not open his European trip by appearing to be weak. Yet there are so many loopholes in the airstrike proposal - such as a veto by Security Council members like Britain or Russia - that it is already seen as another empty threat. The French made their point, though it seems cynical since they are more likely to withdraw from Bosnia than break the Serb siege.
On NATO membership for Eastern Europe: Clinton gave the Visegrad nations less than the guarantees they wanted in an attempt not to provoke Russian nationalists. It is doubtful that Poland or Hungary faces any immediate attack by Russia, but their leaders feel deeply that actions and commitments by the West must be taken now. The White House is rightly buying time. But it must follow up soon.
The sobering question after Clinton leaves may be: Can Europeans really provide their own security?