Clinton Conveys Deep US Commitment to Europe

President won nuclear deal, reseized NATO leadership, showed concern for hardships

The late-night scene in Kiev's Borispol Airport had a dismal, film-noir quality. An unscheduled detour in the middle of President Clinton's sweep across Europe, the vast, Soviet-era terminal was cold, echoing, and stale with the tarry industrial smell common to greater Kiev.

In a back room, Mr. Clinton and his senior advisers were enjoying a hearty meal with Ukraine President Leonid Kravchuk and cementing a deal to denuclearize Ukraine.

The stop lasted only a few hours, but Clinton was doing what Clinton did best on his first transatlantic trip as president - demonstrating American concern and his own empathy with showers of attention.

This kind of attention was the most valuable asset Clinton had to offer. One of the most powerful forces for military stability in Europe is the perception that the US carries a high-level commitment to the continent.

The message has not been a consistent one from Clinton. As recently as November in Seattle, Clinton told Pacific Rim leaders that no region was more important to the United States than Asia. Saturday, in his weekly radio address delivered this time from the Kremlin, he said: ``No part of the world is more important to us than Europe.''

Clinton's visit seemed to successfully convey that intangible message, reseizing the leadership of NATO in the West and seeking a more personal and understanding link to the East.

The most tangible single result of Clinton's nine-day trip to Europe was also the most unexpected - Ukraine's agreement to dismantle 1,800 nuclear warheads and ship them to Russia.

At the end of what was his most important appearance by far on the world stage, Clinton identified the signing of the Ukraine deal in Moscow Friday morning as the high point of the trip, according to White House Communications Director Mark Gearan.

The deal, closed while Clinton was still in Brussels attending to NATO business, promises the end of what he regarded as the most serious security threat he faced when he assumed office: nuclear proliferation among the former Soviet republics.

Rivaling the Ukraine deal for its potential to make the world safer, in the White House view, is the wide acceptance of Clinton's Partnership for Peace plan for opening up NATO to the East. The Partnership affiliates new countries to NATO and includes them in joint missions, but does not extend full membership and its mutual security gaurantee.

Clinton said Sunday night on Air Force One that all the nations of Central and Eastern Europe have reacted positively. The Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary have said they want to join. Russia, Ukraine, and even Romania have expressed interest.

Clinton's presence in Europe was the apparent catalyst in the Ukraine denuclearization deal. Russian President Boris Yeltsin had invited Mr. Kravchuk to be in Moscow during Clinton's visit, but Clinton would not meet with him without a denuclearization commitment. Once Kravchuk came through, Clinton not only agreed to a signing ceremony with Yeltsin and Kravchuk in Moscow on Friday, but slipped the Kiev stop into the schedule.

The dynamic of Clinton's trip sometimes turned as much on feeling as fact. Like the campaign virtuoso he can be at home, he sought to tune in closely to his audiences, both elite and popular.

In Brussels, with NATO allies that are reluctant to expand the alliance's commitments, Clinton spoke more remotely of looking to ``the day when NATO will take on new members who assume the alliance's full reponsibilities.''

In Prague, with Central European leaders who want into the Western alliance with all due haste, he insisted firmly that the Partnership was a preparation for full NATO membership and not a ``permanent holding room.''

Either emphasis could be true. The Partnership is designed with deliberate vagueness about timetables, milestones, or standards for moving into NATO.

Much of Clinton's interaction took place with one eye on Russia. The nature of Russia's foreign policy remains the single greatest factor in European security and stability. And Russia's foreign policy is best assured by Russian democracy, which is, in turn, best assured by a healthy economy.

The fragility of economic reform there was illustrated by the resignation yesterday of Yegor Gaidar, first deputy premier who led Russia's economic reforms.

An important part of Clinton's message to the Russian populace was simply that he understands and sympathizes with their economic hardship and insecurity, so that Western-style free markets are not linked with heartless disruption of lives.

Clinton strengthened some personal relationships. He has a special bond with Yeltsin and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, partly because of the common-folk roots they all share. Mr. Gearan notes that Clinton especially hit it off this trip with European Commission President Jacques Delors and NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner.

He had the most fun, he avers, in Prague with Czech President Vaclav Havel. The two spent a long evening walking the Charles Bridge into Prague's Old Town, visiting the pubs and nightclubs that Mr. Havel often frequents.

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