IT is curious that the debate over expanding the North Atlantic Treaty into Central and Eastern Europe focuses more on Russian attitudes than on what such expansion means for the United States. Russian reaction should be considered; but for Americans, the effect on the US ought to be paramount.
Let there be no misunderstanding. Enlargement of NATO would represent a quantum leap in the international commitments of the US. This is the text of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, in relevant part: ''The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all; and ... each of them ... will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith ... such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic Area.''
In 1949, when the treaty was signed and ratified, this represented a more far-reaching com-mitment than the US had ever made before. Even so, it applied only to Canada and 10 countries of Western Europe. (Four other countries, as far east as Turkey, were added later.)
In the end, the Senate voted 82 to 13 to advise and consent to ratification on the North Atlantic Treaty, but not without much anguished soul-searching and legal sophistry designed to obscure what the treaty plainly meant -- namely, that the United States would go to war in case of an attack on any of the parties.
This was done under the pressure of the cold war. That pressure is gone. The Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union have been consigned to the ash heap of history, and we are asked to contemplate an expansion of NATO eastward to include some former members of the pact. To agree to go to war to defend Western Europe is one thing. The US already has fought two wars in this century for that purpose, without a prior commitment to do so.
Do we now want to say we consider Bratislava and Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, the same as Paris and Brussels, London and Copenhagen? Maybe we do, but we ought not to reach that point without a good deal more thought than we have yet given.
There are two main arguments for expanding NATO. One is that a way needs to be found to keep the US involved in Europe. The other is that a stabilizing influence needs to be found for Eastern Europe. The answer to the first argument is that there are plenty of US interests irrespective of NATO to keep the US involved in Europe. What is likely to feed a growth of isolationism is a perception of overcommitment in foreign affairs. Vietnam and its aftermath provide an example.
The answer to the second argument is that NATO is not the only stabilizing influence available for Eastern Europe. NATO might even be more unsettling than stabilizing. Any expansion eastward would inevitably carry with it the aura of NATO's cold-war origins as an anti-Soviet alliance. Efforts to disguise this are unlikely to succeed.
This is at the bottom of Russian sensitivity about the matter. In lieu of NATO, the best stabilizing influence in Eastern Europe would be something that would involve Russia as an equal partner. The optimum outcome would be for Russia, the big loser in the cold war, to play in the East the role that Germany, the big loser in World War II, has played in the West. That may be impractical, but the thrust of US and European policy ought to be to involve Russia, not to isolate or contain or ostracize it.
The United Nations, imperfect as it is, is one available instrument for this policy. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is another. Or something new may need to be created. NATO has been one of history's great successes. With it, the West fought and won the cold war. In this sense, there is nothing left for it to do. The North Atlantic Treaty provides that any party may request a conference for reviewing the treaty, ''including the development of universal as well as regional arrangements.'' Maybe this would be a good time to do that and rewrite the treaty for a broader membership. Or better yet, for symbolism's sake, write a new treaty.