Many critics underestimate the importance of NATO's Partnership for Peace (PFP), President Clinton's 1994 initiative to create military links between NATO and governments in eastern Europe. They see the partnership as a mere halfway house for Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and others who are deserving - but apparently not deserving enough - of full NATO membership.
These critics are wrong. It's too soon to know when and how NATO will accept new members. Partnership for Peace, meanwhile, just 18 months old, is an institution in its own right. It is already making a major contribution to Europe's security.
Those most skeptical of the Partnership for Peace at the outset - including the Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians - now regard it as a major success. One central European ambassador in Brussels commented: ''Our security has already improved because of the Partnership for Peace, even without NATO's security guarantee.''
Twenty-six governments are now members of the partnership. Thirteen, including Russia, are participating in individually agreed, detailed programs of military cooperation with NATO. A total of 18 countries will participate in 11 NATO-PFP exercises to be held this year.
Partnership for Peace contributes to European security in four ways:
First, it establishes a dialogue between NATO and the civil and military leadership of partner countries. Partners have ambassadors and liaison offices accredited to NATO headquarters in Brussels. A separate Partnership Coordination Cell in Mons, Belgium, facilitates continuous military-to-military contact. Through daily interaction, partners gain experience in how a Western defense establishment functions under civilian leadership.
Second, the partnership promotes transparency. Through the defense planning and review process, NATO and partner states are able to examine one another's defense establishments and budgets. This policy of openness represents a radical shift from the time when Soviet-bloc defense ministries falsified budgets and kept their force structures secret. Through an open budget and planning process, partners build confidence and contribute to one another's security.
Third, partners gain the opportunity to engage in joint military exercises with NATO troops. NATO and partner states conducted three exercises last fall in the Netherlands, Poland, and the North Sea. That will increase to more than 30 next year. This training helps NATO and its partners cooperate in such fields as search and rescue, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance.
Finally, the partnership makes NATO enlargement possible without drawing hard and fast lines in Europe.
For nations that want to join NATO soon - Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, among others - the partnership offers essential experience in how the Alliance works. For neutral European Union members not currently seeking NATO membership - Finland, Austria, Sweden - it provides a way to participate in European military cooperation without forcing decisions governments aren't prepared to make.
For everybody else, the Partnership for Peace helps to ''fuzz up the lines.'' No one wants to draw new lines, or create new hostile blocs, in Europe. By building strong political-military ties with the Alliance, the partnership is already providing security benefits for countries not likely to be in the first wave of new NATO members. It gives both the small (the Baltic states) and the great (Russia and Ukraine) an opportunity to participate in creating a new European security order.
The merits and drawbacks of NATO enlargement will fill newspaper columns and airwaves in the months and years to come. What should not be lost in that discussion is an appreciation of the quiet - and remarkable - progress of the Partnership for Peace. NATO may enlarge its membership by the year 2000. Partnership for Peace is reshaping the European security system today.