The West Goes East

Can a larger NATO club remain true to its aims?

Tens of thousands of words have already been written in favor of and against the expansion of NATO. And for and against the deal to give Moscow "a say but not a veto" over the enlarged club's actions.

The final word will not be writ till some future crisis within or along the new NATO borders tests the mettle of the big club members. So we will not know whether the pros or cons are proven right for years - perhaps decades.

That is often the case with great historic enterprises. As we near the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, which wed the US to Western Europe as firmly as did the creation of NATO, it's useful to look at what we mean by "the West" - and Russia's long debate over whether to defy or link itself to that West.

Both NATO and the Marshall rebuilding plan grew out of Europe's need to have America:

1. Join Europe in keeping Moscow's cold-war empire at bay.

2. Invest in restoring Europe's industrial prosperity.

3. Help to assure that the centuries-long battles among Britain, France, and Germany were turned into economic and military cooperation.

4. Provide a powerful example to help spread free-market prosperity (and perhaps democracy), instead of colonization, to other continents.

Now the transatlantic "West" is going east - into Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland. Then possibly into Slovenia, Slovakia, and Romania. That leaves open the question of what becomes of giant Ukraine and the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), all flanking Russia or its sibling, Belarus.

Will Russia use its new "consultative" link with NATO to block further eastward movement of the West? Will Moscow use its deal with the Western club to argue it should re-tether the former republics along its southern flank into Russia's own club?

Or will Russia continue its march toward a free-market economy, thus returning to Czar Peter the Great's aspiration to be more Western? That course was suggested last week by the surprising success of Boris Yeltsin's young economic reformer, Boris Nemtsov. He has apparently succeeded in reining in the power of the giant natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, a feat recalling Teddy Roosevelt's trust busting.

How Moscow reacts to treatment by the enlarged Western club will test the club's stomach for remaining true to its aim: defending member democracies from external threat.

Whether Russia remains on a course to market-friendly, pro-Western democracy or turns inward and nationalistic may be determined by how the "say but not a veto" on NATO's influence plays out. If Russian nationalists and Communists can sell the idea that the West only pretends to listen, they could turn the electorate inward. They already are refusing to ratify an agreed cut in nuclear missiles.

If, on the other hand, Moscow's new "say" amounts to a semi-veto and a claim that Ukraine and the Baltics are in Russia's orbit, the Western club will face its first crisis.

In short, Messrs. Clinton, Blair, Kohl, and Chirac cannot rest on their oars once this summer's club expansion is done. They need to go on nudging Moscow to join the West economically and politically, if not militarily.

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