NATO summit orienteering

Enlarged and seeking a mission at its half-century anniversary

The long-running dispute over defense and security takes a new direction on March 12 when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright receives formal notification that Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are joining NATO. They'll meet, appropriately, in the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Mo. It was Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who brought NATO into being.

Then on April 14, the 50th anniversary of its founding, NATO holds a Washington summit to detail a new strategic concept - to meet the drastic changes in the world since NATO's archenemy, the Soviet Union, fell apart. But there has been bitter disagreement over what should be done.

One point of contention, mainly in Washington, was the admission of new members. Opponents charged that expanding NATO to bring in Eastern European states would be seen in Russia as a hostile move. When the US Senate debated expansion last year, before approving it, prominent pundits called it "a tragic mistake," "the beginning of a new cold war," even of "nuclear war." The Kremlin and the Russian public, however, observed the Senate vote with a yawn. Today, Russian troops serve under NATO command in Bosnia and are expected to join NATO peacekeepers when agreement is reached on Kosovo.

The idea of Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians spearheading a Western invasion of Russia is absurd. Their basic desire is to be, at long last, inseparably part of the West. Said one Polish diplomat, "We are lucky. After 300 years of being invaded, occupied and partitioned, we can be a secure and normal country."

Russia is not feared as plotting to regain its Central European empire but as a huge, presently unstable and unpredictable neighbor. Its war in Chechnya was frightening and Moscow's continued power plays in the Caucasus and Central Asia are not reassuring. Russia maintains a large military garrison in its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, perhaps only because housing and jobs for the soldiers are short at home; but it is still a remnant of conquest and a question mark.

AS FOR NATO enlargement "excluding" as well as antagonizing Russia, one of the happier aspects of this violent century has been the renunciation of revenge as the dark twin of victory. The ostracism and victimization of Germany after World War I led straight to Adolf Hitler and World War II. After 1945, Germany and Japan flourished as democracies. Russia, emerging in this decade from the wreck of the Soviet Union, which had helped Hitler start World War II and had then "lost" the cold war, was never treated as a vanquished outcast. It was at once given what had been the Soviet seat and veto in the UN Security Council, full diplomatic acceptance as a great power, and billions of dollars in government and private financial support. Also, while NATO has no intention of giving Russia a veto over its plans, it has taken Russian sensibilities to heart. There is no rush to expand further, and it is not considering membership for any of the independent former Soviet republics.

The summit in Washington has other concerns: chiefly, drafting the new strategic concept and agreeing on NATO's future mission.

Why NATO at all? Internally, it supplies the security in which the nations of Europe can confidently continue building the institutions of unity. Europe has no other competent defense agency. NATO also links the United States to Europe as a stabilizer, which the great crises of the 20th century have shown to be indispensable.

"Out of area," beyond the geographical limits of its member states, NATO can help to contain and remove threats to Europe's tranquility, as it is already doing in Bosnia and prepared to do in Kosovo. Further afield, in a world increasingly interconnected, lie other dangers such as terrorism, drugs, and international crime. NATO must avoid the risk of globalization, galloping off in all directions as the universal policeman. The first line of defense against them all is, more than ever, diplomacy; but diplomacy works best when backed by credible force.

The most serious of the new threats is the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, biological and chemical. The NATO allies, obliged to act only by consensus, must decide what to do about them, lest an emergency set them to dithering as of old.

Some, including the US, favor adding preemptive strikes to their choice of countermeasures. Also considered is expanding NATO's basic mission from guarding territory to defending vital interests. Such interests must first be spelled out, which will not come quickly or easily.

The job should at least be started at the Washington summit.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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