TRAVEMUENDE, Germany -- European defense ministers embraced yesterday a Clinton administration plan that offers former Soviet republics and East European countries closer cooperation with NATO but not early membership in the alliance.
The plan, which Defense Secretary Les Aspin outlined in Travemuende at a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, raised the possibility of the eventual assimilation of the former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO. The plan is also a gesture to Germany, which has pressed to expand the 16-nation alliance to include nations of the former Warsaw Pact.
But basically it was a re-assertion of the prevailing NATO view, held very strongly by Britain, for instance, that while cooperation may be expanded, no new members should be admitted in the next several years.
Several former members of the Warsaw Pact, among them Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have been pressing for NATO membership. They say membership would anchor them to the West and give them the security guarantees they need to stabilize their new democratic governments against possible interference from Russia or Ukraine.
But because all NATO members are committed to come to the defense of any member that is attacked, the United States and some other members are reluctant to accept new applicants for fear of being drawn into ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet bloc.
An expansion of cooperation, which envisages joint exercises and training, is regarded as much less significant. The plan is to be taken up in detail at a NATO summit meeting Jan. 10.
Currently, NATO includes Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Turkey and the United States.
Mr. Aspin's presentation held out much less encouragement to the East Europeans than that of a State Department official traveling with Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher. That official told reporters that the plan, approved by President Clinton on Tuesday, held the prospect for an eventual expansion of NATO to include Russia and other former Warsaw Pact members.
Mr. Christopher sought yesterday to reconcile the tonal differences between the State and Defense departments. "I don't see any daylight at all between Aspin's statement and my statements today. I would urge you not to try to find it," Mr. Christopher told reporters.
Mr. Christopher visited Hungary yesterday and sought to assuage Hungarian fears. Beginning today, the secretary is set to hold talks in Russia and other former Soviet states.