The East-West disputes erupting at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in Budapest provide the best justification yet for having the CSCE. If those disputes exist, they cry out for a forum in which to be addressed.
CSCE was born in 1975, proposed by the Soviet Union to get the West to ratify the borders of sovereignty and hegemony in Eastern Europe. The West saw it as a way to pry the lid off human rights abuses in Communist countries. That seems so long ago. Now CSCE is a large tent for all the European countries (plus the U.S.) that may not qualify to belong to the same clubs but with interests in common or at issue that need sorting out.
Russia's embattled president, Boris Yeltsin, went to Budapest warning of a "cold peace" as in Cold War, and belligerently telling the West to back off from expanding NATO. He deserves sympathy on this. It is no secret that any Yeltsin successor is likely to be more rather than less bellicose.
With the Cold War dead, NATO needs a reason to exist. Smaller countries of Eastern Europe, formerly of the Warsaw Bloc or Soviet Union, are insecure, still intimidated by a Russia which might someday be revanchist. If they could join NATO, they reason it would cloak them with protection.
Some NATO members wish to take them in. The U.S. proposed a compromise "Partnership for Peace" plan that even Russia could join. Russia is right to expect rejection by a club defined as protecting its members from Russia. But bringing the Baltic states, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary or Romania into NATO would put potentially hostile alliance guns on Russia's border, and be destabilizing rather than stabilizing.
At a time when Russia has ringed the breakaway Chechnya region with potential invasion troops, when demagogues accuse Yeltsin of being soft toward alleged Western plots, when Russian and American attitudes toward Bosnia are contradictory, the argument over expansion of NATO now is an irritant nobody needs.
Russia remains a major player in Eastern Europe. It rubs this in by preventing CSCE from issuing any statement about Bosnia. The undertone of menace in Mr. Yeltsin's language induces smaller countries to think they had good reason to want to join NATO. It is possible to imagine circumstances calling for their protection. And that suggests NATO really does have a reason for existence: in behalf of countries that are not members.
But a crisis over hypothetical what-ifs and maybes is not a good thing. That is what the discussion of enlarging NATO at this time accomplishes. It is just such tensions that NATO and CSCE should be used to defuse.