Perhaps it was the Bosnia fiasco that pushed Russia and NATO to resume their dialogue this week about future security arrangements in central and eastern Europe. Whatever the reason, it is a welcome development. None of the outside powers has attained anything but grief from a collective inability to end the Balkan conflict. It has been a sobering experience, one that raises questions about what is to happen in other lands freed from authoritarian communist control.
In the West, there is a tendency to take at face value Russia's complaints that an eastward expansion of NATO would pose an unacceptable military threat. But perhaps in Moscow's inner sanctums there is a different idea -- namely, that the political incorporation of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in NATO might damp down ethnic or nationalistic impulses that could destabilize these neighbors of Russia.
The Bosnia model, with its threat to spread elsewhere in the Balkans, is everyone's nightmare. But there is also the reverse example of a united Germany, whose full membership in NATO has turned out to be a source of comfort and financial aid for a Russia traditionally fearful of German imperialism.
Could the same be true of Poland? Is it in Russia's interest to have a Poland on its western border that is insecure and hostile? Or would a Poland bound to a democratic NATO and developing a free-market economy be a more amenable neighbor -- especially if the NATO military presence in that country is kept so minimal, so defensive that Russia's generals need not be afraid?
For now, this may be the stuff of fantasy. But note Russia's formal acceptance of participation in NATO's "Partnership for Peace" -- a sort of halfway house for nations hopeful of full membership in the Atlantic Alliance.
More important, Russia agreed to a separate channel of dialogue with NATO that underscores two points: First, that Russia is not just another country. It is a Eurasian powerhouse that must be recognized and dealt with accordingly. Second, that Russia is just too big to be part of NATO. Its full membership would dilute the Alliance and be demeaning to Moscow.
If this is the case, what should be the goal of the "Quad Plus One" powers -- the U.S., Britain, France and Germany plus Russia -- that in combination have failed so miserably in Bosnia?
In our view, it should be to work out a security arrangement much superior to the haphazard ad hoc-ism seen since the post-Cold War era began. This means cooperation in dealing effectively with future conflicts in Europe and on its fringes. And it means even more -- a realization that such cooperation is impossible unless the Big Five can develop a security system that is acceptable to all. For U.S. policy-makers, this should be the defining challenge in Europe for the rest of the decade.