NATO takes the plunge eastward Clinton victory: New members raise difficulties in Moscow and on Capitol Hill.


PRESIDENT Clinton can claim a foreign policy victory of historic magnitude in the unanimous invitation of membership by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, effective in 1999. Once "defended" by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Bloc against West Germany and the United States, these countries will instead be defended by NATO against their former protectors, moving the border of "the West" 300 miles eastward.

Mr. Clinton had staked his prestige on admitting these three countries and no others, after President Jacques Chirac of France pushed for admitting Romania and Slovenia along with them. A slim majority agreed with France, but unanimity rules in NATO.

For Eastern European countries struggling for a normal existence after the nightmare of Soviet domination, membership is desired for respectability and for protection against any future Soviet revival. But picking three countries as qualified by democratic progress creates a division between them and those left out, even though further enlargement is intended.

The three new members must gear up to NATO standards in military equipment, hardly a wise expenditure at this stage of their economic recoveries, against no definable danger. But competition among weapons manufacturers to supply these needs has begun.

Resistance will come in two key places, Moscow and Capitol Hill. To Russians this can only appear as a threat, moving hostile forces to the borders of Belarus and Ukraine. That President Boris Yeltsin failed to stop it will be used against him by Communist and nationalist rivals. The agreement signed in May giving Russia a consultative place at the NATO table, but not a vote, is meant to disarm this suspicion. Yet from domestic necessity, Mr. Yeltsin boycotted the Madrid summit he was entitled to attend, to have no fingerprints on enlargement.

Much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment -- including the Senate -- is deeply skeptical, doubting constituents wish a blanket commitment to defend Poland or Hungary or the Czech Republic with the lives of young Americans. Nor does Congress welcome the U.S. share of subsidizing the new members, estimated at $150 to $200 million annually. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Secretary of Defense William Cohen were appointed for their powers of persuasion on Capitol Hill. They may need it all when ratification of the protocol for new members comes up in 1998 or 1999.

Pub Date: 7/09/97

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