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Regional Outlook : NATO Wavering on Enlisting Nations : Formerly Communist countries want to sign up. But critics say they should first join the European Community.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A vital behind-the-scenes debate is developing among officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization--a debate that may determine the fate of the alliance and test President Clinton’s leadership of the West.

The argument, now shaping up as the centerpiece of the NATO summit in January, is whether to expand the alliance to include the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe.

Most of the former Warsaw Pact nations seek full NATO membership, but some of the 16 current members of the alliance are balking. The Clinton Administration, so far, has wavered on the delicate issue, with Secretary of State Warren Christopher stating that it is not on the current agenda.

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But pressure has been building among some European NATO partners to settle the question and to make a definitive statement on new membership at the January summit, which will be held here at NATO headquarters.

In mid-September, NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner, seeking to redefine NATO’s role, declared: “NATO is not a closed shop. The time has come to open a more concrete perspective to those countries of Central and Eastern Europe which want to join NATO and which we may consider eligible for future membership.”

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Defense Minister Volker Ruehe are in favor of the rapid inclusion of new states beginning with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. They point out that NATO originally consisted in 1949 of 12 members: Germany, Greece, Turkey and Spain came in later.

While the U.S. Administration has remained lukewarm to enlargement, Sen. Richard Lugar (R--Ind.), a leading member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has spoken out in favor of NATO’s expansion, arguing in effect that the alliance must expand or perish.

As his foreign affairs adviser, Ken Myers, put it at a recent NATO security affairs conference: “An expanded NATO justifies a U.S. financial commitment. The Congress will not support NATO if it addresses a nonexistent Russian threat and nothing else. This doesn’t mean expansion has to be immediate. But the January summit has got to set specific objectives, come up with a road map.”

Proponents of expansion argue that security will be enhanced by taking in Eastern European states that qualify--that it will encourage their nascent democracies; that it will provide a new role for an aging NATO that has been seeking an updated raison d’etre since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that the alternative would be to leave Eastern nations festering and unstable.

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As Polish Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka commented: “Inadequate commitment on the part of NATO would only lead to a search in various countries for other formulas of security and alternative solutions based on regional cooperation. Such formulas would come to be seen as an alternative solution to Atlantic relations, and would mean a failure of the effectiveness of the Western system of security.”

Czech Ambassador to Belgium Karel Lukas said: “We understand NATO’s hesitation in admitting us right away. But it would be quite a psychological blow if we are not admitted eventually. Enlarging NATO means enlarging security in Europe.”

And Romanian diplomat Nicolae Dinu-Ionita added: “It would be a big disappointment to us if other Eastern European countries enter NATO and not Romania. It would create bad feeling and nationalistic discord.”

However, the British and the French, as well as other strategists, are cool on NATO enlargement. British diplomats would like to see East European applicants first join the European Community to demonstrate economic and political qualifications before NATO.

Some NATO strategists warn that an expanded NATO could no longer make the kind of quick consensus decisions that has kept it in business; that it would soon display the weaknesses of large bodies such as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an unwieldy organization of more than 50 members.

Critics wonder whether NATO’s all-inclusive defense rules would pertain to new members, in, say, a border dispute between Poland and Ukraine. And they worry that an unstable Russia would resent the presence on its borders of an expanded NATO--with Poland and perhaps the Baltic states as alliance members.

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Robert Blackwill, a strategist at Harvard University who runs a program bringing Russian generals to the United States, inquired: “What is the greatest current threat to European security? An unstable, nationalist Russia turning hard line. And what might cause this to happen? What Russians leaders perceive as a hostile alliance on their borders.”

Ambassador Yuri Nazarin, of the Russian Security Council, warned: “If NATO is a defensive organization, who is it defending against? A NATO defense grouping with our former allies--and without us--will lead to the isolation of Russia and will make things worse for Russia.”

And Prof. Leonid A. Leshchenko, chairman of the Department of Foreign Policy at Kiev State University, said: “From the Ukrainian point of view, if European security stops on the border of the former Soviet Union, this will endanger and destabilize the situation.”

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin has also warned against expanding NATO to include the formerly Communist countries of Eastern Europe, proposing instead that NATO and Russia jointly guarantee the security of the region.

These fears are discounted by officials such as Lugar aide Ken Myers, who said: “You can’t let Russia or Ukraine hold a veto power over what the West considers its interests. And I don’t think we should let additional members come into NATO through the back door of the EC.”

Many experts believe that the immediate solution to East European membership in NATO is through the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, known as NAC-C, a 2-year-old, purely consultative security grouping that links the 16 NATO members to 22 former Communist countries and the former Soviet Union.

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They suggest that by beefing up the NAC-C with a secretariat and more and closer relations with NATO--including admission into NATO planning sessions--the Eastern nations would not feel so marginalized and insecure. Then, at some future date, those Eastern nations could qualify as regular NATO members.

Meanwhile, in these varying views, Russia could be reassured with bilateral agreements and perhaps admitted to the G-7 industrialized nations group.

“The dilemma is that the things Eastern Europe wants, many in NATO feel they can’t give, and what NATO offers, the East doesn’t think is enough,” observed Simon Lunn, deputy secretary general of the North Atlantic Assembly. “But I would think the Clinton Administration would come up with some bright initiatives on enlargement to try make the January summit a success.”

His view is shared by American diplomats who fear that NATO and Clinton may be made to look ineffectual--particularly if American troops are committed before then to Bosnia in what might be an unsuccessful peacekeeping operation.

“Our policy is still very much in flux, but I think we’ll give NAC-C more responsibility in real terms,” a U.S. NATO official said. “And I think we’ll have to come up with specifics--and not just rhetoric--if the President is not to preside over a busted summit.”

NATO’s Future

* NATO countries (European)

Portugal

Spain

France

Belgium

Luxembourg

Germay

Italy

Britain

Iceland

Norway

Denmark

Netherlands

Macedonia

Greece

Turkey

* Former Warsaw Pact countries with strongest support for NATO membership

Poland

Czech Republic

Hungary

* Other former Warsaw Pact countries

Russia

Estonia

Latvia

Lithuania

Belarus

Slovakia

Ukraine

Moldova

Rumania

Bulgaria

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