Clinton trip east boosted by summit successes: Andrew Marshall in Brussels assesses Nato's achievements

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SUCCESS for Bill Clinton at the Nato summit was vital, not just for the United States President, who has received lukewarm or cold reviews for his foreign policy in Europe over the last year, but also for the alliance itself. Manfred Worner, Nato's Secretary-General, had worked hard to prepare for the event and boost the credibility of the alliance.

Controversy was largely avoided, partly because most of the substance had been agreed days or weeks before. The veneer of unity cracked when Bosnia was discussed, but a full-scale row - which could have been in prospect - was avoided. Though the dilemmas over Western action in the former Yugoslavia remain, the meeting reaffirmed existing language.

The summit laid the groundwork for the alliance's eventual enlargement following the US Partnership for Peace (PFP) initiative, but it leaves the timing and process of such enlargement unclear. Officials were prepared to say, sotto voce, that three of the four Visegrad countries - Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - are on a faster track to membership. Decisions over the next year will help to clarify how the initiative will operate, on both a practical and political level.

The meeting agreed a new form of military structure, combined joint task forces, that will help give the Western European Union (the EU's putative defence arm) the clout it needs to be an operative military organisation. The summit declaration welcomed the creation of a European security and defence identity, a subject dear to the heart of European leaders in Nato.

President Clinton won plaudits from President Francois Mitter rand of France, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, and John Major. Mr Mitterrand said that there was a 'new spirit in transatlantic relations'; Mr Kohl said that Mr Clinton was 'more direct, more friendly' than George Bush; and Mr Major welcomed his commitment to transatlantic security.

The President was at pains to indicate US support for European integration on every level. 'We believe a strong and more unified Europe makes for a more effective economic and political partner,' he told a news conference.

At a meeting with the European Commission President, Jacques Delors, and the EU presidency leader, Andreas Papandreou, Mr Clinton praised European efforts to create jobs. 'We must put jobs at the centre of our economic agendas,' he said, a verdict that will have pleased Mr Delors. His plan for jobs and economic renewal gained the agreement of the EU's members last year.

Mr Clinton also said that both a conference in Washington next March and this year's Group of Seven leading industrial nations' summit in Naples in July would focus on jobs. He discussed the recently completed Gatt round with Mr Delors and Mr Papandreou, and said that it needed further momentum. He also said he wanted future world trade discussions to cover the environment, workers' rights and competition policy.

What remains to be seen is how far the success can be continued as the President moves east. PFP does not contain the binding commitment on Nato membership that Prague, Warsaw and Budapest wanted. It does not create security guarantees. It is practical, evolutionary and deliberately vague.

But Mr Clinton will probably urge patience on the central European leaders. The stress on 'projecting stability' is linked to a US plan to replace containment of the threat to the east, the alliance's traditional strategy, by gradual enlargement of the community of democratic capitalist nations.

Mr Clinton's visit to Moscow on Friday is potentially the most difficult on his tour. Russia has made plain its opposition to Nato enlargement. His visit coincides with the first meetings of Russia's new parliament, and Mr Clinton may come up with new offers to soften the impact of economic reform.

(Photograph omitted)

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