Les Aspin, the US Defense Secretary, arrived for the first day of a meeting with fellow Nato defence ministers in Germany clutching new plans and determined to reassert the US role in Europe. But with continuing Transatlantic tension over the Bosnian crisis and doubts over American commitment to peace-keeping operations, he faces a tough task.
For the first time, the US will today present ideas on how to take account of the end of the Cold War division of Europe by extending Nato's influence. The US envisages 'partnerships for peace': bilateral deals between Nato and Central and Eastern European countries. The neutral countries - Sweden, Austria and perhaps Finland - might be included, creating a pan-European web of security agreements. It has been suggested that Nato should take on these nations as members, but fear of Russian objections and Western reluctance to extend security guarantees seem to have put this on the backburner. A special Nato summit in January is expected to open the door, but with no timetable or list of prospective members.
The partnerships would be backed by reforms of the North Atlantic Consultative Council, which includes Nato and former Warsaw Pact members. Some form of associate Nato membership might also be envisaged, European officials say. The bilateral pacts would vary, enabling tighter co-operation with the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, and looser ties with Russia. They would cover training, military assistance and joint manoeuvres, but would not include security guarantees. The US idea is likely to disappoint Central and Eastern European countries which wanted much tighter links to Nato.
The German Defence Minister, Volker Ruhe, said there was growing consensus that the US proposal was the best way ahead on the difficult issue of expanding Nato, the key issue for the January summit.
Mr Aspin also outlined plans to combat the spread of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. That may involve more co-operation over tracking the arms trade and on anti-ballistic missile systems. Russia is likely to be drawn into this, officials say.
The US reassured its European allies that it is still committed to a 'significant' military role in policing any Bosnian peace plan.
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