A new line divides Europe and wolves are waiting on the other side

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I think we will remember the "Detroit Speech". Last week in Michigan, President Clinton gave one of those rare declarations of policy which set a course for international affairs into the years ahead. Such speeches do not "make history". They make the future.

Clinton said that by 1999 Nato would have a group of new but "full-fledged" members, drawn from the countries of post-Communist east-central Europe. Without naming them, he plainly meant Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

The Detroit Speech puts an end to years of argument, rumour and intermittent Russian menaces. "Eastern enlargement" of Nato is to go ahead. A Pact summit early next year will name the first entrants.

One meaning of the speech is that the United States, which showed signs of isolationism after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has committed itself to Europe again. This commitment is not just a resumption of America's leadership of the West during the Cold War. It is a new sort of responsibility, less confrontational than the old one but also much less clearly defined. Anyone could list the dangers of the Cold War. But who knows what troubles await this disorderly post-Soviet Europe?

The other meaning of the speech is that a gamble is being taken with the division of Europe. "Enlargement" draws a line across the continent. The Poles, Hungarians and Czechs will be inside the line, at first within Nato and then, within a year or two, within the European Union. But another part of Europe will be left outside - the Baltic states, Belarus, Ukraine and all the other applicant nation states in south-eastern Europe. The calculated risk is that this line will not harden into another Iron Curtain, if Russia regains its strength and its ambitions before the next enlargement. President Clinton insisted that "Nato's doors will not close behind its first new members", and that "a grey zone of insecurity must not re-emerge in Europe". He had better be right.

It is just 50 years since the Americans took a very similar gamble. It was the autumn of 1946. Europe was in ruins, its eastern half under Soviet occupation. President Truman had not yet laid down his doctrine of "containing" Communism, or promoted the Marshall Plan for European recovery. But already the Truman administration was alarmed. Communism seemed to be on the march all over the continent. It was time for America to take a stand.

James Byrnes, the Secretary of State, travelled to Stuttgart, with a speech in his pocket. A German reporter on the train with him stared out at "countless women with tattered knapsacks ... a few men plodding homeward in the dusk" to homes where "the children have no shoes, the daughter has no coat, the house has neither window-glass nor fuel in the cellar". The Germans had lost their state and their self-respect; they were starving and their conquerors despised them. Could Communism seem any worse than this, when Stalin had said that he had no quarrel with the German people themselves?

At Stuttgart, Byrnes went to the Staatstheater, one of the few buildings left standing. There he made one of the fundamental statements about post- war Europe - more significant, in some ways, than Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, Missouri, six months before.

In the "Stuttgart Speech", Byrnes promised that America would not, after all, withdraw from Europe. That had been a fatal error after the First World War. "We will not again make that mistake. We are staying here." Then he came to the calculated risk. Only 18 months after the end of the war in Europe, he played the German card. He offered to bring the Germans back into the community of nations - as long as they followed the Western path. "The American people want to return the government of Germany to the German people." A democratic Germany could look forward to a future as America's partner.

Byrnes went further. He said that America supported German unification, although the Soviet zone was already well down the road to becoming a Communist state. But then came an astounding appeal to German national feeling.

At Potsdam the year before, the victorious Allies had accepted that Poland should annex Germany's old eastern provinces and expel their German population. At Stuttgart, Byrnes suddenly challenged this new frontier. He said that the "Oder-Neisse" border had been drawn unilaterally by Stalin and that America had never recognised it (which was technically true). He hinted that it might be revised to give Germany back some of its lost territories.

The Germans were delighted. But the impact of the Stuttgart speech in Eastern Europe was catastrophic. Above all in Poland, democratic leaders felt betrayed, stabbed in the back by an American opportunism which fawned on the Germans and ignored their victims. How could they now resist the Communist argument that only close alliance with the Soviet Union could protect Poland against German vengeance in the future? The Stuttgart speech did not by itself abandon eastern Europe to Stalin, but it gave local Communists a strong patriotic weapon against their opponents.

That was the gamble Byrnes took. He wanted to draw a firebreak line across Europe: democrats this side, Communists that side. Fearing above all, like President Clinton, "a grey zone of insecurity" in the midst of the continent which Communism could cross, he took the risk of dividing Europe in order to save part of it from Marxist infection.

After Stuttgart, one thing led to another. The Iron Curtain rumbled down across Germany, separating two ideological worlds. West Germany was recognised as a state and then rearmed, while East Germany followed a parallel course. Rearmament, coupled with the West German refusal to recognise the Oder- Neisse frontier, ensured half a century of hostility between West Germany and the Soviet bloc. The partition of Europe was complete.

Detroit and Stuttgart: both speeches draw a line across Europe. In 1946, there was really no chance of saving Eastern Europe from Soviet domination; Byrnes's speech only hastened the inevitable. But 1996 is different. There is still a fair chance that Russia will stabilise as a democracy which will respect the independence of its small neighbours. President Clinton's decision not to wait any longer for Russia to make up its mind about Nato enlargement will upset President Yeltsin and give ammunition to his nationalist rivals. But it is the right decision. The risk of offending Russia is less than the risk of leaving east-central Europe to stew in uncertainty.

Many people inside Nato did not want enlargement to happen. Some said that it was madness to "dilute the guarantee"; Americans would never accept that an attack on Bialystok was equivalent to an attack on Baltimore. Others thought the main thing was not to offend Russia; small countries in between had to take their chance. Our own Labour Party has been evasive about this, and Robin Cook did not even mention the Detroit commitment in Thursday's foreign affairs debate.

But the decision has been made now. The Americans have signed on for a new European assignment. The alliance gate opens to admit the three at the head of the queue and shuts again on the rest, for all their jostling and lamenting. How long will they have to wait there, and what happens as it grows cold and dark outside the Nato wall? For the moment, the wolves are silent. But the next morning seems a long way off.

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