Blackballed by the Nato club: Jonathan Eyal deplores Western duplicity towards accepting the East into Europe

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FOR THOSE who believe that Europe's problems are best tackled by inventing new acronyms and institutions, the good times are back. Last week, ministers from member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation presented the East Europeans with a grand plan for security co-operation. Tomorrow Boris Yeltsin will have a chance to feel the vision when he meets Nato's senior officials in Brussels.

Entitled 'Partnership for Peace' (P for P in military parlance), the plan, originally concocted by the United States, proposes a series of agreements with all former Communist states, offering assistance in training, peacekeeping operations and even joint military manoeuvres.

A tiny snag remains, however. While all Western governments have expressed satisfaction, most East Europeans - whose problems the proposals are meant to address - have given them the sort of reception most people reserve for their tax inspector: they promised to sign on the dotted line, but wondered about the consequences.

P for P should really stand for 'Plan for Prevarication'. Almost everything now offered by Nato has been offered before and failed to persuade anyone. As the leading German commentator, Christoph Bertram, remarked, the Alliance's current scheme is intended merely to keep 'the Russians happy and the East Europeans hoping'.

The reasons offered by the West for opposing Nato's eastward expansion vary from the harmlessly nave to the outright duplicitous. Those who wish to duck the issue argue that, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet empire, it is impossible to define Europe's frontiers and say which countries fall within it. And those who tell the East Europeans that, with the end of Communism, they have nothing more to fear, insist in the same breath that Nato should be maintained to protect the West. The most fervent believers in a Europe 'whole and free' are also the continent's greatest dividers.

Nato bureaucrats fear that admitting new states would embroil the alliance in many Yugoslav-type conflicts and saddle the organisation with myriad social and economic problems. In fact, the countries that have disintegrated since the end of Communism (Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) are the exceptions, rather than an indication of things to come: in all three, the very nature of the multi-ethnic state was questioned. Other East European countries certainly have ethnic minority problems, but disintegration is not one of them. Western governments may be toppled for failing to lift local economies from mere zero- growth levels, but East Europeans have suffered a drop of more than a third in their living standards without any street violence. Tyres are burnt and airports closed by protesting workers in Paris and Brussels, not Warsaw or Budapest; terrorism is a feature of Northern Ireland, the Basque country and Corsica, not Silesia or Transylvania.

Nato officials also like to claim that offering East Europeans security guarantees is counter-productive because similar guarantees offered in the Thirties failed to prevent these countries being occupied. But the lesson of the Thirties is not that security guarantees are unwarranted but that promises not backed up by deeds are worthless. Arguing that Nato cannot uphold any security guarantees is tantamount to suggesting that today's leaders are no better than Neville Chamberlain. And far from requiring security guarantees, the East Europeans want genuine burden-sharing. They are not worthless supplicants: whenever their security needs were ignored in the past, all Europe was ultimately plunged into disaster.

For four years the East Europeans have been offered make-believe institutions. The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe was the first, but it remained an irrelevant umbrella for Europe's orphans. Then came Nato's North Atlantic Co-operation Council. This was intended to do everything that the current 'partnership' is meant to achieve, but all it did was plan peacekeeping operations that nobody was willing to undertake. The East Europeans could be forgiven therefore if they approached Partnership for Peace with suspicion: those who have promised but never delivered have, as the Americans would say, a credibility problem.

In fact, 'partnership' suggests that the West wants to maintain an ambiguity between the outright confrontation of the past and a straightforward alliance: 'partners' usually cohabit, but do not marry. The plan is based on a fairly transparent deceit. Unwilling to override Moscow's opposition to Nato's enlargement, the West is inviting republics from Poland to the Sea of Japan to live in a happy commune, with the promise that some commune members will eventually marry into the Nato family. The real purpose is to sort out countries Nato wants from those it would rather not see among its members.

Selecting its members is the essence of any club, and there is a surprising degree of unanimity in Brussels about the criteria for selection. Potential members should be capable of joining not only the Alliance but the European Union as well. Six Central and East European countries already have association treaties with the Union. Russia cannot be included, but this does not necessarily mean that it should be isolated. So long as the criteria for discrimination are not made permanent, nothing should preclude a close alliance with Russia in future, and genuine co-operation now. The East Europeans are interested in joining Nato in order to strengthen the Alliance; Moscow is interested in diluting it. Which is preferable from a Western viewpoint?

If Western governments can muster the courage, they should tell President Yeltsin that the enlargement of Nato is in his country's best interests. Leaving Eastern Europe in suspended animation would provide no cordon sanitaire at all; it would merely fuel a competition between Moscow and the West for spheres of influence. In fact, Nato's eastward expansion would create an alliance even keener on co-operation with the Kremlin. After all, the last thing that East Europeans, with their deep economic interests in Russia, want would be confrontation.

Nato's current policy of selecting its potential members by stealth may end up being the worst of all worlds. By signing the same agreements with all former Communist states, Nato will only fuel further suspicion: every Eastern European will scrutinise the slightest move from Brussels for a sign that one country is more favoured than another. Accusations of secret diplomacy and disputes with Moscow would multiply. And Brussels would face exactly the same dilemma it wishes to avoid today: either rejecting Russia's objections or levelling its partnership down to the lowest common denominator, leading to meaningless photo-opportunites, all dubbed 'historic'.

The psychological impact would be more important still. The enlargment of Nato entails a process of education. Western public opinion must be told why new commitments are necesssary. Yet offering Tajikistan and Poland the same formal partnership reinforces the idea that the two are of the same security importance to Europe, indistinguishable problems best ignored.

Everyone's intention, it seems, is to do as much as possible without doing anything in particular. Yet an alliance which piles up arsenals against an enemy that supposedly no longer exists has only two choices: it tackles its current problems seriously, or heads for oblivion. The Partnership for Peace is fluff and nothing more.

The author is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

(Photograph omitted)