Leading Article: Better news for Eastern Europe

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The Independent Online
AREAFFIRMATION of the United States' commitment to Europe has been overdue for some time. Al Gore, the Vice-President, provided it last night in a speech setting the scene for next week's Nato summit.

The speech is welcome not only because Europeans want reassurance, but also because the United States seems to need periodic reminders of the importance of Europe for its own interests and its own security, no matter how vital the Pacific rim is as well. It should not have taken Vladimir Zhirinovsky to provoke such a reminder.

But this time Mr Gore also reached out to include the democracies of Eastern Europe, not with a full commitment to their security but to emphasise that 'the security of these states affects the security of America'. This, too, was necessary. It is simple enough to understand why Washington has been reluctant to invite Eastern Europe fully into Nato. Not only would an invitation risk provoking the nationalists in Russia, but it would also commit Nato to the defence of a much enlarged area before the political and military groundwork has been done.

Yet the reluctance has been overdone to the extent of seeming to give Moscow a veto over Western security policy. As a result, the Poles, Czechs and Hungarians, in particular, have felt themselves abandoned in a security vacuum by a Western alliance that is supposed to share their values and interests. They have rightly felt aggrieved and vulnerable and have been pressing for more supportive policies, especially since the nationalist clouds gathered in Moscow.

Washington's much-touted 'Partnership for Peace' was supposed to reassure the East Europeans without provoking Moscow but has satisfied neither. Mr Gore's speech, coupled with an authoritative briefing from Nato sources, changes the emphasis rather than the substance of policy. Eastern Europe now gets more attention and better hopes of entering Nato at some point, while the Russian veto looks weaker. This is entirely right, provided it is coupled, as it is likely to be, with efforts to persuade the Russians that they are not being excluded from Europe.

What they need to be shown is that it is up to them whether their relationship with Europe is to be co-operative or confrontational. Western reassurance for Eastern Europe does not threaten them; rather, it lowers the risk of instability in the area, which should be to Russia's advantage. If the Nato summit is now freed of an exaggerated deference to the more irrational fears of Moscow, its chances of success will be enhanced.