Leading Article: Nato faces tough challenge

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MANFRED WORNER, Secretary-General of Nato, has enunciated four good reasons for the existence of the alliance: to project stability; to keep the United States committed to Europe; to provide a forum for co-operation; and to insure against any remaining military risks.

The question lurking behind today's summit in Brussels is whether Nato can perform any of these functions well enough. It has already proved unable to project stability in former Yugoslavia, and is shying away from doing so in Eastern Europe. The French, although more co-operative, are still not fully reconciled to the US role in Europe. Co-operation is undermined by the above problems, among others. And the run-down of forces is proceeding towards a point at which the alliance may no longer be able to insure even its existing members against military risk.

Worse still, there are no easy answers. If Nato sticks with its present membership it leaves Central and East Europeans in the cold, inviting instability or Russian hegemony. If it invites in new members, it provides ammunition for the Russian military and appears to write off non-members, notably the Baltic states. If it stops the run-down of forces, it will also alarm Moscow. And if it pretends, as the French wish, that Europe can act independently of the US, it will condemn itself to discord and irrelevance.

The way out of these dilemmas chosen by President Clinton is 'Partnership for Peace', which offers the alliance's eastern neighbours military co-operation but no security guarantees. This is essentially a fudge to buy time, and time is necessary, largely because of uncertainty about which way Russia is heading. If the emergence of Vladimir Zhirinovsky signals the inexorable approach of militant nationalism, Nato needs to polish its weapons and define exactly how far its commitments extend. But if it does this too eagerly and too soon, it will accelerate fulfilment of the prophecy.

The beginnings of an answer can be found by dusting off the Harmel Report adopted by Nato in 1967. This states that 'military security and a policy of detente are not contradictory but complementary'. In other words, meet the threat while trying to reduce it; prepare for the worst while working for the best. Translated for today it means not appeasing the Russians but working for maximum contact, dialogue, assistance, reassurance and access to the closed areas of their minds while not neglecting defence. This is the way to allay their fears, not by giving them a veto over Western security policy. Indeed, the worst favour the West can do for Russian democrats is to convey the impression that it is half-hearted in its commitment to the defence and expansion of democracy. Clinton, in his speech yesterday, seemed to acknowledge this.

East Europeans will be watching Brussels anxiously this week for signs that the superpowers are once again colluding in the division of Europe. It is important that their fears should not be confirmed.