Leading Article: Nato prepares a neat side-step

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The Independent Online
TO ADMIT, say, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to Nato would, ostensibly, be relatively simple. True, there would be some organisational upheaval. But with no economic factors involved, as there would be with entry to the European Community, there would be few snags for Western politicians. Nato would be widely considered to be adjusting to the post-Communist world and to be finding a new role.

On closer examination, however, the attractions of enlargement are counter-balanced by many hazards. So it is far from surprising that

the Clinton administration has decided against any such move in the near future, without ruling it out in the longer term. Instead it advocates a series of bilateral agreements with former Warsaw Pact members. These would provide for increased military co-operation, possibly including joint peace- keeping, training and exercises.

The two strongest arguments against enlargement are that it would involve invidious choices, alienating countries anxious to be admitted but not accepted into the club; and that it would play into the hands of nationalist elements in the Russian armed forces, thus complicating life for President Boris Yeltsin.

The most enthusiastic would-be members have been Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. All three feel threatened by the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, in republics of the former Soviet Union, and by recent events in Moscow. Lying as they do at the heart of Europe, and having traditionally been carved up and battered by larger neighbouring powers, they hunger for membership of what is seen as a very successful organisation. As President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic wrote this week: 'Not a single major European conflict has left this area untouched in its 1,000-year history. Wars have started or ended on our territory.'

The instinct of every West European with a sense of history must be to see these three countries at least safe in Nato's embrace at the earliest possible opportunity. But before they could be admitted, criteria for new members would have to be drawn up. Other countries that believed they fulfilled them would reasonably resent being excluded. Nato does not want to create new divisions by seeming to divide Eastern European states into sheep and goats. So no names are likely to be mentioned when the prospect of future membership is held out at the important Nato summit in January.

Even stronger is Nato's desire not to alienate either the Russians or the Ukrainians. Last August, President Yeltsin told President Lech Walesa that it was up to Poland whether it joined Nato. Earlier this month he back-tracked, warning that Nato should not expand eastwards to embrace Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. That was generally seen as an attempt to keep the support of the military establishment, which reckoned he had gone too far.

The US plan neatly side-steps these issues, but does not satisfactorily solve the central question of Nato's role in the post-Communist world. That world is utterly different to the one that provided Nato's raison d'etre - yet in many ways not just more volatile but more dangerous. Nato is involved at several levels in Bosnia; but until it can find

a role that makes it seem a real force for peace, it will continue to seem an increasingly anachronistic Western club.