PRESIDENT Clinton's plan for a NATO ``partnership'' with Eastern Europe and Russia may sound like an advertising slogan; but it is hard to overstate its importance. It is the first step toward Eastern Europe's membership in NATO. United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher also presented it in Budapest and Moscow as a first step toward Russian membership in NATO.
The Clinton administration has taken what most people had assumed would be a damage-to-Russia issue - expansion of NATO - and turned it into a plus for Russia. After all of the ridicule heaped on this administration's foreign policy, the White House deserves applause for correcting the Bush administration's worst mistakes.
In December 1991 President Boris Yeltsin declared that Russia's goal was to join NATO. Then-Vice President Alexander Rutskoi declared the expansion of NATO inevitable and called on NATO for stability as Russia withdrew forces from former East-bloc countries.
The Bush administration did not respond, nor did NATO. The West merely repeated that NATO would not offend Russia by expanding eastward. Given circumstances and history, this was a strange disinterest. Not surprisingly, Mr. Rutskoi began looking elsewhere for other, less passive sources of stability. Russian diplomats decided it would be undignified to offer to join NATO if they would only get spurned for it.
Yet the East Europeans kept trying to join NATO. In 1992 and 1993 they wore down the resistance of NATO diplomats. But the diplomatic circuit took its toll in return: It ``whittled down'' the issue to one of gradual inclusion of Central Europe without Russia. Russia warned that this would isolate it, and Mr. Yeltsin insisted that Russia should be included at the same time as the East Europeans.
Finally, after two years of waiting, Yeltsin is getting a positive response. He has welcomed the ``partnership'' plan. NATO's doors are again opening. The whittling down of the proposal now needs to be reversed. Even at its best, the partnership program is still only a first step. It would be wise to start thinking now about the next steps.
The schedules that have been discussed for admission of the East European countries are tortoise-paced. The German defense minister speaks of membership by the year 2000, and only for the Central Europeans - even this is widely considered ``too fast.'' Meanwhile, the Easterners are undergoing revolutionary changes. At the present pace, the entire opportunity could be lost before the West is ready to act on it.
The Clinton administration's partnership plan has been treated as if it were something that delays membership for Central Europe even further. But actually, Clinton's plan removes the presumption of Russian hostility and the sources of gridlock. Once the air clears, it may be seen that targeting the year 2000 for membership would be unreasonably slow.
Dilatoriness is also buttressed, however, by arguments about ``prerequisites.'' All manner of preconditions for NATO membership have been dreamed up in the last couple of years.
While Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and Mr. Christopher unveiled the partnership plan abroad, at home an anonymous ``senior administration official'' told the press that it would take ``years'' for Russia to meet the ``prerequisites'' for NATO membership. The official counted ``stability'' and ``irreversible democratic structures'' as preconditions for NATO membership. This amounted to putting the cart before the horse. If the West had waited for Germany (or Italy, Turkey, or Spain) to get ``irreversible'' democratic structures before joining NATO, it would still be waiting. Membership in NATO is a precondition for achieving irreversible democracy, not vice versa.
The only constructive response to doubts about new members would be to establish a category of ``associate member,'' where countries could start out and to which they could be returned in case of serious backsliding.
The East European countries are also being told that they must adapt to NATO technical equipment standards before they can become members. Here again, the cart is put before the horse. In the past, a country always joined first, then worked on standardization. That is the normal sequence.
IN unilaterally laying down conditions and demanding that the Easterners meet them beforehand, the West has been shamelessly projecting all of the burdens of adjustment onto the East. This comes at a time when the Easterners cannot afford extra burdens. If NATO really wants these countries as allies and does not want to drive them away, then it needs to give them some of the benefits of membership, not just burdens.
Until very recently, a number of people in NATO circles thought that their job was to make it harder for the East Europeans and Russians to get in. They found all kinds of arguments why it couldn't happen and wouldn't work. Now the goal is to find ways to make it happen and make it work. The whole subject needs to be rethought in these terms.
Once the thought-lines are clear, negotiations can begin on membership in a matter of months, not years. This does not mean instant membership but a multistage process, consisting of: first, negotiations with the Easterners to set terms and conditions for full membership that include adjustments on the Western side as well; second, the actual negotiations on full membership (or associate membership for countries where this seems to be a more reasonable target); third, ratification and entry into force.
If, at the Jan. 10, 1994, summit, NATO were to commit itself to the ultimate goal of membership for all of the Easterners, this would give the new democracies genuine confidence. The decision would provide them with a perspective that, despite some delay, would enable them to fit their security planning into it in the here and now. It also would help to stabilize them in the here and now. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.