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NATO's New Leader Seeks To Straddle Old Iron Curtain

Concerned about alienating Kremlin, US urges caution

PRESSURE whipped up in the Balkans and Central Europe is creating cracks in NATO's once-monolithic facade, and those fissures threaten to undermine construction of a unified Europe.

Since the 1989 lifting of the Iron Curtain, Western leaders have groped to bring the once-Communist nations of Europe into the fold of the market democracies.

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Some leaders, especially German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, argue that Europe's rapid unification is the best way to ensure future Continental peace. But Russia is holding up the process, having another view of united Europe's dimensions. Meanwhile, caught in the middle is the United States, which wants to avoid creating new, permanent continental divisions.

Straddling the East-West divide, Germany frames the matter as a race against time. The longer the Balkans and Central Europe are left to stew in ethnic and economic crises, the greater the prospects that their troubles may spill into the West.

The 16-member organization is generally recognized as the prime instrument in the effort to stabilize Europe's trouble spots. But the post-cold-war age has so far done more to expose NATO's weaknesses than highlight its strengths. The Balkan quagmire, and Central Europe's economic uncertainty, underscore the need for different approaches from NATO strategists than those required during the cold war.

Tough talk and a massive arsenal are not enough to get the job done anymore. Peacekeeping needs a greater diplomatic touch. NATO members realize this, but still find themselves mired in tactics.

Forging consensus, especially regarding expansion, will be the main task of Willy Claes, the alliance's new secretary-general. The former Belgian foreign minister replaced the late Manfred Worner.

NATO has pledged to expand eastward, but it has not provided a time frame. On Oct. 17, his first day at his new post, Mr. Claes said drafting a growth blueprint was his top priority. He also said NATO needs to bolster its political component, and strengthen ties with other international organizations, especially the United Nations.

As Belgian foreign minister, Claes gained a reputation for deft consensus-building and negotiating skills. He'll need them as he attempts to reconcile NATO aims and Russian concerns.

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Moscow still figures greatly in all of NATO's calculations. US Ambassador to NATO Robert Hunter says Russia is ``arguably the most important factor in determining the future of European security.''

Lacking unanimity, NATO so far has adopted a cautious approach to security maintenance, citing the dangers of isolating a weak Russia. In many of the former Soviet republics, however, NATO's caution is quietly scorned. Many observers, especially in Central Europe, worry that NATO is losing its effectiveness as a guarantor of European stability.

That the Balkans and Central Europe are still enmeshed in uncertainty would seem to compound fears about NATO's peacemaking ability.

Regarding the Bosnian civil war, NATO and the UN have had problems agreeing on a unified strategy. A recent NATO initiative that would have brought increased air power to bear against Bosnian Serb forces stalled in the face of UN resistance. UN officials said increased air raids might prompt Serb reprisals against UN peacekeepers deployed in Bosnia.

And NATO nations are deeply divided on how best to promote stability in Central Europe as those states struggle with the transition to market democracy.

So far, the alliance has only come up with the nebulous Partnership for Peace, offering European countries greater military cooperation with NATO without extending security guarantees.

Poland and the Czech Republic in particular want rapid inclusion in NATO and the European Union. They reason NATO could provide security, boosting the region's democratic transformation.

At a September NATO meeting, the expansion question proved so divisive that members put off a decision. Germany supported the move to expand, but US officials argued the risks of angering Russia outweighed any benefit of giving Central Europe a firm membership timetable. Russia has become increasingly hostile to including Central Europe in NATO.

Some defense officials in Moscow have even hinted that Russia might form a new security bloc of its own - comprising most of the former Soviet republics - if NATO pushed eastward. That would effectively cement a new European dividing line, which US leaders are anxious to avoid.

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