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A Solution for Eastern Europe

POLAND, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria -- and probably Romania -- would all like to be taken in under the NATO umbrella. Serious consideration is being given among the members of NATO to invite them all in. But would it be wise to do so?

The smaller countries of Eastern Europe live squeezed between Russia and Germany, both much bigger, and both with records of attempting to dominate or even annex these peoples. These countries want security against what happened to them in the past. They want the kind of security that a single small country with big neighbors does not automatically enjoy.

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A British foreign secretary once said that if the Austrian empire did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. What is wanted right now is not necessarily a revived Austro-Hungarian Empire, with all the trappings of empire, but some kind of an economic and political entity that would fill the place in the European system once filled by the Hapsburg Empire.

The Hapsburg family ruled in Central Europe from 1278 to 1918. For more than 350 years, the Hapsburgs were also crowned Holy Roman Emperors. At first smaller than Austria is today, the Hapsburg empire grew largely through advantageous marriages and by conquest, especially from Ottoman Turks to the east. The family dynasty united many races and languages, and by the beginning of World War I the empire spanned Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Boznia-Herzegovina, as well as parts of Italy, Romania, and Poland.

It was a remarkably successful empire. It was multinational, multilingual, and multicultural. It was economically progressive, and it brought its constituent parts into the industrial age. Its capital, Vienna, was a prime source of investments for all parts of the empire. During the age of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, Vienna was the cultural center of Europe, indeed of the world.

Walter Lippmann, who served on President Woodrow Wilson's staff at the Versailles conference at the end of World War I, told me that Wilson never intended to break up the Austrian Empire. Lippmann said that it was broken up primarily because the Czechs and Slovaks wanted independence and were able to build up a lively public demand for it in the United States. Wilson's hand was apparently forced by the public relations skills of Jan Masaryk and Edward Benes.

Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and Romania, and part of Poland were once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and all shared in its prosperity from the downfall of Napoleon to World War I. It was a big, prosperous common market with enough military power to take care of its own security.

Today, Poland is bigger than the others and more able to take care of itself. The others all need a context such as they had in the days of the Hapsburg empire. There is no reason why they could not form a common market of their own -- and some form of political grouping, even possibly a federation. If they did, they would not need to turn to NATO for security. They could provide their own. Together they would be large enough, and strong enough, to take care of their own security.

Such an organization would provide a missing element of stability in Eastern Europe. It would help to balance the influence of Germany in the region. It would not alarm the Russians, as does the idea of bringing them into NATO. They have all wanted their freedom and independence and they all have it, but not one is strong enough to provide its own security, or even economic welfare.

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The real answer to the problem of security for Eastern Europeans is to reinvent the Austrian empire -- in a modern form.

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