The world's most successful military alliance took a historic step this week to set a date to open its doors to new members in Central and Eastern Europe.
At the same time, foreign ministers of the 16-member North American Treaty Organization tried to defuse Russian fears that such NATO expansion would either humiliate the former superpower or threaten its security.
Pulling off both objectives will require some of the fanciest diplomatic footwork since Western leaders first constructed the Atlantic alliance after World War II. For President Clinton, successfully managing the expansion of the alliance could be his place in the history books.
"We are strengthening our partnership and extending to the newly free nations of Europe what history denied them in 1945," says US Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
The challenge to Western diplomats will be to make sure that the process of extending NATO's security guarantees to Europe's new democracies does not actually increase tensions on the Continent.
"If NATO expands, Russia has said that it will target [newly admitted] countries with missiles. It worries us, because who wants to be targeted?" Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves said yesterday. Estonia is one of 11 countries bidding for NATO membership. Small nations also worry about the timing of NATO expansion. Those that are not named at NATO's summit in Madrid on July 8-9, 1997, do not want to be left out in the cold.
NATO foreign ministers tried to soften the blow to Russian sensibilities by stating that NATO countries have "no intention, no plan, and no reason" to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members. Countries expected to win the first nod for NATO membership include Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic.
In addition to its no-nukes pledge, NATO ministers also authorized NATO Secretary General Javier Solana to open a formal dialogue with Russia over a NATO-Russia charter. The purpose of the charter would be to deepen cooperation and trust between former cold-war foes.
"We cannot guarantee that Russia will accept enlargement. But we have to satisfy ourselves that we have taken every reasonable step to address its concerns," said Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy at the opening session of this week's summit.
But so far, such assurances have not dented Russian objections to new NATO members. Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov flatly rejected NATO expansion.
"We continue to be against NATO enlargement, and this position is not simply the view of the Russian government, it is not simply a subjective position. This is based on the firm belief that NATO enlargement will inevitably lead to a new division of Europe. This is unacceptable from a strategic, military, [or] any point of view," he said yesterday.
But Mr. Primakov said he approved of negotiating a new relationship with NATO. "Russia ... does realize that NATO is an important organization [and] plays an important role in Europe, and being pragmatists, we are certainly going to base ourselves on that position," he said.
NATO officials say Russian leaders know that expansion is inevitable, but want to exact maximum concessions to go along with it. Russian leaders also worry about negative reaction to American leadership of NATO expansion from hard-line nationalists in their own parliament, they say.
France is driving a tough bargain of its own in the run-up to the July 8 summit. On Tuesday, France alone blocked a US proposal to create the Atlantic Partnership Council, which would have given NATO a formal mechanism to consult with all of Europe's new democracies.
France also insists that enlargement cannot go forward until NATO reforms its own structures and gives Europeans a greater role in NATO's military command. Such reforms have been deadlocked since September, when France demanded that a European be in charge of NATO's Southern Command, which includes the US Sixth Fleet. The US rejects the French demand.
Russia's Primakov appeared to back the French demand regarding the Southern Command. He said if NATO doesn't develop a more European identity, "it would be very difficult for us to think in terms of a dialogue." Russian officials have long complained that the US takes little account of Moscow's foreign policy concerns.
"Madeleine Albright's appointment as US secretary of state shows that Washington intends to take a tougher stance with Moscow," says Russian lawmaker Vladimir Lukin. "The Americans are tired of pretending that Russia must be reckoned with," he told the ITAR-TASS news agency Monday.