PRESIDENT Clinton's journey to Europe and Russia next week marks his first official visit to the geographic heart of the Western alliance. He meets with NATO leaders at a Brussels summit, would-be NATO members from Eastern Europe in Prague, and Russian leaders in Moscow. This first major foreign policy venture is important.
The context of the trip is more difficult than when the White House planned the meetings last summer. There is a post-cold-war unease on the continent. European unity is less confident after the setbacks on the Maastricht Treaty. Not only is the formal NATO alliance lacking a definite role, but there is a general deterioration of the idea of collective security in Europe, partly due, as former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci notes, to Western inaction in Bosnia.
Both the Bosnia example and the sudden rise of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Russia present real problems, particularly for the Eastern European states. A fascist gaining 18 million votes in Russia has raised the stakes. White House planning this fall did not include the possibility of a Zhirinovsky. There has been much scrambling recently for a way to include Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic in a NATO framework without jeopardizing relations with Boris Yeltsin, who now plays to a more nationalist public.
Finally, Mr. Clinton faces something of a rift between Europe and the United States, and a perception in European capitals of a US president unwilling or unable to make hard foreign policy and security decisions.
What the White House desires from this trip is for the president to appear statesmanlike, and for him to act to heal the rift with Europe and not force Mr. Yeltsin into a more extreme position. To this end, Clinton will assert the continued vital interest of the US in Europe, and will in various ways offer ``hurrahs!'' for the old NATO alliance and its role in ending the cold war.
The real test will be in the direction Clinton's policy actually moves. NATO is a security organization; its success is based on US power, purpose, and resolve. The two main questions are: What will the US do about Bosnia? What will it do about East European security?
Going into the summit, the White House, it seems, would rather Bosnia not come up at all. Yet Wednesday the French Defense Minister said France will raise the issue; certainly the East Europeans will.
As for states such as Poland and Hungary, a way must be found to give them more than what Lech Walesa termed this week a ``hollow'' offer. Not to do so suggests that Russia has a veto over Western foreign policy.