Washington, 17 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Ever more East Europeans recognize that they face threats to their national security that NATO membership by itself will not solve.
This new understanding about the nature of both the Western alliance and the threats they face has not made most East Europeans any less interested in being included in the Western alliance.
But it has simultaneously transformed discussions about NATO in Eastern Europe and led an increasing number of governments there to take steps that will promote the national security of their countries regardless of whether NATO invites them in.
With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and then of the Soviet Union, virtually all countries in that region saw NATO membership as the foundation of their future security.
Indeed, many tended to view NATO membership as a panacea to all their problems. If they got in, they would be taken care of and their security would be assured. But if they did not, then they would be left without any hope of a secure future.
Those perspectives helped frame the debate about security in many of these countries, but three developments have helped to change both the understanding of NATO and the role these countries can play in promoting their own national security.
First of all, these countries have had to deal with a West that has been anything but unanimous about the desirability or even the possibility of expanding the alliance to the east anytime soon.
Many Western leaders have worried about the dangers involved in offending Russian sensibilities, and many Western populations have been concerned about the costs involved, costs that many in the West are reluctant to pay now that the Cold War is a thing of the past.
As a result, these countries have had to think about a future in which only a few may become members of the alliance soon and in which any of these countries will never join.
Second, NATO's outreach programs such as Partnership for Peace have taught many East European leaders just what NATO can do and even more important what it cannot.
NATO, as ever more of them understand, is a military defense alliance. It is intended in the first instance to prevent or in the worst case respond to military aggression.
It was not intended to deal with violence within countries. And as the West's reluctance to get involved in Bosnia has shown, the alliance remains reluctant to do so.
But even more, NATO as a political and military organization does not provide either the structure or the weapons to combat other threats to national security that many countries in that region now face.
The Western alliance cannot prevent illegal migration. It cannot develop a legal or judicial system for countries lacking them. And it cannot create a stable banking system or tax regime, without which any government is at risk of subversion.
The Western alliance may create a climate in which governments and peoples can take those often difficult steps. But it cannot take those steps for any country. Rather the governments and peoples of those countries must do so on their own.
Indeed, many East European countries have learned that NATO member states face many of these same threats -- such as illegal migration, organized crime, and subversion of banking systems -- without being able to count on Brussels for a solution.
And third, ever more East Europeans recognize that these threats that NATO cannot defend against are precisely the ones that they must overcome and that the threat NATO was intended to combat is for most of them less immediate. Virtually all East Europeans continue to fear the possibility that Russia will once again seek to dominate the region and hence see in NATO membership a guarantee against that possibility.
But ever more of them also understand that the threat to their countries over the next decade is less likely to take the form of an invading army than that of the subversion of their banking systems or economies.
And they recognize that improving their own domestic situations will have security consequences: it will attract ever more Western investment, and that investment will tend to provide a bulwark against the more immediate, non-military threats.
Again, this new understanding in Eastern Europe has not made the governments and peoples there any less interested in joining NATO. And it has not made NATO any less important for the future of Europe.
But it has meant that the countries of this region now recognize just how much they must do to promote their own security rather than waiting for someone else to do it for them. Paradoxically, that in itself makes them even better candidates for inclusion in the Western alliance.