In President Clinton's recent trip to Europe lie the answers to a number of vital questions about America's future. The expansion of NATO is one of them, but it may not be the most important.
Certainly, expanding the NATO alliance's borders eastward is a step toward a more secure Europe. We won the Cold War. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have adopted democracy and market economies. They are part of Europe, and our victory and their progress should be institutionalized through their participation in NATO, the EU and other mechanisms of a united Europe.If this makes Russia uncomfortable, so be it. We should engage Moscow on political matters, but on security issues, it would be imprudent to let our hopes get too far ahead of our experience. Bringing NATO closer to Russia sends an important message about our resolve and opposition to regional adventurism.
But, in going to Europe, President Clinton not only strengthened NATO, he also called for more broadly strengthening U.S. ties to Europe. It is in the trans-Atlantic relationship where many of our challenges, present and future, lie.
Consider several key, seemingly unrelated issues preoccupying U.S. foreign policy.
Take for example, the renewal of ''most favored nation'' trading status for China. The revocation of MFN would be both damaging and ineffective. It would invite virtually certain retaliation costing tens of thousands of American jobs and pushing up prices on key imports. The Chinese can be counted on to punish American consumers and exporters because they feel confident they can find substitute markets elsewhere.
It is only through effective multilateral diplomacy that U.S. human rights concerns can be addressed. With U.S.-European cooperation on these issues, if we imposed sanctions we would not be opening the door to our principal competitors or offering China an easy means to avoid feeling the sting of our actions. Furthermore, if we worked together with the Europeans, we could forge a human rights policy that actually had some political and diplomatic leverage in a wide variety of institutions and didn't require turning to trade levers as the last available resort.
Acting unilaterally is ineffective. Given the shrinking relative size of our economy and our diminished political clout in the post-Cold War environment, our useful unilateral options are actually diminishing rapidly. We can shoot ourselves in the foot acting alone, but we cannot be effective leaders without a following.
Our leverage with Japan would also be enhanced if we cooperated with Europe. For years, Japan, China and others have been cannily playing the game of working us against the Europeans on trade issues. What is more, dealing with the next generation of trade issues - those pitting the developed countries against the developing ones - will require far greater U.S.-EU trade policy coordination than it is today.
Adding a new, strengthened trade component to the Atlantic Alliance would be a natural way to institutionalize this cooperation.
Strengthened U.S.-EU ties have already produced results in a variety of areas during the Clinton administration. Working with the European Union, we have overcome initial wariness to more effectively manage the process of ushering China into the WTO. Together, and in cooperation with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we have recently won approval for effective new steps to combat corruption. Most recently, important trans-Atlantic agreements on standards harmonization and mutual recognition of testing agencies were announced, a byproduct of groundbreaking work by the Transatlantic Business Dialogue.
But these steps represent just the beginning. A look to the horizon suggests that the world of the 21st century will share many of the features of the world today. It may be again a bipolar world. But the divisions are more likely to separate North and South than East and West.
It may also be a world in which the central debate is - as it was during the Cold War - about how to most justly distribute income and wealth within societies. Except, in the new scenario, the societies in question are not just national, they are regional and global.
If, in fact, these assumptions are true and the new paradigm bears striking resemblance to the old one, it is also clear that our most natural allies are those with whom we share the most culturally and whose interests are closest to our own: the Europeans.
In the wake of the collapse of communism, some thoughtful observers argued that we would enter a new period in which the alliances of the Cold War would fragment, drawn apart by economic competition. Yet today, a few years into this new era, it is apparent the strength of common interests demand that we overcome momentary differences and, once again, reinvent our old alliance for a wide array of compelling new reasons.