The Clinton administration is to be commended for its idealism in proposing this week to expand NATO by including Russia and other former foes as limited partners.

Even so, the West still should go extremely slow on this plan even after it is spelled out in greater detail January 10 at the next North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit meeting.That's because it won't be easy to get the unanimous agreement required to set a timetable for such a historic shift, let alone spell out the standards to be met by any new members.

Nor will it be easy to expand NATO at a time when the Western alliance is trying to redefine its role in the aftermath of the cold war and while parts of Europe are shaken by ethnic wars and other new conflicts.

Still another risk is that Moscow could be needlessly alarmed and destabilized by the extension of NATO to Russia's doorstep.

Despite such obstacles, it would not be premature to decide now upon limited NATO membership for former communist countries at some unspecified date in the distant future.

Even limited membership, though, should be extended only after the former NATO foes have demonstrated much more stability and had much more experience with freedom and democracy.

Moreover, since the alliance cannot be effective unless it is an association of the truly like-minded, such peaceful applicants as Austria, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland should be admitted to NATO long before Russia and its former Warsaw Pact allies.

By all means, NATO should reach out to former foes and try to help turn them into friends. But it's only common sense to take as much time as is needed to make sure the encouraging changes under way in the former Soviet empire are solid and continuing. The burden of proof is still on Moscow and its former associates.