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By signing up to participate in NATO's Partnership for Peace this week in Brussels, Russia has moved constructively toward dealing with the challenge of NATO-Russian security relations. As the partnership's chief architect, the Clinton Administration can take satisfaction in moving forward in the difficult search for a European security framework.

However, we should enter into this partnership with open eyes, recognizing that it is part of a political and diplomatic approach to European security, and that it should not represent the first steps toward NATO membership for Russia.Some argue that we should offer membership to all comers from the old Warsaw Pact states, with or without Russia, depending on the point of view. Such simple, hasty and all-inclusive plans to expand NATO are short-sighted. They fail to address the problem of the underlying purpose of NATO as an alliance: military cooperation among long-time NATO members to implement political decisions on NATO security and defense matters.

In the wake of the Cold War, NATO has struggled to redefine its mission as an alliance. Like any alliance, NATO's principal purpose is to protect its members, based on a common perception of security challenges and similar goals.

Yet NATO's responsibility for a truly European peace, and just what constitutes the new Europe and its security challenges, remain unclear. Although NATO in 1991 outlined the principles and structures of its Alliance Strategic Concept reflecting a broader concept of European security responsibility, the inability of alliance members to take coordinated action in places like Bosnia demonstrates that a common political will to back these principles is still not in place.

Quickly including European neighbors from central and eastern Europe without clear security-related reasons merely dilutes what little common political will exists. It is also foolish if new members do not yet have the domestic political stability and economic strength to contribute to the alliance. In short, we should not accept new members in NATO without very good reasons for doing so.

A further, and related, misperception among NATO-expansion advocates is the notion that, by expanding NATO to include its former adversaries, we help remove or at least alleviate the danger of renewed friction or even confrontation among members. Such a broad expansion transforms NATO from an alliance to a conflict-resolution structure, a very different animal with different responsibilities.

In effect, an all-European security alliance may not be a security alliance at all except on non-European, or non-member matters. By including unresolved security problems in NATO (such as between Russia and Ukraine, or Russia and elsewhere) without an overarching requirement for unity (as in the Cold War case of Turkey and Greece), we may risk de-clawing NATO as an alliance. Would we encourage or discourage wolves among the sheep?

Approaching new partners or associates with caution and intermediate steps allows us to minimize those risks. The Partnership for Peace program allows the members of NATO and these new partners an opportunity to work more closely on security issues and to develop the capacity for true contributions.

At the same time, partnerships give NATO a chance to establish that it can share security responsibility with and for these partners; not a small matter because it remains to be seen if these countries are committed to the same security goals as NATO.

In particular, Russia's interventionist policies toward her near-abroad, those neighboring states that used to belong to the Soviet Union, raise serious questions about her definition of European security. Her efforts to reassert Russian influence, and even outright control, throughout the former Soviet republics are not encouraging. We should be wary of our new partner's unresolved ambitions and security problems.

The Partnership for Peace program itself may be the best means currently available for security cooperation between NATO and "friendly" countries, whether in Europe or elsewhere. But it should not be tied to hasty and unnecessary commitments implying the expansion of NATO membership.

States like Russia, which may have some security concerns in common with NATO, may also have differing goals, or even peripheral security challenges to the main thrust of NATO's mission. For example, Russia's understandable preoccupation with her near abroad, and with powers still further east, may make her a doubtful candidate for full NATO membership.

As shared security challenges evolve, NATO and it partners can look at either a "tiered" membership in NATO, that is, differing levels of commitment to NATO for special cases, or at creating a larger security structure between NATO as a body and states like Russia and Ukraine. In the meantime, we should make the most of the Partnership for Peace. The Administration deserves praise for a good answer to a complex problem, one that allows us to work toward a constructive outcome for all Europe.