GEORGE F. KENNAN, "A Fateful Error," New York Times, February 5, 1997

PRINCETON, N.J. -- In late 1996, the impression was allowed, or caused, to become prevalent that it had been somehow and somewhere decided to expand NATO up to Russia's borders. This despite the fact that no formal decision can be made before the alliance's next summit meeting, in June.

The timing of this revelation -- coinciding with the Presidential election and the pursuant changes in responsible personalities in Washington -- did not make it easy for the outsider to know how or where to insert a modest word of comment. Nor did the assurance given to the public that the decision, however preliminary, was irrevocable encourage outside opinion.

But something of the highest importance is at stake here.

And perhaps it is not too late to advance a view that, I believe, is not only mine alone but is shared by a number of others with extensive and in most instances more recent experience in Russian matters. The view, bluntly stated, is that expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.

Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking. And, last but not least, it might make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to secure the Russian Duma's ratification of the Start II agreement and to achieve further reductions of nuclear weaponry.

It is, of course, unfortunate that Russia should be confronted with such a challenge at a time when its executive power is in a state of high uncertainty and near-paralysis.

And it is doubly unfortunate considering the total lack of any necessity for this move.

Why, with all the hopeful possibilities engendered by the end of the cold war, should East-West relations become centered on the question of who would be allied with whom and, by implication, against whom in some fanciful, totally unforeseeable and most improbable future military conflict?

I am aware, of course, that NATO is conducting talks with the Russian authorities in hopes of making the idea of expansion tolerable and palatable to Russia. One can, in the existing circumstances, only wish these efforts success.

But anyone who gives serious attention to the Russian press cannot fail to note that neither the public nor the Government is waiting for the proposed expansion to occur before reacting to it.

Russians are little impressed with American assurances that it reflects no hostile intentions. They would see their prestige (always uppermost in the Russian mind) and their security interests as adversely affected.

They would, of course, have no choice but to accept expansion as a military fait accompli. But they would continue to regard it as a rebuff by the West and would likely look elsewhere for guarantees of a secure and hopeful future for themselves.

It will obviously not be easy to change a decision already made or tacitly accepted by the alliance's 16 member countries.

But there are a few intervening months before the decision is to be made final; perhaps this period can be used to alter the proposed expansion in ways that would mitigate the unhappy effects it is already having on Russian opinion and policy.

George F. Kennan is professor emeritus of historical studies at the Institute for Advanced Study.