The U.S. Senate will soon debate and vote upon the accession of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to the NATO Alliance. If the Senate ratifies enlargement, we will have set the foundation for decades of European peace and prosperity. If we fail, historians may look back at the early post-Cold War period as a tragic loss of opportunities.

NATO cannot by itself solve all of Europe's problems. But without a stable security framework, we run the risk that reform and democracy in Eastern Europe will not persist but will instead be undercut by destructive forces of nationalism and insecurity.The failure of democracy in the East could not help but have profound consequences for democracy in the continent's western half as well. If history teaches us anything, it is that the United States is always drawn into such European con-flicts because our vital interests are ultimately engaged.

Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are democratic, free market nations with professional militaries under civilian control. In addition to contributing to NATO's core mission of collective defense, they are ready and able to support American and allied interests beyond their borders, as they have demonstrated in Desert Storm, Haiti, and Bosnia.

Accession of these three democracies to NATO will eliminate immoral and destabilizing dividing lines in Europe and extend stability into a region long troubled by conflict. A stable and peaceful Europe will benefit all of Europe, including Russia and non-NATO countries.

Expanding peace and stability in Europe lessens the chances of the United States again being pulled into conflicts in the region. NATO enlargement provides an opportunity for the alliance to be pro-active in shaping a stable strategic landscape in Europe.

Critics assert that NATO enlargement repeats the mistake of the Versailles Treaty by mistreating Russia. One should be careful with historical analogies. NATO enlargement is not a punishment or isolation of Russia.

During the period that NATO enlargement has proceeded, President Boris Yeltsin was re-elected; reformers were elevated in government; Yeltsin pledged to press for ratification of START II and then to pursue deeper nuclear arms reductions in START III; the Russian Duma approved the Chemical Weapons Convention; Russian troops continue their participation in Bosnia; the West has extended some $100 billion since 1991 to assist Russian democratic and economic reforms, and more than $2 billion in weapons dismantlement and security.

Many reject NATO enlargement out of a desire to preserve a Russian sphere of influence. If Russia cannot accept the legitimate right of its neighbors to choose their security arrangements, a policy they embraced in the NATO-Russia Founding Act, then NATO's role will prove even more important.

NATO enlargement and deeper NATO-Russian relations both have immense value for the United States and Europe if they are pursued properly. They are complementary and reinforcing objectives. The best outcome for the United States and Europe is for both tracks to succeed. A zero-sum debate about them, therefore, misses the point.

The coming vote in the U.S. Senate on NATO enlargement will not simply be a decision over whether to add a few members to a military alliance. It will become a statement of the roles of the United States and the countries of Western Europe in the world.

The U.S. vote on enlargement will be seen as a sign of whether America intends to maintain its international leadership role, or whether, after the end of the Cold War, the United States intends to retreat and relinquish its status as the world leader. It is my hope that America will maintain its position and engagement in the world's arena by ratifying NATO enlargement.