The NATO alliance proved its value in the first decade after the Cold War. But the hard work of building a lasting system of European security for the 21st century has just begun. Failure now to sustain practical success and political support would show NATO's recent renaissance to have been short-lived.

No other alliance in history has re-created itself for times as different as the Cold War and today's challenge to construct a Europe "whole and free." From the start of the 1990s, when NATO seemed to have outlived its usefulness, it has emerged indispensable once more to Europe's long-term security. The world has witnessed its progress from an outdated alliance looking for a mission to a set of new missions demanding an alliance to fulfill them. America's necessary and permanent strategic engagement on the continent has been confirmed; the virtues of collective defense have been validated, even in the absence of a palpable military threat; the newly free nations of central Europe have convinced the West that they must be fully engaged in all Euro-Atlantic institutions, including the premier military alliance; the allies have accepted the need for NATO to stop conflict in the Balkans; and they have understood that coherent effort within the alliance is essential for resolving the central conundrum of the future of Russia.

Democracies at peace are never easily motivated to forestall crisis and conflict. Although NATO's new design is largely done, building the edifice and buttressing it against future stresses will require time, effort, and resources.

At the 1997 NATO summit in Madrid, the allies invited Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join, and pledged that the door would be open to any other European country "ready and willing" to shoulder the responsibilities of NATO membership. Alliance leaders must now validate that promise with concrete steps, must relate the criteria for new entrants to political and strategic purpose, and must ensure that the alliance remains strong, relevant, and able to act. The alliance must give added life and heft to the Partnership for Peace (PFP), NATO's flagship enterprise for engaging nonmembers directly and deeply in its everyday work, providing them with much of the substance -- if not all the symbols and certainties -- of security in the years immediately ahead. The leaders of NATO must show how the goal of a "strategic partnership" with Russia can be turned from slogan into long-term practical reality that departs from the old pattern of treating defeated nations harshly.

The allies must also commit substantial additional resources to help central European states -- and Russia -- succeed at home and play full and constructive roles in European security. They must decide what new missions they will undertake (as in Bosnia and Kosovo), how they will proceed with them, and under what authority, as well as how far beyond the geographical limits of "Europe" the alliance will extend its watchfulness and formal writ, and where it will not venture.

At the same time, an alliance that has always relied on America's strategic presence must adjust to the possibility that European allies can and will assume more of the common security burden. The European Union has now been built to the point where it can begin fashioning the dream of a Common Foreign and Security Policy, military instruments to do its bidding, and structures to make all this effective. Already NATO and the EU act in parallel but separately in central Europe, Russia, and Bosnia; like the Berlin Wall before it, the barrier between these two institutions must now come down.

Its fiftieth anniversary in April marked a half-century of success for NATO. But as the sounds of celebration fade, NATO must justify itself by what it does to foster security across the board. Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin on the founding of the American Republic, it is "an alliance -- if you can keep it."

RESTLESS ON ITS LAURELS

A few short years ago, not many would have bet that NATO would survive -- much less that it would have found a new sense of purpose, revamped its structure, fought a short, sharp war, deployed forces outside the treaty area, taken in three new members, and concluded a Founding Act to begin defining its relations with the Russian Federation.

This renaissance of NATO's has depended on an American commitment to remain strategically engaged in Europe and, at each critical juncture, to lead. America's decision this time not to withdraw after a European conflict reflected well-learned lessons of the twentieth century and a palpable need for continued U.S. engagement. European states and institutions proved unable to cope on their own with the outbreak in the former Yugoslavia of the first serious fighting in Europe since World War II. Newly liberated states of central Europe pressed for U.S. strategic guarantees of their independence. And as Russia tottered between hope and peril, it was commonly understood that only the United States had the weight and capacity to nurture its transition. Yet unlike in 1919 and 1946, the U.S. recommitment to European security has not produced a major national debate or partisan division: America's strategic presence on the continent has become a settled historical question.

Aiding NATO's transition from the Cold War was a half-century's work in turning a paper alliance into practice. The unique integrated military structures of NATO still provide each ally with more combat capability than it could create on its own, especially as military spending falls. The alliance has thus forestalled the natural fragmenting and renationalizing of defense. It also helps guarantee an achievement without precedent: the 15 nations of the EU have abolished war as an instrument of relations with one another, and created what can be called a European Civil Space.

At the same time, demand came from nations and peoples in central Europe that longed to be full members of the Western world. There was suddenly an opportunity to ensure that states in the European heartland would not again become battlegrounds in great-power conflicts. Thus NATO undertook new responsibilities in central Europe, reforming and working with military organizations and even trying to eliminate old concepts of European security -- buffer states, gray areas, spheres of influence, possibly even the balance of power. In league with the EU, NATO sought to push the European Civil Space eastward, on the untested theory that what had worked in western Europe could also be applied to central Europe.

There remained the critical matter of Russia, the one country that could in the next several decades upset the new European peace. Scholars debate whether Russia can soon revive and renew its military strength or whether it will languish into the distant future. But too much is at stake to bet on long-term Russian weakness or disintegration. Thus NATO adopted as its guiding vision President Bush's historical insight that the West should treat Russia not like the Germany of 1919, to be reviled, isolated, and punished, but like the Germany of 1946, to be brought rapidly back into the community of nations. The allies accepted that they should help Russia become a "normal" country, one reforming at home and with the potential to play a constructive role as a legitimate European power.

INTERLOCKING SECURITY

To fulfill the alliance's new purposes, the NATO allies developed a series of interlocking programs, each related to the others and all needed to form a strategic and political whole. They had to reconcile a range of competing objectives and either revise old institutions or create new ones, recognizing that there could be lasting security across the continent -- a possibility unique to this generation -- only if every country gained some benefits from NATO's actions.

Most significant was NATO's decision to take in new members. In the United States, strategic calculation, ethnic politics, and the vision of an inclusive Europe were major factors for decision makers. In Europe, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Germany, wary of arousing new fears of German ambition, wanted to surround itself with members of both NATO and the EU. Central European governments argued that anything short of NATO membership would unwittingly ratify a new division of Europe, exclude them from determining their strategic fate, and be untrue to Western values. And in the back of some minds was uncertainty about Russia and a desire to hedge against the worst -- and what better time to extend NATO's reach than before a new threat emerged? In the end, one argument was compelling: to be relevant to Europe's future, NATO membership must remain open to all countries in the heartland for which only the alliance's security guarantee could provide confidence as they weathered the stresses of reform. Central Europe had to be taken off the table of great-power competition.

Yet though all NATO allies agreed in 1994 to the idea of new members, most remained uncertain about the pace, timing, direction, and extent of the new admissions, and they continued to temporize. How in real life could NATO be enlarged without weakening the alliance? they asked. Wouldn't admitting only a few countries isolate the others? And wouldn't enlargement provoke a hostile response from Russia? It took more than three years to answer these objections and plan the careful integration of enlargement with other steps to make the whole a net addition to security.

The alliance's principal answer to the first two questions was the Partnership for Peace. Proposed by the United States in October 1993, its military sponsors saw it as a substitute for admitting new members. Objectively, they argued, this was what the central European states truly needed to be secure in a Europe facing no threat of external aggression. But PFP'S political sponsors saw that enlargement was becoming a necessary part of NATO strategy. The partnership must do double duty, helping aspirants to membership prepare to pass military muster -- to become "producers and not just consumers of security" -- and also reassuring any partner country that it could form a deep, permanent association with NATO, more or less of its own choosing, short of membership itself.

Thus PFP offers a wide menu of activities, letting each partner select what it wants. The activities have included reform of militaries and defense ministries, pushing their democratization, which has the potential to spill over to other parts of society; and engagement in a wide range of practical NATO efforts, from standardizing equipment and procedures to joining alliance forces both in military exercises and in the flash point of Bosnia. With its flexibility, its role in preparations for enlargement, and its appeal to a wide range of states (including former neutrals), PFP thus rapidly became NATO's magic bullet. It was later complemented by a political forum, the Euro-Atlantic Policy Council, designed to give partners an added sense of involvement with the alliance.

Far more difficult was accounting for Russia, implacably opposed to the encroachment of old foes on its former buffer states. The allies worried about how they could admit new members from central Europe without validating Russia's suspicion that NATO was taking strategic advantage of its weakness. But they also resisted accommodating Russian concerns if that meant again compromising the interests of the central European states -- a "new Yalta."

The allies took four steps to square this circle. They pressed Russia to join PFP, which it finally did in May 1995. U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry secured the participation of 1,500 Russian soldiers in the NATO-led Implementation Force in Bosnia, dramatizing for Russia that it has a role to play in European security. The alliance laid out for the Russians the changes it was making to transform its Cold War character, both in its military posture (through the so-called NATO Long-Term Study of Command Structure) and its strategic concept.

Most ambitious, NATO and Russia concluded a Founding Act in May 1997, inaugurating a NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council. With the agreement, the allies preserved their latitude to act militarily and forestalled any Russian attempt to interfere in NATO decisions about third countries. But they also agreed to consultation, cooperation, and even common action between NATO and Russia, potentially leading to a strategic partnership. Thus the alliance sought to "bracket" Russia's future: to hold out the chance of becoming a full participant in European security, if internal reform progresses well, but at the same time to preserve an alliance able to defend itself if reform fails and Russia again threatens the West.

In parallel, the allies recognized the special situation of Ukraine: located in the European heartland, beset by internal problems and by no means homogeneous, reluctant to seek NATO membership because of the need to balance relations with Moscow, requiring reassurance after renouncing nuclear weapons, and too large and prominent simply to be encompassed by PFP. In response, the alliance created a distinctive partnership with Ukraine, a step shy of the status accorded Russia, through a NATO-Ukraine Charter and Commission.

FLASH POINT AND LINCHPIN

As the allies developed this comprehensive framework to reconcile contending interests and ensure NATO's relevance for the 21st century, they began realizing that their plans for the future were mocked by the reality of war in Bosnia. They had treated Bosnia and Herzegovina as a backwater, lying beyond the formal NATO treaty area, lacking in interest for all but a few of them, and clearly contained within its remote corner of the Balkans. That analysis proved unsound. As the moral and political implications of war and atrocity intruded on public attention, the allies came to see that NATO could achieve little else unless it also stopped the Bosnian war. They were finally impelled to use military force -- in the successful air campaign of August-September 1995 -- when they understood that allied credibility and political support for the broader security agenda demanded intervention in Europe's only open conflict. Responding decisively to ethnic conflict thus became an added NATO mission. In a very real sense, a Bosnia that had almost destroyed the alliance proved its salvation.

The alliance's actions in Bosnia brought every element of its future into play. Its military commands were reconfigured, in particular to deploy combat forces through the Implementation Force (now called the Stabilization Force). Forces in Bosnia learned new political-military duties of peacemaking, built relations with the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations, and integrated operations in space and air, at sea, and on land. Member countries of PFP took part in the NATO-led Bosnia force, on the same terms as allies, and learned new skills also needed for joining the alliance.

At the same time, NATO's military instrument had to be melded with novel diplomacy in ways never envisioned during the Cold War, turning it into a true political-military alliance. The allies learned that all had to share the risks even of tasks not covered at the start -- a lesson in particular for the United States, which withheld forces from the U.N. protection force but had to assume major responsibilities with the ensuing NATO force. With each of these developments NATO showed that it remained relevant to Europe's security. It adjusted as demanded by circumstance, the practice outpacing the theory, and it ratified its role as the only serious European security institution and thus an alliance worth joining.

THE MADRID DECISIONS

With military success in Bosnia and its new security architecture in place, by 1997 NATO was finally ready to decide which central European countries should be asked to join. Three countries were chosen at the Madrid summit on a compound of several criteria. Poland and the Czech Republic were the candidates with the most support. Each has a border with Germany; each lies between NATO and Russia. Both shared with the third invitee, Hungary (which provided critical support to U.S. Bosnia operations), a readiness and ability to undertake the military and political obligations of membership, including domestic political and economic reforms and the end of any lingering claims against neighbors.

The most critical standard was the willingness of the United States to provide the indispensable American strategic commitment. Other states with strong European sponsors -- Romania (supported by France), Slovenia (by Italy), and the Baltic republics (by the Nordic members) -- could not contest the fact that the United States would incur the principal liability for honoring NATO security guarantees. The Clinton administration was not ready to risk rejection in the U.S. Senate or to accept permanent security burdens in northeastern or southeastern Europe.

At Madrid, the allies faced another test of equal magnitude: convincing countries not invited to join that the door to NATO membership remained open, that this round of enlargement would not be the last. Otherwise the alliance risked drawing a new dividing line through the continent, reviving spheres of influence, and discouraging countries not chosen. In the absence of concrete acts, words had to suffice, with the allies announcing, "The alliance expects to extend further invitations in coming years to nations willing and able to assume the responsibilities and obligations of membership." Even that expectation was qualified, requiring that further enlargement "serve the overall political and strategic interests of the alliance" and "enhance overall European security and stability." The allies did accept that no country would be "excluded from consideration," regardless of geography -- an oblique reference to the Baltics -- but they agreed only to "review the process" at the 1999 summit. Few allies believed they would soon consider further invitations to join the alliance.

NOW FOR THE HARD PART

Given the pace at which NATO has changed, it is natural that the implications of its decisions have not yet fully sunk into the politics of each allied nation. The alliance is still sorting out both its priorities and the practical relations of its many initiatives to one another.

Since Madrid, NATO's first concern has been to determine if it has the military capacity to meet its new commitments. There is no consensus on this point among the members. The United States says that allies must bolster their ability to project military power, and has made this a centerpiece of the April 1999 NATO summit, through a Defense Capabilities Initiative. Britain asserts it has achieved this goal -- that new commitments are covered by capabilities to meet existing requirements. Other allies, including France and Germany, argue that they are already prepared to meet foreseeable contingencies, while some smaller allies have actually decreased their defense spending and force size. Certainly, if NATO's new roles and commitments are to be taken seriously, each ally must make its military contribution as the price of having an alliance in practice as well as on paper. But the allies must also decide just what new capabilities are designed to do, and in particular how far the alliance will extend its reach.

The new commitments will certainly require greater resources. But to be spent on what? A troubling feature of recent national debates on NATO enlargement, including in the United States, was leaders' reassurances to parliaments that adding three new members to the alliance would cost little. Of course, even if enlarging the alliance is expensive, the strategic commitments at stake surely justify it. But this is a false debate. The critical test is whether the allies will fully fund PFP and bilateral efforts in central Europe to promote military reforms and to spread a penumbra of security throughout the region. Whether these efforts serve as a way station to NATO membership or substitute for it, allies must make investments equal to the historic nature of the task. In particular, they must sponsor and fund programs for central European countries still unsure of their destiny and the staying power of the West, including support for Ukraine's troubled economy. This is especially important for the Baltic states, uncertain of their future along the Russian frontier. The United States has recognized that need by negotiating a Charter of Partnership with the Baltic states, as have other countries that are concerned about the region's future. These must become a tangible combination of political, economic, and security steps to demonstrate the Baltic states' importance as part of the West.

All these programs cost money, though only in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually -- a pittance compared to Cold War spending. They must be financed, supported, and undertaken by a wider variety of allied nations than at present. Further, the allies must understand that in taking new members into NATO they assume major responsibility for the success of internal reforms in those countries. Given the role of democracy and market economics in NATO's conception of security, and the risks for stability of domestic turmoil, allies could not ignore the needs of a member state in difficulty.

To meet its obligations, the alliance also requires a viable defense-industry base, well balanced across the Atlantic. Except in a few key allied states, that base has eroded since the end of the Cold War, and the disparity between the United States and Europe has grown, especially in military modernization. European allies are only beginning to create cross-border industrial relationships needed for innovation and economies of scale. This risks a three-tiered alliance, with the United States conducting its pacesetting revolution in military affairs; Britain, Germany, and France modernizing in some sectors; and other allies lagging well behind. Strong defense industries across the alliance are needed to underpin military requirements, assure the capacity of militaries to operate together, bolster domestic political support for defense, and prevent a corrosive transatlantic commercial battle over defense trade and production. One key requirement is greater flexibility by the U.S. Defense Department both in permitting allied military sales in the United States and in sharing high technology with the Europeans.

THE NEXT INVITATIONS

The alliance's renewal requires that it not remain static but continue to refine its interests and activities. First comes the commitment to take in more members. Despite the declaration of an open door, many allies do not really want further enlargement in the near future, and certainly not this year. Prudence argues for a careful approach to enlargement; in particular, the alliance needs time to integrate Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. But what next?

The rationale worked out among the allies during the long run-up to the Madrid summit continues to make sense: European security is no longer premised on a known threat or geopolitical calculation that presumes a line of potential confrontation. Thus NATO's goal is to be an encompassing institution, without predetermined limits, provided that aspirants can meet the rigorous membership requirements and the alliance can maintain its strength and purpose. This last provision centers on whether allies are able and willing to defend new members under challenge, whether they will underpin the domestic political and economic development of new entrants, and whether a much larger alliance can continue to take decisions and act on them. But if NATO is to support its basic objective and sustain the credibility of its commitments, time taken to integrate three countries and prepare for the next must not be turned into a pause that becomes indefinite.

The United States bears special responsibility as champion of the open door. Its influence remains unmatched, its strategic commitment indispensable. It must take the lead, helping countries in central Europe prepare to meet the tests of NATO membership -- with particular emphasis on PFP, building political support on Capitol Hill and in the alliance, and ensuring that the process moves steadily forward. Otherwise, open-door promises by the United States and its allies will soon ring hollow across central Europe.

To reassure aspirants, NATO is adopting a Membership Action Plan, including special arrangements possibly limited to the aspirant countries. But to be credible, sustain the larger vision of inclusive security, and focus attention and effort, this plan must also set a target date for the next enlargement decisions. That should be at a NATO summit in late 2001, following the next U.S. presidential election. Anything less will call into question the serious purpose behind the "open door."

It is premature to consider which set of countries should next be invited to join the alliance. Criteria of purpose and preparation must be given their due weight. Furthermore, the choices around which all 19 allies could easily coalesce have already been made. The risk now is that allies will divide along regional lines, opting for candidates near them geographically while ignoring those farther away. So far the Nordic allies and Poland have shown interest in having the three Baltic states admitted, and the southern allies have chosen Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria for early entry, but there is little cross-support. Britain would likely be content with an indefinite pause, and Germany has gained the new allies it needs.

The politics of the alliance will likely dictate a balanced package, drawing on both the Baltics and the Balkans -- with consideration of Slovakia, under its new democratic government, and Austria, if it applies. Most important, the allies must use the period ahead to build broad support for a workable approach to enlargement, and they must reaffirm their earlier commitments: each aspirant will be considered individually, on its own merits; no central European country is excluded; and although there is military merit in choosing countries contiguous to NATO territory (Hungary is the exception), geography should not be a limiting factor. At the same time, it is clear that the alliance cannot simply announce now a list of countries to be included at some point, as the EU has done. For an alliance based on strategic guarantees, the moment of declaration is also the moment of decision, and no government or parliament will accept such preemptive commitments.

RUSSIA AND THE HISTORIC AGENDA

The alliance's original effort to reach out to Russia was deeply influenced by the need to provide assurance that NATO enlargement was not directed against the former Soviet Union, without giving Moscow a say in NATO's decisions -- a "voice but not a veto." That twin goal still matters, especially as the alliance considers admitting one or more of the Baltic states, thus crossing the Russian "red line" attempting to bar any part of the former Soviet Union. But given NATO's clear orientation toward avoiding any strategic challenge to Russia -- which key Russian observers acknowledge -- sensitivity to Russian concerns is less about security than psychology.

Thus there continues to be value in demonstrating to Russia the changes in NATO's military posture and practices, undertaken for the alliance's own purposes, and in ensuring transparency in policies toward central Europe -- but not in restraining NATO enlargement. If the alliance hews to its present course in redefining the nature of European security, in time the Russians can be reconciled to its role in ending the long history of strategic uncertainty in central Europe.

Far too much attention has been paid to this factor in forecasting the future of Russian relations with the West. The true need now is not to accommodate short-term Russian fears of NATO enlargement but to provide tangible support for Russia's internal reforms, both political and economic. This decade's false starts, failed experiments, criminal conspiracies, and corruption in the diversion of investment funds have soured the West on providing further support for Russia until it sorts itself out domestically. The West can require it to take primary responsibility for its own fate. But making this an excuse for withholding economic support and investment that could be productive would be a historic error.

The alliance must also begin seeing its new formal relations with Russia less as means to mollify Moscow on enlargement than as useful in their own right. Russia's role in the Bosnia forces has been a success; so too may be its role in any new Kosovo force. The NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council has weathered the early period of experiment, when the fact that it convened was more important than the content of its discussions. Central European states have also gained confidence that the alliance will not compromise their interests and are less apprehensive that the Joint Council could become a NATO-Russia directorate for European security. Thus this council should become much more active, to the extent the Russians can be a plausible partner, and be used to seek common policies in conflict situations -- as in the former Yugoslavia -- and to find areas for joint action, like responding to concerns about weapons of mass destruction. The NATO allies must still ensure that the Permanent Joint Council does not prejudice the interests of central European states, but also begin pursuing Russia's full integration into European security, exploring the possibilities in the long-term goal of strategic partnership.

A SAFER SOUTHEAST

As before Madrid, NATO's ambition to build security across the continent first requires meeting the demands of Balkan conflict. The NATO-led Stabilization Force in Bosnia has now passed its third anniversary -- remarkably, without a single combat fatality. But still unresolved are where and under what conditions the alliance will use military force in Europe, beyond the demands of the original founding treaty.

For many months last year, the allies temporized in the face of conflict and atrocity in Kosovo, as they had earlier done with Bosnia. Kosovo did present special problems: it was part of a sovereign state, not independent; the U.N. Security Council had not asked NATO to act; and allies differed about the desirable outcome of the crisis. Most insisted that the ambitions of Kosovar Albanians be limited to some form of autonomy, with few prepared to accept independence for Kosovo. Nevertheless, last October NATO decided to use airpower to stop Serbian assaults, based on each ally's judgment of the legal basis for doing so, but most allies were relieved that a cease-fire agreement obviated the need to act. In February, however, renewed fighting and Serb atrocities required NATO to confront its responsibilities again. This time, before the alliance's resolve could be tested, the parties to conflict agreed to bargain at an Anglo-French peace conference at Rambouillet, France. The alliance did undertake to provide an implementation force if peace were achieved, structured along the lines of the Stabilization Force in Bosnia. After the collapse of negotiations and a major Serb military assault on Kosovo, NATO finally agreed to redeem its pledges to act. At least for now, Kosovo has shown the outer limit of the allies' collective willingness to use force to buttress diplomacy. This new awareness of limits is likely to condition other efforts to extend the alliance's reach.

The United States has hoped that NATO's first-ever agreement, last October, to use force without a formal U.N. request will set a precedent, but most Europeans disagree. In terms of revising the NATO Strategic Concept, it is prudent to leave this point unresolved, recognizing that the alliance has achieved its best progress not by doctrine but by doing -- responding as necessary to new demands. But key questions are still being begged: whether the alliance as a rule will be ready to intervene in internal conflicts, as Kosovo shows it must; whether it can fully integrate diplomacy with the use of military power; whether it will act to avert conflict between allies, either old or new; and whether it will include in its area of interest and action regions even farther south and east.

By responding in the former Yugoslavia, NATO implicitly recognizes its responsibility for security and stability throughout the Balkans and southeastern Europe, with direct engagement for years ahead. This is the most unstable zone in Europe, and it abuts the Middle East. Conflict in Kosovo could still have a wider impact, especially on Albania and Macedonia. Long-term NATO deployments are thus a fully justified use of allied military assets, provided that parallel steps are taken to help Kosovo's people, like Bosnia's, begin building a workable society and economy.

In the same region, tensions continue between Greece and Turkey; their dispute over Cyprus goes unresolved, and is complicated by the EU's membership negotiations with Cyprus while keeping Turkey at bay. The region's significance is marked by the shift of U.S. strategic power in Europe from north to south of the Alps and by a few allies' efforts to defuse crises and promote political and military relations among local states.

While these concerns affect NATO as a whole, the challenge to Balkan stability beyond the former Yugoslavia has not produced a collective NATO response, and the alliance continues turning a blind eye to Greek-Turkish disputes. The United States and like-minded allies should augment presence, political activity, and strategic commitment in this region, whether or not the alliance as a whole accepts responsibility for troubled regional states. The alliance should also create a formal means for resolving disputes between its members, beginning with Greece and Turkey, rather than leaving that task to others or letting it go by default.

BEYOND THE CONTINENT

The NATO allies also have the task of deciding whether to act beyond the confines of Europe -- potentially in North Africa, the Transcaucasus and Central Asia, and the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. In each of these regions, NATO has so far been chary of direct engagement. On none of them is there yet full agreement among all 19 allies about common interests, much less about common responses. The alliance has a fledgling dialogue with several Mediterranean countries, reflecting the interest of a few allies, but others have less interest, and potential challenges to NATO territory from this region are less military than social and economic. The states of the Transcaucasus and Central Asia belong to the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and (except for Tajikistan) to PFP, but no ally sees the alliance as taking security responsibility for resolving regional conflicts or is yet ready to consider action to preserve the free flow of the region's energy.

Turning to the Middle East, allied debate is no longer theoretical nor certain to remain limited to discretionary action not covered by the founding treaty. The NATO provisions for collective defense apply to armed attacks on any ally from whatever quarter, and that includes attacks with weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, biological, chemical). Since October 1993 the allies have discussed the issue but have so far done little. The United States has pressed them to accept an action agenda at the 1999 NATO summit, but agreement will likely be limited to developing a watching brief, exchanges of information, and related measures. The broader issue of the alliance's reach toward the Middle East remains open.

The possibility of formal NATO action beyond Europe provokes intense debate, perhaps the most divisive of the next few years. The United States stresses capability to apply the well-honed, adapted, and expensive NATO military instrument to areas where collective Western interests are more likely to be threatened and military force needed than in Europe. Some American commentators even argue that the U.S. commitment to European security could weaken if NATO will not meet threats related to the Middle East, including terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Yet there is no consensus in the alliance about the nature and extent of such threats, even where common interests, such as oil, are agreed, and there are critical differences on the means to be used against the threats. Furthermore, European allies would first insist on a full share in Middle East policy and diplomacy, constraining the independence of U.S. views of threat and response.

There is merit in preparing military capacities to act beyond Europe, thus enabling the allies to make choices. But experience with Bosnia and Kosovo argues for caution in extending NATO's formal reach. It has been difficult enough to extend NATO's military responsibilities into the former Yugoslavia; it would be far more so to secure the alliance's engagement further afield and potentially into the Middle East. With the wide disparity of allied interests and attitudes toward that region, pressure for NATO collective action could also risk undercutting NATO's effectiveness closer to home, against which other ventures must be measured. The alliance's first charge must continue to be the multifaceted, European agenda already agreed -- itself demanding, complex, and of great historical significance. At least for the near future, agreement between the United States and allies to act in the Middle East will almost certainly be limited to so-called coalitions of the willing, as has been necessary in confronting Iraq. The Europeans may come to share the U.S. view that NATO allies must act together in the Middle East and elsewhere, but that will likely depend on the EU's first developing its Common Foreign and Security Policy, looking outward to new responsibilities.

SECURE IN THEMSELVES

The sharing of responsibilities across the Atlantic has been a recurring theme in U.S.-European relations. Once again interest is rising on both sides of the Atlantic in striking a new balance between the United States and its European allies. In the wake of Cold War, the United States -- especially Congress -- argues that the allies should take relatively more responsibility for European security and not always rely on U.S. engagement and leadership to meet crises less demanding than Bosnia. That view has growing support in Europe, but for a different reason: to strengthen the so-called European Security and Defense Identity (with the Western European Union as its executive agent) and to help the EU develop its Common Foreign and Security Policy. Strengthening the WEU would also bolster support for defense in general, and provide insurance against America's one day electing not to help meet a security threat in Europe.

In 1996, in a remarkable convergence of views between the United States and France -- itself bent on leading Europe in military affairs -- the allies agreed that the European Security and Defense Identity should be created within NATO, not outside it, avoiding duplication of effort, and that it should be composed of military capabilities "separable but not separate" from the alliance. At the same time, NATO would retain primacy, and the Europeans would "ask America first" whether it wished to be engaged. But with these caveats, the allies agreed that NATO would conduct planning jointly with the WEU and offer it the use of allied officers, the deputy supreme allied commanders, the Combined Joint Task Force headquarters (newly created for tasks like peacekeeping), and other military assets, including U.S. transport aircraft and satellite-based communications.

In theory, the WEU would thus for the first time be able to conduct military operations. In practice, it is still not clear that the Europeans have sufficient political resolve. The European Security and Defense Identity concept did receive new impetus from an Anglo-French proposal in December 1998 that political decisions be taken by the EU rather than the WEU. For the first time, these two key powers agreed on a way forward in European defense cooperation. Wisely, the United States welcomed this step as evidence of greater European willingness to shoulder burdens of common defense. America must be willing to accept diminished influence when it takes diminished responsibility. But at the same time it must not raise its expectations for European action too high, too fast, and the Europeans must not take procedural steps -- symbolic though not substantive -- that could prompt America to reduce its military engagement before European institutions, including the WEU and eventually the EU, are ready to act.

THE HOME FRONT

The EU clearly shares with NATO a commitment to promote stability in central Europe and to incorporate its peoples fully into the West. In practice, EU and NATO efforts are inseparable; neither can succeed fully unless the other does as well. Yet no formal NATO-EU relationship exists, nor does coordination of their work in central Europe and with Russia, nor any direct consultation even on enlargement. These arm's-length relations reflect each institution's ambition to make sovereign decisions. But they inhibit the crafting of complementary policies and ignore good precedent: early on, the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty were viewed as parts of the same whole, both measures promoting security by providing societies with confidence to resist challenge from within and without. Starting now, NATO and the EU must begin cooperating openly and directly. And from now on, they should hold their summits in tandem and produce joint declarations, covering the full range of transatlantic concerns.

As it marks its first 50 years, NATO's most critical challenge is to create and sustain political support, in all 19 allied states, for its new roles and missions. In 1993-95, Bosnia nearly sundered the alliance; for most of 1998, Kosovo seemed beyond the reach of allied agreement; and the crafting of security architecture for the 21st century has so far outrun political support. It is no secret that foreign policy attracts less popular attention in the United States than since before World War II. Most European states are more preoccupied with EU developments, including monetary union, than with the ability to project power beyond their borders. New, post-Cold War governments in western Europe follow the United States in emphasizing domestic priorities. Memories of the Cold War steadily recede, along with inspiration to support modernized military forces that appear to have little near-term utility.

Against this background of nonchalance, NATO must secure the political backing of each ally, helping create the cohesion that has long set it apart from history's other alliances. Sixteen allied parliaments at least formally declared that support in ratifying the accession of three new members, but the true test lies in what allies do when the initial glamour of NATO's renewal has faded. At stake is nothing less than fashioning a security framework in Europe for the 21st century that can at least partially redeem the tragedies of the 20th. Never before has there been such a chance to embrace, in one system of security, nations and peoples across the breadth of the continent. And rarely has political leadership been so needed to seize the future.

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  • Robert E. Hunter is Senior Adviser at RAND in Washington, D.C., and Vice President of the Atlantic Treaty Association. He was U.S. Ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.
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