It used to be said during the Cold War that NATO was created to keep the Americans in, the Germans down and the Russians out.
After the 1999 Kosovo war, which may have been justified for humanitarian reasons but was not waged in self-defence as no NATO member had been attacked, analysts asked whether the previously defensive alliance had been re-engineered into keeping the Americans in, the Russians down and the UN out. With its military and humanitarian engagement in Afghanistan since 2001, has it morphed into a tool for confronting local warlords, rooting out poppy cultivation, undertaking provincial reconstruction and schooling girls?
Forged in the crucible of the Cold War to contain Soviet aggression, NATO created and sustained the environment of military security, political stability and economic co-operation among the historic enemies of Europe. After the Cold War, it was both a force for stabilization in a period of turmoil and rapid change, and a tool for sculpting the emerging new order.
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999. In the most recent NATO summit in Bucharest, Croatia and Albania were invited to join. But leaders could not agree on the admission of Georgia and Ukraine, with the U.S. being in favour and France and Germany opposed. NATO leaders ritualistically proclaimed the importance of the alliance to the entire Western world and its continuing, indeed increased, relevance in the post-9/11 world.
Perhaps they protest too much. During the Cold War, NATO had a clear enemy: the Soviet Union. This in turn gave it a precise function: to defend Western Europe against conventional and nuclear attack. The clarity of the function against the defined enemy helped to shape the military structure and doctrines of force deployment. The alliance and structure persist but are conceptually and operationally adrift in the war on terror that erroneously conflates a tactic -- terrorism -- into the enemy.
Nor is NATO well-suited to combat other major contemporary threats such as Islamic fundamentalism and nuclear proliferation. And the European Union, not NATO, is the more effective instrument for consolidating and securing the new democracies born of the multicoloured revolutions across central and eastern Europe.
Projecting Western force into distant trouble spots by deploying NATO out of its European theatre of birth carries a manifold risk. The vaguer, more nebulous functions in areas far removed from the vital core will dissipate the trans-Atlantic consensus that helped to preserve the alliance through the Cold War; entangle it in protracted and messy historical enmities and conflicts, turning it into a nation-building lite enterprise that infects it with the same weaknesses that arouse contempt for the United Nations; raise suspicions in and provoke retaliation by Russia; and revive memories of occupying colonial powers in many developing countries.
Helped by a bit of historical amnesia, westerners view NATO as the alliance that pools the military strength of the trans-Atlantic democracies. Obsessed by their history, non-westerners remember that every major colonial power belongs to NATO (but not every NATO member had an empire).
Especially in the post-Iraq environment of distrust of the United States generally and of military adventures abroad of their own countries tied to U.S. military apron strings in particular, Western publics will be divided and unsettled by the new NATO. Al-Qaeda could be very effective in using film of President George W. Bush's speech in Bucharest to identify NATO as the enemy. For him to try to harness NATO to the cause of the U.S. war on terror is to gift a propaganda tool to the enemy in facilitating the conflation of NATO into a tool of American aggression.
Almost a decade after the Kosovo war, it is clear that those who thought they understood the Balkans were sadly wrong. A graveyard for would-be statesmen throughout the 20th century, the Balkans throw up a difficulty for every solution. NATO finds itself in the classic termination trap of a choice between policy failure or disaster. It can cut and run, abandoning the dream of a multiethnic society living together peacefully. Or it can persevere, possibly for decades, and risk being drawn into a quagmire that turns NATO into a target of attacks by both sides.
On top of the Balkans, do westerners really want to put NATO in the middle of a potential Ukrainian civil war, knowing how deeply conflicted that country is between its pro-Russian and Western cleavages? Or import Georgia's troubles and conflicts?
In other words, far from securing these troublesome regions, NATO would risk long-term infection by importing their historical animosities. Albania, Croatia, Georgia and Ukraine will all be net security consumers, not security providers. Even in strict military terms, therefore, they will dilute, not enhance, the alliance's military strength.
The Cold War ended in a manner rare in history and unique in modern times. The defeated power, Russia, acquiesced to the terms of its defeat and thereby also to the legitimacy of the new order. Starting from the Kosovo war and including the most recent proposals on missile deployment, newest candidate states and Georgia and Ukraine as potential members, NATO serially rubbed Russian noses in the dirt of their historic defeat. Confronted by the relentless in-your-face eastward expansion of NATO, an angry and resentful Russia, emboldened by the U.S. entrapment in Iraq, enriched by the skyrocketing price of oil, and empowered by Vladimir Putin, has found its voice and is growling again.