After the Cold War came to an end in 1989, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expanded much faster than many people expected it to. Barely a decade on, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic last week formally joined the 16-member alliance. Adding significance to the event is the fact that all three democracies were once satellites of the Soviet Union and members of the Warsaw Pact forces ranged against NATO. Fittingly, the induction ceremony was held at the birthplace of Harry S. Truman, the U.S. president who presided over the birth of NATO in 1949.

After repeated invasions and occupations this century, NATO’s newest members see membership in the Western security alliance and the U.S. obligation to defend them as guarantees that they will no longer be threatened in the future. Security does not come cheap, however. While Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic meet the minimum military requirements of NATO membership, numerous challenges remain, from upgrading aging Soviet-era military equipment to teaching soldiers to speak English, NATO’s lingua franca. Military upgrades alone are expected to cost billions of dollars and will place a considerable burden on these countries, which are still struggling to build free-market economies and elevate living standards that fall well below Western European levels.

Despite the challenges that lie ahead, NATO’s newest members did not come into the alliance empty-handed, and are eager to show they are more than beneficiaries. Warsaw has indicated its willingness to participate in any NATO peacekeeping mission in the war-torn Yugoslav province of Kosovo. Hungary has offered an engineering battalion to help rebuild bridges in Croatia. The Czech Republic will place its world-class chemical-weapons detection unit at NATO’s disposal.

Although a majority of the three nations’ citizens support the decision to join NATO, a growing number have criticized the move as a waste of money at a time when their countries face no military threat and are struggling economically. Supporters rightly call such criticism shortsighted, and emphasize that NATO membership is a key step toward integration with Western Europe and eventual membership in the European Union.

The induction ceremony comes a little over a month before NATO holds a summit in Washington April 25-27 to mark its 50th anniversary. NATO has much to be proud of, and its reputation as the world’s most successful alliance is deserved. The organization fostered peace and stability in Western Europe during the tense years of the Cold War, and helped tear down the Iron Curtain. The summit won’t be limited to celebration, however. In the post-Cold War era, NATO has been struggling to carve out a new role for itself, and a number of controversial topics must be broached.

Peacekeeping, crisis management beyond the alliance’s borders and arms control are being promoted as the alliance’s new raison d’etre, and, as the continuing conflict in the Balkans shows, the alliance will likely have its hands full. NATO has staked its reputation on bringing peace to Kosovo, and future roles will likely be determined by its success or failure in this mission.

The question of whether NATO should continue to expand eastward represents another contentious issue. Russia grudgingly accepted the inclusion of its former allies in the Western alliance, but remains vehemently opposed to any expansion into territory of the former Soviet Union, specifically, the Baltic states and Ukraine. While NATO’s members understand that European security will not be enhanced by fueling resentment in Russia, few are willing to exclude outright countries that are agitating to join the alliance. Alliance members will likely want to see how the integration of NATO’s newest members goes before setting a timetable for accepting more applicants. Moscow also opposes the new “strategic concept” that the United States wants NATO to adopt at the summit. Under this doctrine, emphasis would be placed on intervention in hot spots such as Kosovo to manage crises, without U.N. Security Council mandates if need be.

NATO was founded to protect democratic Europe and allow it to prosper. Although the alliance has performed superbly in this regard, its mission still remains valid today. Threats posed by ethnic violence, terrorism, cross-border crime, competition for increasingly scarce resources and mass migration are likely to increase in the years to come. A multinational force that enjoys the support of the international community is the only entity that can effectively address such perils.

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