Less than a year ago, NATO’s 50th-anniversary celebration was going to be a festive occasion. Alliance members were ready to toast each other for their ability to stand together against the Soviet threat and for having survived the end of the Cold War by forging a new relationship with their former rival and establishing a new raison d’etre. But as the heads of the 19 member states and the 23 NATO partners gathered in Washington last weekend, the mood was considerably more somber. The Balkan crisis has upstaged the festivities. Member governments now ask if they really understand NATO’s place in a post-Cold War world, and if they are prepared for the challenges ahead.

For an organization whose existence was predicated on the threat from the Soviet empire, NATO took the collapse of its nemesis in stride. It quickly set up new relations with Moscow and the former Soviet satellite governments. The original 15 member governments walked a fine line in the process. They had to reward the newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe with security guarantees without raising fears in Moscow that Russia was being encircled. Russian sensitivities were respected and the opinions of its leaders were cultivated. Despite periodic broadsides from communists and nationalists, NATO succeeded in expanding its reach without triggering a reaction in Russia. Throughout it all, NATO maintained its internal cohesion without the glue of a Soviet threat.

The crisis in the Balkans has revealed how far NATO has yet to go if it is to survive for another half-century. The pressures of peacetime expansion are nothing compared to the stresses of conflict. U.S. President Bill Clinton, the host this past weekend, congratulated his allies on their ability to stick together through one of the gravest crises in NATO’s history, but hanging over the meetings was the fear that, in a few years time, the celebrations this weekend might be looked at as a final farewell.

Kosovo poses basic questions for NATO. The alliance has intervened in the domestic affairs of a nonmember state, even though that country has not threatened a single NATO member. What is the basis for this military action? The United Nations has not authorized it. Has NATO assumed the role of guardian of international peace?

At one point, it seemed that NATO leaders thought the organization’s credibility demanded a forceful response to Yugoslavia’s rejection of the Balkan peace plan. That merely asks the first question a different way. Why does Kosovo require NATO to put its integrity on the line?

The persuasiveness of the answer to that question may well depend on the success of the military action. In other words, if Yugoslavia accepts the West’s proposal, then the intervention will have been justified. It is a tortured logic, but it may prevail.

The problem is that airstrikes are not working. Yugoslavia continues to hold out, and strongman President Slobodan Milosevic’s hold on power seems to have been strengthened. The ethnic cleansing of Kosovo is virtually complete. The West’s relations with Russia are strained. Finally, the longer the Serbs hold out, the greater the strains within the alliance will become. A land war or even a prolonged troop presence to protect Kosovo will also heighten tensions within NATO.

Without clarity of purpose and an agreement on its mission, NATO will not survive the stress. For all the talk of a new strategic mission for the organization, it is clear that whatever consensus has been reached is not deep. That does not mean that the Kosovo mission is a mistake. The horrors that have been perpetrated in recent weeks are proof enough of that. It does mean that nothing can be taken for granted.

Vision and courage are needed, but, quite frankly, so is salesmanship. Unless NATO leaders are straightforward with their people, honest about the risks involved and the price that might have to be paid, they will never muster the political support needed to make difficult decisions and make them stick. And men like Mr. Milosevic will recognize and exploit that weakness.

Last weekend’s summit offered NATO leaders the chance to reaffirm their commitment to the military action against Yugoslavia. In so doing, they sent a message to the Serb leadership, as well as other potential enemies: Do not think that you can wait us out. If they can keep that pledge, NATO’s leaders may well have something to celebrate 50 years from now.

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