WASHINGTON — The 19 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have gathered in Rome to initiate a new partnership with Russia; they are also planning to add several new members to the alliance. The usual fatuous rhetoric emanating from the meeting cannot hide the fact that NATO is an organization in search of a purpose and actually diminishes U.S. security.

For four decades NATO was the quintessential anti-Soviet alliance. When the Berlin Wall fell, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, and the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO lost its raison d’etre. For the last decade NATO officials, demonstrating that there is no such thing as a temporary government program, have been attempting to develop alternative missions for the alliance.

Their original suggestions were comical–protect the environment, combat drug abuse, promote student exchanges. All that was missing was an initiative to turn tanks into bookmobiles.

NATO advocates finally settled on using the organization for international social engineering. The alliance would sort out civil wars in the Balkans, badger former communist states to elect politicians favored by the West, and be the primary Western seal of approval. Thus, the alliance is now serving European, not American, objectives.

Not that Europe needs a U.S. handout. The continent has both an economy and population larger than America’s. Yet Europe remains a military dwarf by its own choice.

EU members spend little more than half of what America devotes to defense. U.S. President George W. Bush has proposed a greater increase in military outlays for next year, $48 billion, than any other NATO member currently spends in total on defense.

True, the Europeans continue to talk about creating a 60,000-member rapid deployment force. Half of them have begun reversing a severe slide in defense outlays.

But there is nothing in past European behavior, even during the midst of the Cold War when the Soviet Red Army could theoretically have marched across the continent, to suggest that they will follow through. Because of America they don’t have to. Moreover, they prefer to maintain their bloated welfare states. Financial Times columnist Gerard Baker is refreshingly honest: extra military spending “would surely jeopardize other, more pressing budget priorities.”

Anyway, more money would not be enough. The Europeans’ entire forces must be reconfigured. Their current combat capability runs barely 10 to 15 percent of America’s. But why should they change? And why should the United States care if they do?

NATO is irrelevant without an enemy. There is nothing against which to defend.

Some analysts made much of the fact that last September NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history, formally declaring the attack on the U.S. to be an attack on all.

Bush proclaimed that to be “an expression of European solidarity none of us will forget.”

Alas, expressions of solidarity combined with 50 cents will still only buy a cup of coffee. Some serious military aid might come from Britain and Turkey, but both can be obtained outside of NATO.

The Europeans would do far more for the U.S. by simply garrisoning their own continent, instead of expecting the U.S. to maintain 100,000 troops to protect populous, prosperous industrialized states, as well as another 11,400 to enforce order in the Balkans, a region of no strategic interest to America.

For the latter the Europeans don’t need a more effective force; their existing conscript militaries would do just fine. In short, Europe currently is a security black hole, consuming U.S. defense resources while providing few assets in return. Yet the alliance is considering including up to 10 nations, including Slovenia and Slovakia and the three Baltic states on Russia’s border. Bulgaria and Romania make some lists. Ukraine says it wants in.

Expanding NATO will offer no benefits to America. Rather, doing so would extend U.S. security guarantees to peripheral regions without augmenting Western military power. And there should be no doubt that it would be Washington that would be expected to resolve any new security problem. The membership might be in NATO, but the security guarantee is American.

On his recent trip President George W. Bush said that NATO should “not calculate how little we can get away with, but how much we can do to advance the cause of freedom.” For the Europeans it always means calculating how little they can do. Washington should abandon any pretense of reinvigorating NATO. Instead, the U.S. should phase out its forces in Europe, starting with those in the Balkans.

The Europeans are well able to defend against any likely threats in the future. Turning NATO into a European-organized and European-led alliance would allow the U.S. to focus on genuine threats to its own security.

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