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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was reborn last week. The alliance has added seven new members, all former Eastern bloc countries, extending NATO’s territory to Russia’s borders in the Baltic and to the Black Sea. Yet unlike the last round, this time Moscow accepted the expansion without protest. While winning Russian acquiescence is a victory in itself, NATO faces new challenges. Not only must it prove that it will not be immobilized by its size; it must be even more nimble to respond to the new security challenges that its members now face.

It is significant that NATO held its historic meeting — ratifying the “big bang” — in Prague. Czech President Vaclav Havel has long campaigned for the inclusion of Eastern European governments in NATO and the European Union to solidify democratic transition in those countries. The expansion of those organizations to include former adversaries — Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia — is a fitting gesture as Mr. Havel prepares to leave office. Since 1999, NATO has added 10 European nations. (In fact, the new countries have only been extended membership; they do not actually become members until May 2004 after their legislatures and those of the 19 current members ratify expansion.)

Although most of the attention was focused on the members — old and new — attending last week’s meeting, the most important nations may have been those not present: Russia and Iraq. The relative ease with which the seven new members joined NATO testifies to the new relationship Moscow has developed with its former adversary. This was institutionalized in the accord signed by Moscow and NATO last May. It established a special relationship between the treaty organization and Russia, which, while not giving Moscow a veto over NATO decisions, did give it additional weight and made it clear that NATO was sensitive to its concerns.

The accord was eased by the personal rapport shared by U.S. President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, a relationship that has grown stronger since 9/11. Both men understand the gravity of the threat posed by terrorism and that it cannot be tackled separately. Moreover, Moscow can see that NATO is redesigning its military capacities toward smaller, more mobile forces that do not threaten Russia.

The other shadow was cast by Iraq. In a statement issued Thursday, NATO declared that its members “stand united in their commitment to take effective action to assist and support the efforts of the U.N. to ensure full and immediate compliance by Iraq, without conditions or restrictions.” The statement echoed the language of the U.N. Security Council resolution, noting that there would be “serious consequences” for Baghdad if it failed to comply. While the group did not promise to use military force in such a case, reportedly neither the United States nor its allies envision using NATO’s military capacity to help enforce the resolution.

The seven countries tapped for membership said they were “prepared to help” deal with Iraq. While that declaration was most likely aimed at winning support for their membership in foreign capitals, they can still make important contributions in the event of war, in particular by making available the airspace essential for NATO aircraft to transit the region.

Despite a public show of friendliness, the German-U.S. relationship remains strained following injudicious remarks about Mr. Bush by members of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s Cabinet prior to Germany’s national elections in September. German politicians have insisted that they will not participate in a war against Iraq. Other NATO members have not been as forthright in their opposition to action against Baghdad, but they have not hidden their skepticism either.

Yet even if NATO does not take the lead against Iraq, the organization must be prepared to tackle the challenges of the new century. That means modernizing arsenals to close the gap between the U.S. and its allies. The leaders agreed to a shopping list of pooled purchases — strategic airlift, air-to-air refueling, secure communications, precision-guided weapons, ground surveillance and electronic warfare equipment, and protection against chemical, biological and nuclear weapons — that would do just that. In addition, they approved a 20,000-strong rapid reaction force capable of fighting around the world.

Some worry that all of this will be useless if the 26-country alliance cannot make timely decisions to deploy assets. Their chief concern is the ability of the new members to meaningfully participate in NATO decisions and actions. As the U.S.-German contretemps makes clear, though, bridging the gap between old members and new ones may be the least of the alliance’s concerns.

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