MOSCOW — The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established after World War II to protect Western Europe from a possible Soviet invasion. Once the Soviet empire crumbled, it was left without a purpose. In the euphoria of 1989-1991, it seemed that democracy and humanism had triumphed throughout Europe, and that peace on the Continent would rely on jet fighters and cruise missiles. But then Yugoslavia and other Eastern bloc nations descended into ethnic conflict. Russia chose nationalism as its new ideology. It soon became apparent that it was too early to disband NATO.

The alliance started spreading east, into the territory of the former Warsaw Pact. Moscow became hysterical, claiming it had been betrayed by the West. The Kremlin announced that the inclusion of any Eastern European country into NATO would be regarded as a hostile act. Still, after much hullabaloo, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined the alliance. Moscow declared it would never forget the humiliating episode. Yet, in November when seven more Eastern European countries joined in — Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia — the Kremlin had little to say.

Why? Was it because of the bond of trust between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart, George W. Bush? Was it because of the more tangible threat to Russia’s security posed by Islamic fundamentalism? Or was it due to the changed nature of NATO?

The new NATO may find itself disabled by its own gluttony. If history has taught us a lesson about alliances, it is that they should be homogenous. Disparities in an alliance are permissible only to a certain limit. The World War II alliance between America, Russia and Britain collapsed immediately after the war ended because Stalin’s Russia was just as different from America and Britain as Nazi Germany. Throughout the Cold War years, NATO remained solid because the majority of its members shared common cultural and societal norms. There was one obvious exception — Turkey, and that exception almost led to a war within the alliance when Turkey sponsored the division of Greco-Turkish Cyprus and Greece went ballistic. In 2002, the exceptions have become too numerous.

Only 10 years ago the seven countries that joined NATO last month were living under communism. Free elections and free markets do not change a country overnight — or even over a decade, for that matter. Bulgaria is as different from Germany as Mars is from Earth. This difference promises an uneasy future for the alliance, beginning with joint decision-making and ending with the most basic things like army equipment and morale.

Worse, most of the new NATO members are involved in territorial disputes with their neighbors, who are now also NATO members. True, tensions between Romania and Hungary have died down — but for how long? Eastern Europe resembles a quilt made by a crazy artist. The rise and fall of empires made it a territorial and ethnic mess.

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania used to belong to Poland. Stalin gave it to Lithuania after the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland in 1939. A NATO country with its capital city grabbed from another NATO country? This is an interesting concept, particularly as it occurred just 60 years ago and many people still remember the days when Vilnius belonged to Poland.

Before World War II, Poland’s western lands used to belong to Germany; Bulgaria and Romania were carved by Russia from the territory of the Turkish Empire in the 1870s — and so on and so forth. Until recently, NATO used to have just one axis of hostility within its limits — the one between Turkey and Greece. Now it is difficult to say how many it has acquired.

And then there is the fact that some new nations have divided allegiances. In Latvia and Estonia, for example, ethnic Russians are 40 percent of the population.

It is difficult to find a rationale for NATO’s expansion. Optimistic experts predict that in a few years Ukraine and maybe even Georgia (both experiencing political unrest, and Georgia also fighting secessionists) will join the alliance. Fine. Why not also invite Russia or even Afghanistan to finalize NATO’s transformation into a Eurasian Disneyland?

It would be interesting to be present at a NATO conference a few years away from now. A faction Those Who Hate Germany will clash with a faction Those Who Hate Turkey; a delegate or two might turn up with an I Love Moscow pin; strong words will be exchanged and sanctions threatened (witness the Cyprus mess involving Greece and Turkey). In case of a joint military effort (against whom, by the way?), the generals will be wailing in despair: No, we can’t possibly send German soldiers to Poland or Polish soldiers to Lithuania. And by the way, does anybody know if Bulgaria still buys Russian weapons?

In the next 10 years we may see the Balkanization of NATO, an efficient alliance turning into something chaotic, confused and basically useless, like the United Nations. Of course, the underlying concept of NATO’s expansion is that the big boys will lead the little boys — but that was exactly the hope of the U.N. founders. By the way, did you know that Stalin was one of them?

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