In America in a few weeks' time there will be more of the same: a set- piece birthday summit in Washington, a ceremony at Fulton, Missouri (of Winston Churchill and "Iron Curtain" fame) marking the entry of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary as new members, and finally promulgation of a mission statement - or "strategic concept" as it is more properly known - setting out what Nato should be up to for the next half-century.
Bill Clinton, the driving force behind enlargement, can be counted upon to use the occasion to talk up his otherwise modest foreign policy achievements, and to promote his desired successor, Vice-President Al Gore. But this is a party that could go terribly wrong.
In the first place, of course, there is Kosovo. Conceivably everything will be well by April: faced with the threat of bombing, Belgrade will have given its grudging consent to the peace deal, and Nato peacekeepers will be running the Serbian province, as they have Bosnia for three years, as a quasi-protectorate. But, if not, either punitive air strikes will be in full swing, or war on the ground will have resumed - either eventuality proving that an alliance that saw off the Soviet Union without firing a shot in anger is incapable of settling a squabble in its own backyard. Which leads to larger and even more troubling questions: What is Nato for? And do we and the Americans need it at all?
We know what it was for, of course, back in 1949, at the start of the Cold War: to protect the security of non-Communist Europe - in the famous coinage of the time, to "Keep the Americans in, the Germans down and the Russians out". But now? The Russians are not so much out as down and out. The Germans are neither down nor up, but melded into a wider Europe that is as rich as America itself. America meanwhile is still in, and insistent that if it provides most of Nato's muscle, it will call the shots.
As for wars, the most visible ones around the North Atlantic these days are commercial and economic, in which Europe and the US are not allies but adversaries. Today bananas and landing rights for Concorde; tomorrow, quite possibly, a struggle for supremacy between the dollar and the euro that could shake the world's financial order to its foundations.
And more subtly, this rivalry is reflected in the argument over Nato's future. With Europe's problems (pace Kosovo) wrapped up, Washington argues, let us move "out-of-area": if not to Sierra Leone and East Timor, then at least to regions that abut Europe, such as the Middle East and the Caucasus, and in which it has a strong security interest. Nato would also adjust its focus to the threats of the post-Cold-War era, such as drugs- trafficking, terrorism and the illicit proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons - a function that perforce would transform it into a kind of global policeman.
Europe, though, is chary. One reason is sheer parochialism, the result of a half-century-long dependency culture in security matters, when the problems that mattered were automatically handled by the US and the old continent quietly got on with making itself rich. But another and altogether more legitimate worry is at work: that "out-of-area" would turn the alliance into an alternative to the United Nations, operating at the behest of a Washington whose impatience with the UN and all its works is well known.
Nato, in other words, would simply become a vehicle for implementing America's global policies, unencumbered by such niceties as Russian and Chinese vetoes. And this is why Italy and France (not to mention Russia), are so uneasy about bombing Yugoslavia - treating, as it does, a universally recognised part of its sovereign territory without the prior approval of the UN.
But if Nato's original job is done, and "out-of-area" causes so much grief - then why not wind the whole thing up, just as the Warsaw Pact was wound up, and turn the April festivities into a nostalgic retirement party? Instead of Nato, why not different alliances to deal with different problems on an ad hoc basis?
But this, too, is a non-starter. For one thing, it would be grossly unfair and insulting to the three newcomers. The Russian threat may have been extinguished for a generation; but membership is the very least we owe Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. They are surely due a copper- bottomed guarantee that, after a 20th century of invasion and occupation, from West as well as East, they are finally part of an Atlantic security structure.
But ending the alliance would also be wrong for another reason. For Nato has another, less obvious virtue: it protects its members from themselves. Had they not belonged to the alliance, Greece and Turkey would surely have gone to war at least once in the last half-century, over Cyprus, Aegean rights or whatever. Something similar applies to the growing frictions between the European Union and the US.
It may be fashionable to see Nato as another arm of American imperialism, one more forum in which an arrogant, unchallenged superpower imposes its will. In truth, though, the present shape of the alliance has less to do with Washington's bullying than with a chronic European lack of self-confidence.
It is preposterous that Europe does not contribute more to its own shared defence. If it were to begin doing so, then a greater share of the burden would entitle it to demand changes in the command structure, just as the French not long ago requested. The Anglo-French agreement last December in St Malo, which could become the kernel of a genuine European defence identity, was an overdue step along a path that could, and must, lead to a Nato that is a partnership of equals. If the Americans don't like it, then too bad. But if next month's Washington jamboree produces the recognition that something along these lines is needed, the birthday party will have been worth it.Reuse content