Focus: War in Europe - Nato's unhappy 50th birthday

The lavish celebrations are off. For the first time since its formation the alliance is in combat
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he cherry and almond trees are in full bloom; the lawns are freshly mown; the flower beds are ablaze with colour and the streets swept spotless. Arrayed in its springtime best, Washington is engrossed in final preparations for its last big show before the Millennium. This coming weekend, the city that styles itself the capital of the free world will host its largest diplomatic summit ever: the 50th birthday party of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

More than 1,500 delegates and 3,000 reporters are expected in town on Friday, and that means gridlock on the grand scale. "Think flags. Think motorcades. Think tight security and traffic detours," warned the Washington Post. But traffic is now the least of this city's worries.

This party of parties was planned to celebrate "the most successful military alliance in history". In the spirit of post-Cold War harmony, it was conceived as a gigantic peace-fest in which everyone could join, even erstwhile enemies like Russia. Every martial symbol was to be muted and shorn of menace. With the first Nato missiles fired on Serbia, that spirit evaporated. For the first time since its formation, Nato was at war, and it will probably still be at war in four days' time, when the Air Force Ones of 43 countries disgorge their delegates in the Washington suburbs.

Worse, the war is not going as smoothly as a late 20th century high-tech war should: it is messy and risks becoming still messier. "This is not going to be quick, easy or neat," warned the US Defence Secretary, William Cohen, last week; casualties are "a probability". Yet it has to be won, for the credibility of the alliance is now on the line. If its 19 members, led by the sole remaining superpower, cannot impose their will on the recalcitrant rump of Yugoslavia, what price Nato's survival?

It could so easily have been otherwise. If the Yugoslav President had signed the Rambouillet accord or capitulated after a short, sharp dose of air strikes, peace through strength backed by force could have been maintained. At a stroke of Slobodan Milosevic's pen, Nato would have been vindicated; the fanfares could sound and the party begin. "This is a test of the Nato of the 21st century," said the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, when the war was hardly one week old. She meant it optimistically.

Now, with more than a million people displaced - the very people that alliance force was supposed to protect - several fatal mis-strikes by Nato planes, and the stability of neighbouring states in question, celebration looks inappropriate, if not downright perverse. Can Nato really feast, as its forces fight and Kosovo starves?

The organisers are now scrambling to recast an exultant festival of peace as a low-key council of war. The fly-past has been cancelled. The champagne banquet at the White House will be a working dinner; the "black-tie" instruction has been replaced by "lounge suits". The commemorative stamps due to be issued by the US Post Office have been put on hold.

Absences, though, are harder to disguise. The celebrations had been stage-managed to ensure that Russia and its former satellites would feel welcome. The watchwords were "partnership" and "inclusion". There was to be no hint that the Cold War had a winner, and that winner was Nato.

To that end, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were quietly received into the alliance in advance, at a quiet ceremony two hours' flying time from Washington. The venue, President Truman's memorial library at Independence in Missouri was so fitting, but oh so discreet. Perhaps the greatest diplomatic achievement of Bill Clinton's presidency - the return of Central Europe to the West - took place without him.

Russia was to be an honoured guest - perhaps the most honoured guest - at Nato's party, its presence the embodiment of President Clinton's oft-chanted ideal of "One Europe, whole and free". The hope that a tamed Russia would be the central symbol of a new post-cold war Europe, however, was dashed to smithereens when the first bombs fell. Russia's special relationship with the Serbs precluded it.

The Russian Prime Minister, Yevgeni Primakov, who was on his way to Washington for his twice-yearly talks with Vice-President Al Gore, turned his plane around mid-Atlantic and went back to Moscow. Within hours, Russia changed its mind about its invitation to Nato's party. Whether Russia or Nato is the bigger loser may be disputed, but the "One Europe" image so craved by Washington has been lost.

Stoically, the Americans insist that the show will go on. But as refugees continue to flee and the bombs continue to fall, even a subdued summit no longer seems such a good idea. In Washington, however, the preparations have long gained a momentum of their own. The White House wants to demonstrate that Democrats, too, can put on a real show - and, as a bonus, launch Vice-President Gore into the global big time.

The city's new mayor, Anthony Williams, has a Stakhanovite programme in train to spruce up civic buildings, relay pavements and resurface roads. Booked to capacity, the city's premier hotels are all double-checking their security routines.

Those with perhaps the biggest stake, though, are the commercial sponsors. This being the United States, a dozen companies have paid $250,000 (pounds 160,000) each for a place on the "host committee", with guaranteed places at the top tables for their executives, exhibition space for their promotions and the chance to court new customers over cocktails. With the likes of Ford, General Motors, Eastman Kodak and Nextel, not to mention the missile producer, Raytheon, holding tickets, it would be a brave president indeed who called the whole party off.

Which is not to say that nothing is being done. Behind the scenes, this juggernaut of a multinational get-together is being slowly cranked around. The agenda, that has been essentially fixed for months, is undergoing a total rewrite. The focus could be on the German peace plan, or the French- inspired "stability plan" for south-east Europe, or just on "How do we get out of this mess".

In any event, ethereal discussions of Nato's "Strategic Concept" - its much-vaunted (and much-contested) security blueprint for global peace in the next century - are being relegated to the sidelines.

It is not just that the real engagement over Kosovo is so much more urgent than doctrine and theory, it is that Kosovo has answered two of the points most at issue inside the alliance. Should Nato action require a UN mandate? Kosovo did not receive one. Should Nato act outside its national boundaries? It just has. Will it act in future outside the North Atlantic area? It must hope for the time being that the question does not arise: the alliance has its work cut out as it is.

As representatives of 43 countries prepare to meet in Washington this week, Nato's immediate priorities are to keep the alliance together and prevent the century ending as it began, with war in the Balkans. To Nato at 50: Many happy returns.