Fear holds the key to the future of Nato

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MILITARY alliances are as keen as anyone to cloak themselves in happy-clappy idealism. But they are not kept together by that: they are cemented and underpinned by fear. Nato, whose foreign ministers met yesterday before its summit in January, is searching for a role in the language of democracy and fraternity. But what it really needs to thrive are more fear-soaked nightmares among its people.

Its third year after the end of the Cold War has been a bad one for Nato. Washington has been bitter about the lack of vision and courage shown by European members over Bosnia. Europeans fling back that the Clinton administration has been incompetent, ignorant, meddling and hypocritical. Snubs from one side, sulks from the other; sarcasm everywhere.

The psychology of international relations can seem just a little like that of the playground. The Americans mutter about taking their ball (istics) away. The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, announced that he had found a New Best Friend - nice girl, name of Asia Pacific. The Europeans didn't care. They weren't going to be pushed around. (But their lips were trembling and a good blub in the lav seemed imminent.)

So the Nato summit has some patching-up and forward thinking to do. It is not naive to ask what the future is for a military organisation that now sees no big enemies around, and whose leaders are not prepared to take on the small ones, such as Serbian warlords. If not them, who? Now that taxpayers aren't frightened, they will ask such dangerously simple questions.

There are three things that could happen to Nato. It could break up - a migratory flock of US aircraft flying West, leaving behind them a rickety new organisation in Europe. Or it could fade away, becoming diluted into a wider system of world alliances, including the Russians, and perhaps Asian nations, too. Or third, it could stay the same, but better - more streamlined, doing more peacekeeping, and perhaps with extra European members. This, everyone seems to agree, is the benign option, though no one manages to find it exciting. A sort of weary, tepid idealism is splashed about the subject.

But as ever, fear, not idealism, is the key. Nato's best argument is a concentrated think about the alternatives. A military break between America and Europe could only happen in a world where there was deep hostility between the two continents - where the playground taunts turned to deadly enmity. Trade wars could do that.

Such a break, though, would not only be a slip into a grimmer, poorer world. It would signal the collapse of Washington's imagination as the democratic superpower. Europe has historically been the dangerous continent, the place where things go wrong. It is becoming more politically volatile, not less, and remains a huge US trade partner. The Pacific is booming. But it does not yet offer Washington a safe alternative to Europe.

Europe too would be badly weakened by an Atlantic divorce. A revived Russian threat remains in the realm of the plausible. Think of that great country's instability, its current warnings to Nato about still regarding central Europe as a legitimate sphere of influence, and the Russian 'peacekeeping forces' around the old Soviet Union. Mere echoes? Yes, but they may be echoes of something approaching, not something walking into history. Western Europe has impressive- looking military hardware and wealth. But it has nothing like the political leadership, unity and vision to fend for itself. (And this would be true even if Britain had unexpectedly sunk beneath the Atlantic in 1950.)

The possibility of Nato being overtaken by bigger military alliances is less dramatic but carries specific dangers of its own. One of the worries of European leaders about Mr Clinton is that his keenness to help President Yeltsin will persuade him to block East European democracies from ever joining up with Nato, giving Russia more elbow-room. Yesterday's meeting of Nato foreign ministers kept the door open to countries like Poland and Hungary. But only just: the so- called 'partnership for peace' proposals are a very limited form of military collaboration. Nato has become a club that takes almost as long to join as the Garrick; and with no greater certainty of success.

No one wants to provoke the Russians. But West Europeans cannot buy peace of mind by allowing them perpetual hegemony over other democracies, in some sort of genteel post-Communist appeasement. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, said recently in the New York Times, Mr Clinton, during his summit in Moscow later this winter 'may be tempted to endorse a formula for an American-Russian guarantee of Central European security. The formula would re-establish a privileged role for Russia over Central Europe, but with an American sanction. (Echoes of Yalta.)'

The Yalta crack may be unfair, but the Unpronounceable One's point is surely sound. Poles and others with a sense of history can be forgiven for being suspicious of offers of security made over their heads by muttering giants. And it's hard to believe that deals struck by presidents from outside Europe would make even Western Europeans feel safer. It was no coincidence that it was the German foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, representing people at the heart of Europe, who spoke up yesterday most strongly for the Poles and the Hungarians.

Nato is an awkward, anachronistic-looking, expensive thing, whose point is obscure and whose reservoir of goodwill is shrinking. But Europe is a terrible place, or at least a place where terrible things happen. Nato guarantees nothing. Yet on balance, Europe would be a still more frightening place without it. That alone is its justification.