LONDON -- The 42-year-old North Atlantic Treaty Organization opens a two-day summit in Rome today. It is an alliance in search of a mission.
With the collapse of the Soviet military menace to Europe -- the threat it was set up to confront in April 1949 -- NATO's purposes have come under increasingly sharp scrutiny from some of its members in recent months.
Questions are being raised over how NATO should be configured to respond to the splintering of the former East bloc and the Soviet Union into an array of more or less independent states, each with its own military potential, small or large.
NATO also confronts a movement of some strength on the Continent toward establishment of a strictly European military force outside NATO and potentially in competition with it.
And other strains are becoming evident, specifically the probability that in both the United States and Europe, more and more people will begin questioning the wisdom of maintaining a costly multinational defense establishment when the purpose of it seems less clear than it was two years ago.
"We are looking forward [at the summit] to rebuilding a new system for trans-Atlantic security and new security for Europe," said a spokesman for the alliance in Brussels, Belgium, on the eve of the summit.
How to treat the emergence of so many new states, he promised, would be at the top of the agenda for the heads of state and prime ministers meeting in the Italian capital. "This is our most critical question," he said. "How to establish cooperation with these states, in Eastern Europe and also the Baltic states."
Cooperation with the trans-Atlantic partners, Canada and the United States, may be more at risk, however. Recently, in an attempt to create a strictly European and integrated defense identity, France and Germany proposed creation of a multinational corps of 100,000 troops, building on the Franco-German brigade already in existence.
The proposal is linked to current efforts to move the European Community toward more cohesion on defense and foreign policy.
Though France and Germany are thought to have different motives foradvancing the plan, the unity of the two countries is the linchpin of the EC, and the integration of their military forces is seen as a way to make it even tighter.
The corps was advertised as "the kernel of a European" force and would operate under the Western European Union, an existing nine-nation European defense forum.
The integration of forces has long been an ideal in Europe, one that even NATO has been working toward, perhaps defensively, as it has become aware of the sentiment in Europe for strengthening internal institutions.
A participant at a seminar at the Royal Institute of International Affairs here this week said that "there are people in Europe who see NATO as blocking European integration, and Europeans wonder why it is still being held up when the threat is no longer so predominant."
Not all Europeans think that way, of course. Britain, the most "Atlanticist" of European states, vigorously opposes creation of a force outside NATO. So too, though less strongly, do Italy and the Netherlands.
According to Ian Kemp of the authoritative Jane's Defense Weekly, NATO is in the process of integrating its forces even now, and the new structure is expected to be unveiled following the current summit.
Under the new table of organization, NATO will have seven corps of about 50,000 troops each. The divisions making up each corps, each containing 15,000 to 20,000 troops, will be contributed by the various NATO countries. Each corps will have a lead nation, which will contribute the corps commander.
"The purpose of this is to demonstrate alliance strategy and political will," Mr. Kemp said.
Paul Beaver, Jane's publisher, acknowledged that though there was sentiment in Europe for a home-grown force "and that the WEU is attractive in some quarters, military planners generally believe the participation of the U.S. and Canada remains important, and any alliance needed to have a U.S. involvement in it."