ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO — Albuquerque, New Mexico. -- Maybe the problem is presented in reverse order. Most talk about expanding the North Atlantic Alliance focuses on the readiness of eastern Europe's new democracies for the responsibilities of membership. An equally valid question is whether NATO is ready for the responsibility of accepting them. Consider NATO's performance in the Balkans.
Almost everyone without a reputation at stake agrees that NATO has blown it. The final chapter is yet to be written. But whatever the outcome, the lessons ought to be etched in the minds of NATO planners: Know your objectives, and don't undertake more than you can deliver.
How NATO bumbled into the Balkans is painfully evident. Victorious in the Cold War, the alliance sensed the fragility of the peace. Russia remained unpredictable. Germany was a loyal ally but was, well, German. Most Europeans welcomed an enduring American presence. The consensus came easily. NATO must live.
One obvious mission would be to extend its umbrella over the former Soviet satellites. Their apprenticeship would be served in Bill Clinton's Partnership for Peace; later the truly deserving would earn full membership. And then came the violent collapse of Yugoslavia.
Here was a test for NATO. Here in Sarajevo occurred the events that triggered World War I. The new slaughter of innocents recalled World War II. But freed of the Soviet threat, NATO members acted more out of individual nostalgia than coherent strategy. At the outset, the Germans sided with the Croats. Britain and France favored the Serbs. Americans leaned toward those most abused, the Bosnian Muslims.
Time has produced common revulsion toward Serbian duplicity and savagery, but still no clear strategy. The result has been a series of confused NATO responses. NATO officials may say the alliance has fulfilled the missions assigned to it by the United Nations. But in truth NATO framed its own missions within changing perceptions of what was possible.
Now NATO has been reminded once again of what held it together for 40-odd years. Foremost, of course, was the relentless threat from the Soviet Union. But even so, NATO might not have endured through the Cold War had America not imposed sometimes brutal leadership. The Americans usually cloaked Cold War prescriptions for strategy, for arms, for politics, in congenial terms, but not always. Almost always -- with France the most frequent exception -- the European allies bowed to their protector because they had no choice.
American leadership is glaringly absent in the Balkans. From the out set America -- led by George Bush before Bill Clinton -- deferred to the Europeans. Americans in general, remembering war more recently than the Europeans, had little enthusiasm for this one. This was a European affair, free of great-power provocation. This would challenge European ability to act decisively when European stability was threatened. By that standard the Europeans have flunked.
They saw the danger and tried to meet it. But they can commit the manpower for a military solution, which would require permanent occupation, only at political and human cost they judge unacceptable. They have done little to present national or NATO interests in a way to justify such a commitment.
President Clinton has done even less to define American interests. He promises to provide rescuers to help NATO peacekeepers escape, if escape they must. But beyond that he appears uncertain about the extent of the mission. Most Americans, lacking leadership, simply appear bewildered by the array of unfamiliar combatants.
Take it as proven now that NATO cannot act decisively without American leadership. It is this pattern of uncertainty that argues for extreme caution in the expansion of NATO. Many Europeans now understand that Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are proving themselves ready for membership, with others to wait in line. Here the United States indeed provided the leadership that led to agreement on expansion. But leadership without understanding of risks may come too easily.
This is the sort of commitment that could evolve into future crises. Is NATO truly ready to guarantee the security of new democracies against, for example, an unstable Russia? Against internal conflict? Where is the vital interest of today, not the one that might be created by later challenge to promises too casually offered? Ultimately more is at stake than in the Balkans.
Perhaps the case can be made. If so now is a good time to begin making it as the Balkan laboratory serves up its lessons. The case must not die, in any event, only because leaders feared shocking publics in Europe and America out of their lethargy.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R., Ind., a presidential candidate with a keen ear for foreign policy, remarked recently that NATO must go ''out of area'' or ''out of business.'' With NATO's performance in the Balkans, the latter may begin to look attractive, perhaps too attractive, to those worried about unforeseen consequences. Foreign policy by default is no foreign policy at all.
Henry L. Trewhitt, a former Sun diplomatic correspondent, teaches at the University of New Mexico.