WITH THE DISPATCH of thousands of troops to Bosnia from this week onward, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is transformed. Originally created in 1949 as a defensive alliance to combat a Soviet menace symbolized by the Berlin Airlift, NATO has been turned by unforeseen circumstance into a peace-enforcement unit that will take on functions that are clearly beyond the capabilities of the United Nations.
In trying to rally the American people to accept this changed role in Europe, President Clinton has used rhetoric that has a whiff of Cold War nostalgia. He talks of the "American partnership with Europe" with the fervor of a Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower. These earlier presidents could commit the United States to a collective security arrangement in Europe because of boiling anti-communist sentiment at home and a palpable threat abroad.
Mr. Clinton has a harder task, since a civil war in the Balkans is clearly not the Red Army at the Iron Curtain. Anguished debate in the Senate and House last week provided Mr. Clinton with only a negative -- a legislative decision not to deny him funds for the 20,000 troops he is sending to Bosnia. Although there were references to the importance of Europe in a Pax Americana, the basic rationale for intervention rested on the president's personal decision to make this a test of American credibility.
The United States is providing the largest contingent in an international force that now numbers 29 nations: NATO's 16 plus former Soviet bloc countries, traditional neutrals and even Russia itself on a limited basis. Without such a U.S. commitment, the Bosnian peace agreement would never have materialized. In foreign policy think-tank circles, the concept is growing that the Bosnia operation, difficult as it is, may provide NATO with the mission it has been seeking since the end of the Cold War.
What is this mission? Is NATO to be the enforcement arm of the United Nations? Is its sway eventually to extend beyond Europe? Will it be a vehicle for U.S.-Russian cooperation rather than enmity? Are Germany and France at last ready to take on more of the burden for the security of their continent?
Much depends on what happens in Bosnia. If the operation goes sour, the U.S. role in Europe could abruptly diminish. But even if it succeeds, American strategists should avoid over-ambition. That's not because isolationism is supposedly on the rise. It's because the Euro-centrism of American foreign policy has to give way eventually to a more global appreciation of U.S. self-interest and responsibilities.