IT'S EASY to be cynical about NATO's 50th birthday bash this weekend in the nation's capital. Imagine: 40 heads of state and government drinking toasts as a petty dictator mocks NATO's air war, while CNN alternates shots of White House banquets with scenes of Kosovar refugees.
Some critics say the celebrations should have been canceled. Wrong, wrong.
This summit is worth having on one condition: If its ugly moments force NATO leaders to confront the new realities thrust upon them by Kosovo.
Back when the party was planned, it was meant to celebrate past successes and define NATO's future mission. Members were jostling over whether NATO should remain a defense alliance now that the Soviet Union was history.
Some argued that NATO would do best to hew to its old purpose, as expressed by its first secretary-general, Britain's Lord Ismay, who declared the mission was "to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down."
Drawing a line
The Clinton administration argued that NATO had to go "out of area" or lose its purpose. It upset Europeans by pushing to expand NATO's role beyond Europe. Washington also pressed for the admission of three new Eastern European members, although critics argued that this would draw a new line excluding the Balkans and Russia.
But there was something academic and sterile about the debate on the new "strategic concept," and the summit looked set to fudge most of the contentious points. That changed when the first bombs were dropped on Yugoslavia. Having backed into a war that no one knows how to get out of, NATO's "strategic concept" is being reshaped on the ground.
"Kosovo is a defining moment not only for NATO, but also for the kind of Europe we wish to live in," says NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana. He's right, and not only for Europeans, but also for Americans.
What are the lessons NATO members should have absorbed over the past month? First the good news:
Kosovo has banished the nonsense about NATO's going global. The primary purpose of the alliance should be the stabilization of Europe. But, given the Kosovo experience so far, NATO needs a big rethink on how to do the job.
The Yugoslav crisis has also shown that NATO won't disintegrate, no matter the Kosovo outcome. The alliance has held together so far -- even though many of its leaders question the handling of the Kosovo crisis -- because the allies have realized they still need each other. Germany, France and Britain are showing signs of finally moving toward greater European defense cooperation, which will counter U.S. critics who say America is carrying too much of the NATO load.
Kosovo has upended Ismay's dictum about keeping Russia out. Russia won't fight to defend Serbia (its leaders dislike and mistrust Slobodan Milosevic). But Moscow's intervention in this crisis may yet be useful; despite the hometown rhetoric, the team of Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Primakov has acted quite responsibly.
Contrary to perceptions, the crisis has shown that stabilizing southeastern Europe is not a hopeless cause. Milosevic is an anomaly in today's Europe. All of Serbia's poor neighbors -- Albania, Macedonia, Romania and Bulgaria, even Montenegro -- are cooperating with NATO.
European leaders finally recognize that they can't afford to draw a new line between the haves and the have-nots in Europe. NATO will now forge closer ties with Balkan nations. And Germany has called for a conference on the future of the Balkans and a mini-Marshall plan for the region, presumably including massive help for Kosovar refugees.
Now the bad news. Even though Milosevic is the main blockage to a more stable Europe, NATO members don't seem to have a clue as to how to best him. If they could turn the clock back, they might have done things differently: negotiated better, sent in more planes that flew lower, prepositioned ground troops.
Now their strategy seems to be: bomb and hope.
The challenge at the summit will be to go beyond that. Bombing that doesn't risk NATO casualties won't sway Milosevic. But endless bombing will destabilize his neighbors, and create untold new refugees.
NATO leaders should recognize their new strengths and design a joint negotiating position -- in tandem with Russia. NATO can afford to bargain with Milosevic; his days will be numbered once the fighting is over. NATO at 50 should be able to outsmart Europe's last despot, and move on to reverse the damage he has wrought.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Pub Date: 4/22/99