Raining on NATO's parade

Summit: Half-century of triumph celebrated amid war and uncertain purpose and future.

April 23, 1999

NEVER was a military alliance so successful. Born of fear and steely resolve, NATO triumphed without firing a shot. When examples are sought of military preparedness that prevented war, NATO is first.

The 50th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, today through Sunday in Washington, was planned as the greatest summit ever. The heads of state and government from the 19 NATO members, three of them new to the club, were to celebrate with lavish self-congratulations.

The parades, dinners and balls would constitute one of the great parties ever. The 23 or more other delegations would include the "partners" of NATO and candidates for future membership, a broad array of nations.

But all has changed. The event goes on tense, thoughtful and subdued. It was still not clear at the last minute which non-NATO delegations would show up. This is a working summit with much to discuss. NATO is in its first hot war, not defending its own soil as intended but acting as regional policeman, and not "winning."

In 1949, the West was fearful of the march of communism. Berlin was blockaded. Soviet tanks were advancing. European governments were subverted into satellites. France and Italy might be next.

The North Atlantic Treaty was signed by 12 European and North American nations on April 4, 1949. It said that an attack against one member in Europe or North America was an attack against all. The U.S. nuclear monopoly was put at the alliance's disposal as a deterrent against Soviet tank supremacy.

In 1950, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed the NATO supreme commander in Europe. The next year, Congress approved assigning U.S. troops. North Atlantic headquarters was established at Norfolk, Va.

Alternative European defense arrangements were proposed but did not materialize. West Germany joined NATO in 1955, only 10 years after World War II. Moscow retaliated by gathering eight Communist nations into the Warsaw Pact.

Through the Cold War, NATO worked silently. Confidence returned. A decade ago, the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union imploded, reflecting the failure of Communist economies in competition with free market dynamism. NATO won its original mission, never having fired in anger.

But NATO carried on after victory. More countries wanted to join, to show themselves in the mainstream and secure. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic now belong. Others are knocking on the door.

Keeping Europe's peace is the challenge. Moscow is nervous. Demagogues call NATO's enlargement a threat to Russia, but NATO's "partnership" with former Warsaw Pact members, cooperation without membership, refutes that.

This is the context in which NATO, indecisive and divided over the trauma of Yugoslavia's disintegration in the early 1990s, drew a line against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic flouted it.

NATO, after 50 years, is bombing in anger. It has refrained from committing ground troops in combat, for fear of the cost, while calls for doing so increase. Serbia continues to murder, rape, rob and expel Albanians. If preventing that is the aim, NATO is losing. If reversing it is the goal, NATO has far to go.

So instead of self-congratulations, this summit turns on unpalatable decisions. It will deal with U.S., British, French and German determination and Greek, Italian and Hungarian unhappiness. It will focus on shutting down Serbia's oil supply and seek to involve Russia in the peace. It will hear a plea by 11 European Union powers to put NATO resources at that organization's disposal, and Turkey's resistance, provoked by its exclusion from that club.

NATO is about the peace and security of Europe. Mr. Milosevic challenged both with aggression and genocide. That makes this a more appropriate moment for a thoughtful summit than could have been foreseen.

The crisis is the crucible in which the second half-century of NATO must be forged. The summit is no longer about NATO's past glory but about its redefined future, or impending demise.

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