PARIS - Just two months ago, the 19 members of NATO vowed publicly to streamline the 54-year-old alliance into an institution ready and able to rise to the challenges of fighting terrorism and protecting against weapons of mass destruction.
With the military organization paralyzed in a debate about its role as war threatens in Iraq, Europeans are wondering again whether the troubled alliance is destined - in the post-Cold War world - to become a second-string institution.
Eleven days ago, the United States formally asked for help if it goes to battle against Iraq. The sluggish reaction of its 18 NATO allies is causing anxiety among members, who fear that the United States, predisposed to work outside of multilateral institutions, will again lose interest in NATO.
"If the U.S. neglects NATO, it's hard to see many of the things on the Prague agenda getting done," said one worried senior European official, referring to the alliance reforms ratified by NATO leaders in the Czech capital in November.
Without U.S. interest, NATO "would become a working institution like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development but wouldn't be on the front line where key decisions are made," the official predicted.
No one at NATO's Brussels headquarters doubts that the alliance will eventually do what the United States wants, and many note that this is little more than the kind of formal assistance provided by NATO during the Persian Gulf war in 1991. Back then, however, many NATO members joined the larger multinational alliance forged by the United States to drive Iraq from Kuwait.
This time, the United States is likely to have fewer battlefield allies, but wants NATO to send Patriot missiles and AWACS reconnaissance aircraft to help deter Iraq from attacking Turkey, for example. Also, other NATO nations will be expected to plug gaps left if British troops are diverted from peacekeeping activities in the Balkans.
The United States also wants NATO's help in the reconstruction of a postwar Iraq.
With no serious military assets of its own other than a fleet of AWACS planes, and with its members' increasingly outdated armed forces technologically outstripped by the United States', NATO is regarded by many in Washington as more of an encumbrance than a help to U.S. military aims.
"To some degree, if NATO doesn't come out of Iraq looking good, it's going to be hard to make the case in Washington that it is an important partner," said a NATO official.
In Europe, too, NATO's importance is being questioned as that of the European Union grows. The 15-nation union, which has gradually developed a security and defense policy of its own, is expected to take over NATO peacekeeping responsibilities in Macedonia this year and eventually to supplant NATO in other Balkan states.