On November 21, 2002, NATO leaders meeting in Prague invited seven ex-communist nations to join their ranks in an expansion termed “historic.”  The three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (the alliance will, for the first time, include former Soviet territory), as well as Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Rumania are expected to become full members at the next summit in 2004.

The reporting in the U.S. media was bland, while editorial commentary largely focused on the political benefits, organizational challenges, and financial costs of the expansion.  The foreign press, however, raised substantial questions about the purpose of the enlargement—and, indeed, of NATO itself.  It was left to Europeans to remark that “transforming” the alliance into an antiterrorist peacekeeping force represents a tacit admission that NATO does not know what to do with itself.  The Irish Times asserted that “NATO has failed to answer serious questions about its future role in enhancing world security” and warned that no answers will come from gatherings of smiling politicians with “bunkers full of missiles with no target to aim at.”

As Jane’s Foreign Report pointed out some months before the Prague Summit, the declining importance of NATO reflects the fact that “the Americans do not trust the Alliance’s decision-making capacity [following the] Kosovo war in 1999,” during which “the USA had to get the agreement of all other 18 member states before any operation, and often this involved heated debates and compromises, sometimes over single targets,” which Washington saw “as an unnecessary encumbrance which should not be repeated”:

So, when NATO responded to the terrorist atrocities in the USA . . . by invoking the famed Article 5 in its founding treaty (which deems an attack against one member state as an attack against them all), the USA thanked the Alliance for its concern, but proceeded to mount its own independent operation in Afghanistan.  The Europeans were duly involved in this operation but as individual allies of the USA rather than as part of the Alliance.

The editor-in-chief of the Portuguese daily Público noted that, for the United States, “the allies don’t help, they get in the way, complicate things, and slow down decision making”; in that framework, “being in NATO is a shameful irrelevance for the allies, since they can do little more than show off their military decorations and act offended when they are ignored.”  In the same spirit, the Financial Times of London observed on November 21 that “[n]ot even the most determinedly faithful would try to revive a marriage by adopting seven new family members.”  But “to the bigger question of what this partnership is really for in the 21st century, there will be deafening silence”:

In Europe too, recent events suggest some of the most important countries regard NATO as at best an irrelevance, at worst another opportunity for the United States to antagonize them . . . [I]f the Bush administration’s national security strategy . . . is to be the defining feature of U.S. defence strategy for the next 50 years, most Europeans do not want anything to do with it.  And, for all the fanfare, it is getting harder to disguise the views of policymakers on both sides.

In France, a commentator for Le Journal du Dimanche complained that “George W. Bush has a pretty clear idea of what the future NATO should be: the Pentagon’s Foreign Legion,” while an editorial in Le Monde warned that, 

For Washington, NATO must serve America’s policies.  We cannot help but deplore America’s mugging of the Alliance.  But as long as the Europeans remain incapable of making themselves heard, Europe’s protest will remain useless.

 The same theme was echoed in Germany, with the Frankfurter Allgemeine noting that “NATO’s new structure grants the United States even more power than before”: 

the Europeans have to realize that they are not equal partners anymore but dependents.  While the NATO Council still needs the support of all members to initiate Alliance action, the weight of U.S. power will be the decisive factor in the end.

Der Tagesspiegel of Berlin noted that “rarely has a NATO summit been dominated by the United States as much as Prague” and that there is hardly any European resistance to Bush: “A whole continent has backed down.”  The Frankfurter Rundschau focused on the lack of informed public debate about the “new” NATO:

Those who want the NATO whose first steps were made in Prague, must negotiate a new Atlantic Treaty.  This will be difficult and . . . it may be possible that some members will leave the Alliance.  It is a bad sign that NATO is dodging such a debate over principles and sticks to the illusion of historical continuity.

In Italy, Il Foglio also focused on the unheralded but all-too-real change in NATO’s character: The seven new members will join an alliance that is much different from the one that they hoped to join a few years ago: a 26-member NATO,

with the United States less and less committed on the European front and less and less interested in involving the Alliance, as such, in its most relevant military operations, and with Russia no longer an open enemy or an invisible participant, but rather an external interlocutor and even a partner in certain fields.  Furthermore, a NATO that is . . . tuned on the Pentagon’s wavelength rather than that of NATO headquarters in Mons.

The leading Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, noted that self-congratulatory rhetoric has not concealed the underlying dilemma of the new NATO: 

The enlargement that has taken NATO as far as Russia’s borders adds little to its military capability . . . The effectiveness of the Alliance, in fact, is jeopardized by a long-time problem, revived by new roles: the growing gap between the financial-technological involvement of the United States and that of its traditional European allies.

 Further to the left, La Repubblica sought an historical parallel:

Like the Roman Empire 18 centuries ago, right at the time of its maximum territorial expansion and the virtually unchallenged hegemony of its values, the NATO alliance is also experiencing the germs of decline and the emergence, under the crust of routine self-celebrations, of the fault of a growing internal split between its Western and Eastern souls.  So much so that it would be legitimate to wonder whether NATO’s ultimate goal may have become that of keeping its pieces together under a single leadership—American leadership, of course, thus preventing each of the two souls to autonomously [sic] decide on its fate.

An editorialist for the Slovenian daily Delo reflected the awareness of the changing character of NATO among its future new members:

Had Slovenia been invited . . . five years ago, that invitation would have meant more than everything for many Slovenes.  Five years later, there is little satisfaction in drawing closer to the political icon, from which the United States has been scraping the last remains of a powerful transatlantic alliance . . . Europe is humiliated, NATO marginalized, demoralized; Bush—with his war—is on top, leader of the world.

In Russia, most commentators looked for a silver lining in what was generally seen as a Western snub of President Putin, who had repeatedly argued that NATO’s expansion to Russia’s western borders was unnecessary and provocative.  Krasnaya Zvezda, speaking for the Russian military, focused on the discrepancy between old and new members:

Weighed down with a load of passengers as poor and unsure of themselves as they are ambitious, the NATO juggernaut is very slow, so slow it can stall.  It takes the White House a lot of effort and time to keep the juggernaut on the right track.  Washington is increasingly irritated with the EuroNATO allies being reluctant to invest much in military programs and the renovation and development of their military potential.  Under the circumstances, Washington, analysts say, may find it much easier to form a new alliance, with close trade and economic ties among its members.  It might keep its membership to a minimum but whoever might be admitted would support the Chief Ally’s ideas and goals without demur.

In many smaller European countries, the commentary was unenthusiastic.  Austria’s Kurier predicted that, after Prague, “the United States will make the decisions and fight the wars, but it will be up to the Europeans to pay for the reconstruction efforts.”  In Belgium, De Financieel-Economische Tijd wrote that “the Americans increasingly view NATO as a useful toolbox”:

Just like the UN is being pushed into a secondary role, NATO seems to become an instrument of U.S. foreign policy.  Every criticism of the United States triggers a grumpy response . . . Bush does not need NATO for his plans regarding Iraq.  He will choose his partners in function of their loyalty and obedience.

So he will.  What European commentators fail to grasp, however, is that NATO’s eastward expansion may prove detrimental to the interests of the United States as well.  It locks the United States into a permanent, open-ended foreign entanglement.  With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the stated rationale for NATO’s existence had disappeared.  Yet, instead of proclaiming victory and closing shop, NATO has invented a new mission over the past decade: that of promoter of democracy, protector of human rights, and guardian against instability.  Its area of operations is no longer limited, and its mandate is entirely self-generated.  NATO’s war against Serbia in the spring of 1999 marked a decisive shift in its mutation from a defensive alliance to a supranational security force based on the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention.”  The trusty keeper of the gate has become a roaming vigilante.

The United States now formally obliges herself to protect a host of new clients right in Russia’s backyard, in an area that had never been deemed vital to her interests.  She assumes responsibility for perpetual maintenance of a host of disputed frontiers drawn arbitrarily by communists, with little regard for ethnicity or history.  This policy is illogical.  Either the United States is serious in her commitment to risk a thermonuclear war for the sake of, say, Estonia’s border with Russia (which is insane), or she is not serious, which is dangerously frivolous.  Instead of pandering to the former Soviet satellites’ insecurity, the United States should encourage them to comprehend that a Russian revival—focused on her links with Europe and a strategic understanding with America—benefits everyone, because of the underlying common interest of all three in keeping Islamic marauders at bay.

To achieve those goals, we have no need of NATO.  So what to do with it?  The realistic answer is “nothing.”  An unintended but inevitable consequence of the latest expansion will be to propel the alliance further down the long road to irrelevance and eventual oblivion.  For that reason alone, expanding it to include the Balkans—and perhaps Russia herself—would be a very good idea.