At the European Union summit in Nice last December France initiated plans for a new European military structure. While the stated purpose of the emerging 15-member alliance is to complement NATO rather than replace it, there is growing concern in Washington that the ultimate objective of French and German strategic planners is to sever the trans-Atlantic military cord altogether. With most key European countries fully committed to the project—in which the completion of a 60,000-strong European rapid-reaction force is but the first step—the future of NATO appears uncertain.

That is good news. Combined, the countries of the European Union have a greater population and GNP than the United States, and the E.U. is politically, technologically, and financially equipped to take care of itself. Some 500,000 American servicemen are still in Western Europe for no apparent reason, and their return home would save over five billion dollars each year. Cries of anguish from Washington, where no European defense initiative is acceptable unless it is explicitly subordinate to NATO, come mainly from Cold War obsessives who have never been able to explain why we should strive to preserve a military alliance that has outlived its usefulness.

Institutions tend to be self-perpetuating, and bureaucracies self-serving. NATO is no exception, of course, but a decade after the implosion of the Soviet Union, its advocates have not been able to come up with a convincing justification for its continued existence. It is an unnecessary drain on American taxpayers. Its costly “out-of-area” forays into the Balkans have been either mistaken (Bosnia) or outright criminal (Kosovo), underscoring the alliance’s lack of real purpose. Its mindless eastward expansion has unnecessarily alienated Russia, while bringing no benefits of any kind—political, financial, or strategic—to its original members, America included.

It is hard to believe that, less than two years ago, the Beltway cabal of “NATO forever” enthusiasts seemed firmly in control as the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland formally joined its ranks at a ceremony in Independence, Missouri. Their sights were set not only on the Balkans but on the three Baltic states, on Ukraine, and even on the Caspian basin. Their geopolitical objective was to encircle Russia, to let the Europeans know who is calling the shots, and to enjoy that heady buzz, the insatiable hubris of “Benevolent Global Hegemony.”

By last spring, there were already clear signs in Europe that further eastward expansion of NATO would be resisted on both practical and political grounds. In purely technical terms, the three former Soviet Pact armies turned out to be poorly equipped and almost impossible to integrate into the alliance’s command-and-control structure. “Interoperability”—the bedrock of NATO military doctrine—could not be applied to the new members. The problem was compounded by the growing opposition in those countries to massive spending on American weaponry in the absence of any credible threat.

At the same time, some influential Europeans—notably French and German E.U. officials—proved loath to antagonize Moscow further. The Russians naturally saw NATO enlargement as a threat, and this impression was confirmed by the attack on Serbia. Further enlargement would be an open challenge that Vladimir Putin could not afford either to ignore or to accept meekly like his bungling predecessor. While there are inveterate Russophobes in Washington smarting for a showdown, their enthusiasm was not shared by those who would be most at risk if we were to ignite a new cold war.

The most significant source of European doubts about NATO, and the subsequent search for an independent defense structure, was the bombing of Serbia. During those 78 days in the spring of 1999, it became obvious that decisionmaking within NATO had become more centralized than during the Cold War. While preserving the appearance of unity, the Clinton administration could not prevent the soul-searching that went on in many European capitals. As a result, it is no longer deemed risky for Eurocrats to argue that NATO should have been abolished after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

America should quit dragging its feet and take the lead in wrapping up NATO and securing the defense of its interests outside all entangling alliances. The preservation of NATO after the end of the Cold War and its subsequent enlargement over the last decade has had a destabilizing effect not only on Europe but on the nature of America’s long-term relationship with Russia and the emerging powers in Asia. George Kennan rightly called it “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” ‘Fire resulting quest for new missions has turned NATO into an aggressive tool of interventionist hegemony and an organization tainted by criminality. Its existence is devoid of any strategic logic, military necessity, or ideological merit.

After the Nice summit we may see more than rhetorical grandstanding and posturing: If Europe is seriously preparing a military structure to replace NATO, it will have to invest countless additional billions into defense. It is in America’s national interest to have a strong, friendly, self-reliant Europe, no longer in need of American nuclear umbrellas and conventional hardware; whether the wishywashy Third Wave socialists who rule the Old Continent have the political will to put their money where their mouth is remains to be seen.