BRUSSELS — THE 60,000 NATO troops descending on Bosnia may do more than guarantee peace.
They may guarantee the future of their own alliance, five years after NATO's primary purpose of containing Communism ended.
The 16 foreign ministers of a newly energized NATO, meeting here this week, have formally approved the military plan for the "peace implementation force" in Bosnia. If IFOR, as it is known, is fully successful, NATO will not only have carried out the largest and most significant operation in its history, it also will have:
*Demonstrably expanded its mission as more than just a defensive alliance by operating "out of area" (off its members' own soil).
*Visibly demonstrated Western commitment to defend democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
*Proved the effectiveness of multilateral security efforts, thus reducing post-cold-war temptations to "renationalize" foreign policy.
*Enfolded the transitional countries of Central and Eastern Europe, who are taking part in IFOR, into the alliance in a real-life operational role, beyond mere military exercises - with implications for their possible NATO membership and their continued democratization.
*Moved the difficult relationship with Russia, which is also to participate in IFOR, toward greater cooperation and away from confrontation with the West.
At the end of Tuesday's meeting, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher called it "a historic day at NATO." All 16 members' foreign and defense ministers, including the French defense minister, approved the IFOR plan.
The French, who pulled out of NATO's integrated military command in 1966, this week took a significant step toward further unity in NATO. They announced their intention to participate in NATO's Military Committee and regular meetings of defense ministers. France will remain outside the military command, but this historic shift - widely hailed by all, including US officials - will end what British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind called the "absurd situation" of NATO meeting with the defense ministers of Ukraine and Kazakstan but not of France.
France has expressed interest in seeing changes and reforms in NATO and in seeing more of a "European defense identity." In his statement announcing the new policy, French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette said that this concept "has not developed in a balanced fashion" compared with other changes in NATO - hence the policy shift.
His German counterpart, Volker Ruhe, emphasized that it was better to have France working for such reforms from within rather than from without, and commented on how NATO has already changed: "France couldn't have reintegrated itself into the old NATO, which really doesn't exist anymore."
France is the one European country likely to challenge American leadership within NATO, and so it should not be a great surprise if the new French policy leads to some Franco-American tensions. But US State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns denied reports of current tensions over the Dayton, Ohio, accord and its provisions for protection of Serbs in Sarajevo: "I don't believe the US and France are at all divided."
Yet across the Atlantic, some of Mr. Christopher's interlocutors in Congress are raising questions about the IFOR deployment, showing how difficult it is to ensure American leadership in NATO. NATO's challenge in this mission is not only to keep Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs in line, but also to prove to US members of Congress that the task is worth it.
Concentrating the mind
All the same, "unified" is the word on everyone's lips to describe the alliance today. Going ahead with IFOR was the kind of decision "that concentrates the mind powerfully," as Robert Hunter, US ambassador to NATO, put it. "Everyone is focused. Everyone's in this together." IFOR is turning NATO into an "operational organization" in a way that it hasn't been hitherto, he said.
Ministers also expressed unity in their enthusiasm for their new secretary-general designate, Spanish Foreign Minister Javier Solana Madariaga, who will take up his new duties Dec. 18 after closing out some responsibilities in his current position, involving Spain's presidency of the European Union.
Mr. Solana's selection ends an embarrassing six-week search, during which US officials flatly and publicly rejected Ruud Lubbers, a highly regarded former Dutch prime minister, whom the French, British, and Germans had equally publicly agreed to endorse.
A diplomatic source confirms that the US did not reject Mr. Lubbers just in a pique over the Europeans having cooked their own deal. Rather, the US had substantive concerns that he wasn't up to the demands of the job as the alliance moves ahead with IFOR. Lubbers, the diplomat notes, is a veteran of Dutch coalition-building - "least common denominator" - politics: "He would have done fine in the European Union."
In a telling comment on the differences in the cultures between the EU and NATO, the diplomat says that although NATO, like the EU, is a consensus organization, NATO runs with "leadership," and the least common denominator approach wouldn't have worked.
For the Americans, the episode confirmed that their leadership in NATO is of critical importance.