It appears NATO won't get its 50th-anniversary wish: a satisfying end to the Kosovo conflict before the festivities begin in Washington Friday. But the dual spotlights trained on the alliance - because of that conflict, as well as the long-planned commemoration - make a hard look at NATO unavoidable. And appropriately so: Without this venerable organization, it's doubtful there would be any international response to the tragic events in the Balkans.
"NATO," in fact, is the one-acronym response to a persistent question: Why is the American superpower involved in Kosovo, when it opts out in Rwanda, Tibet, or Cambodia? Washington is the ocean-spanning linchpin of the 50-year-old pact to protect European security and stability.
True, the reason for NATO's existence during most of those five decades was the Soviet threat, which dissolved eight years ago. But the absence of a monolithic threat doesn't mean the absence of threats - howbeit smaller, though pernicious ones such as the rabid nationalism that has seized the Balkans since Yugoslavia's breakup. Nor did the end of the Soviet threat issue the US a ticket out of Europe. Stability on that pivotal continent, which erupted in two world wars this century, is still fundamental to world peace and US interests.
Indeed, what NATO is attempting in Kosovo is not irrelevant to situations in other regions. The alliance is intervening to stop abusive, violent actions in one country that threaten the peace of surrounding countries. The precedent could be far-reaching. NATO itself will not expand into a global force. Its primary focus will remain Europe. But the concept of an international team, or teams, capable of responding to destabilizing violence is one the world community, through the UN, should weigh.
NATO's means in Kosovo are open to question. Bombing was chosen because of its supposed coercive power and its relative safety for allied forces. So far, however, Slobodan Milosevic remains uncoerced. Can NATO sustain its bombing to the point of so destroying Serbian capability that an international force, led by NATO, can enter Kosovo with minor resistance?
NATO's 19 members today face the hardest decisions in the alliance's history. They have to keep in mind the precedent they're setting and the reverberations in places like Russia. But most of all they have to consider the cost of not concluding the Kosovo undertaking in a way that makes it clear the murderous tactics employed by Mr. Milosevic won't be tolerated.