West Goes East, and Beyond

Next week, leaders of NATO's 19 member nations will meet in Prague and are expected to add seven new Eastern European members and set up a quick-strike force to deal with terrorism and conflicts beyond Europe.

Both steps would not only reshape a military alliance that stared down the Soviet Union but remake the Old Continent by expanding this Western club along Russia's border and redefining its mission to defend values of freedom far and wide and not just within the club's territory.

Adding to NATO's "big bang" will be a European Union summit next month that will formally admit 10 new members to that economic club. And it comes just after President Bush's decision in September to work with the United Nations, especially Britain and France, to craft an ultimatum to Iraq.

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Just a decade ago, NATO faced extinction when its primary foe collapsed. While it found some usefulness in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, it was Sept. 11 that compelled it to find hope in mutual defense, not only against terrorists but against the kind of instability that failed states can often cause the world.

Russia, too, decided after Sept. 11 not to oppose NATO expansion since it wanted to support the war on terrorism, while focusing primarily on its domestic needs.

But European members of NATO rightly worry about the Bush administration's commitment to NATO. The US military dwarfs its NATO counterparts, and this strategic imbalance makes the Pentagon think it doesn't want to be tied down by the slow consensusmaking that Europeans expect in their alliances, even in wartime.

With a tendency to go it alone on so many global issues, the White House needs to affirm in deeds and words that NATO is a valuable coalition, perhaps valuable enough to participate in a war on Iraq or its aftermath.

Europe also needs to pull more military weight by increasing its defense budgets. Next week's summit offers a chance for European members of NATO to show their resolve by contributing to a new rapid-response force of 20,000 troops and to make "niche" contributions to other new military projects.

The US still has a strong stake in stabilizing Europe by expanding NATO to the young democracies of the former Soviet bloc, many of whom need this membership as a lifeline for their economies.NATO remains a work in progress, with more military capability than identified threats to defend against. It has stabilized Europe, fended off communism, and saved the Balkans. It's a club with a big stick, but one that offers hope to many nations.

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