BY chance, the day I arrived at NATO headquarters in Brussels for a visit was the first time NATO warplanes were used to attack Serbian ground positions in the two-year-old conflict. By using NATO's arsenal to defend the so-called safe haven of Gorazde, the United Nations was hoping to push the Serbs to stop fighting.
While the mood that day in Brussels was distinctly upbeat - NATO officials seemed almost relieved that they had a mandate for action and a specific mission to accomplish - it was destined to be shortlived. Less than one week later, the worm turned. By April 17 it became clear that what had appeared to be a clever maneuver was no more than a miserably ineffectual response to relentless Serbian aggression. NATO's shellings were no more than ``pinprick'' attacks. Two of the American bombs were duds. A British plane was shot down. And the Serbs, rather than bellying up to the negotiating table, were calling the West's bluff.
Since then, NATO has been subjected to further humiliation. Stopped by Yasushi Akashi, the UN official directly in charge of operations in the former Yugoslavia, from carrying out its most recent threat - to bomb the Serbs unless they complied fully with a NATO ultimatum - the West's premier military alliance has been undercut yet again.
While it is not clear what will happen in the next round of threats and counterthreats, it is apparent that NATO suffers from a severe identity crisis.
NATO was forged in 1949 in response to the global threat of Soviet communism. It was designed for a bipolar world in which two nuclear superpowers presided over clearly defined spheres of influence. Now all that has changed. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The Warsaw Pact has disbanded. Communism is no longer a threat, and the cold war has been officially declared over.
What becomes of NATO under these changed circumstances? Should it continue to exist in its present form? If so, what should be its role now that the military and geopolitical situations are very different? Or should it change altogether, metamorphosing into something other than a military alliance?
In the period immediately after the collapse of communism, NATO was adrift. Unclear about its mandate from Western allies, and unaccustomed to determining its own fate, NATO sought a function that would forestall eventual extinction.
Its options were limited, particularly since its most powerful members were distracted. In the United States, under President Clinton, foreign policy was on the back burner. Without Maggie Thatcher, Britain was weak and ineffectual. The French were, as always, profoundly ambivalent. And because of constitutional constraints, the most powerful country in Europe, Germany, was precluded from playing a significant role.
Given the lack of direction, NATO officials determined to take matters into their own hands. In particular, they developed and implemented a series of initiatives designed to reach out to their newly independent neighbors to the east. This culminated in Partnership for Peace, an arrangement first proposed by US Gen. John Shalikashvili (former supreme allied commander for Europe and now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and formalized at the NATO summit in January.
The partnership is designed to usher NATO into the 21st century by enlarging it intelligently and with deliberate forethought. By undertaking a range of cooperative ventures with neutrals, such as Sweden and Austria, and former Soviet bloc members, such as Poland, NATO hopes to change with the times in ways that do not violate its original mission.
Ironically, the partnership is primarily designed to keep the alliance together in times of peace. By enlarging the alliance beyond the slightly unwieldy 16 - and make no mistake, the East European countries in particular are veritably panting to become full members - this NATO initiative will only further complicate its task in the event of conflict.
And there's the rub. It has taken the military crisis in Bosnia to reveal an unpleasant truth about the new NATO: the difficulty it has fighting a war now that the cold war is over.
Because NATO is an alliance of independent nations, it has always put a premium on clarity of mission. In the old days, when the US was only too happy to call the shots, this presented no problem. The US took the lead and the American president led the charge. Now, though, when for the first time in 50 years Europe is erupting, NATO has a leadership vacuum. For a military alliance that depends on a clear and unambiguous mandate and a precise demarcation of responsibilities, this is no small problem.
What makes NATO's mandate particularly murky is the unsettled issue of who decides what. Is the locus of decisionmaking on Bosnia at NATO headquarters in Brussels? Is it in Washington, the capital of its most-powerful member? Is it in New York, where peacekeeping operations are being directed by the UN? Or is it perhaps on the ground in Bosnia, where Lt. Gen. Michael Rose of Britain commands UN operations?
If one consequence of the miserable war in the former Yugoslavia is a hard look at who decides how and when NATO forces are used, at least something will have been gained. A cooperative and integrated decisionmaking system is imperative if NATO is to remain a viable instrument of military force. Until this happens, look for the bad guys to keep getting away with murder. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.