THE North Atlantic Treaty Organization defeated its Soviet enemy without firing a shot, earning the reputation as one of the most successful military alliances in history.
After the end of the cold war, some argued that NATO should disband. But today, NATO is newly robust. The 60,000-strong peace implementation force (IFOR) deploying in Bosnia is the biggest mission in the history of the alliance.
NATO has long played a role in supporting peace. Some say NATO's real achievement in the past 46 years is that there hasn't been a war between any of its members - especially France and Germany, which had competed to dominate the Continent until World War II.
What is NATO and how does it relate to Americans?
NATO is a 16-member military alliance consisting of the United States, Canada, and 14 European nations from Iceland to Turkey. During the cold war, the nations of the democratic West used NATO to organize their defense against possible invasion from the communist East, dominated by the Soviet Union.
NATO is the forum in Europe for handling transatlantic security. NATO is what makes the United States a European power. And just as the two world wars bound earlier generations of Americans to Europe in a very personal way, so NATO has tied Americans to Europe in the years since. The American commitment to NATO has brought 15 million Americans and their families over the years to serve in Germany, where the vast majority of US military personnel have been stationed for NATO. The US presence in Europe, now at about 100,000 troops, is about one-third of its cold-war peak.
What does NATO commit its member nations to do?
Under the Treaty of Washington - the basis for NATO that was signed April 4, 1949 - NATO members agreed that an armed attack against one would be considered an attack on all.
But the treaty's careful wording gives some latitude in the response to such an attack. Members agreed that each of them would assist an attacked party or parties individually or collectively, "including the use of armed force, to restore or maintain the security of the North Atlantic area."
How does an international organization of 16 member states operate?
Each member nation's vote carries the same weight as another's. But there is no mistaking the dominant American presence in NATO. "NATO works with American leadership," said one diplomat recently. The military commander of the alliance is always American; the secretary-general is always European.
NATO sets its budget by means of a two-year planning exercise, in which each member submits its military budget and defense plans for review by the group. The US contributes roughly a quarter of the cost of the alliance.
What is the Partnership for Peace (PFP)?
Launched at the Brussels summit in January 1994, the PFP is NATO's, and particularly the Clinton administration's, attempt to beef up the security of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet empire. NATO promises to "consult" PFP members that perceive a direct threat to their territorial integrity, political independence, or security. Some PFP members are using PFP as a steppingstone to full NATO membership. For others, PFP is an end in itself.
Who belongs to PFP?
Twenty-six Eurasian countries that fall into several groups: Neutral nations interested in peacekeeping (e.g., Sweden); nations once controlled by the Soviet Union that want to join NATO as soon as possible (e.g., Poland); former Soviet-controlled nations that want to join but are less ready to do so (e.g., Bulgaria); and former Soviet republics that haven't expressed interest in NATO membership.
What is PFP doing?
Each partner country has its own program for working with NATO: Taking part in joint military exercises and peacekeeping or consulting on budgeting are some examples. All partners aspiring to join NATO are participating in IFOR in the hopes that this will speed their applications. Some criticize PFP for emphasizing military exercises over political issues, such as the need for Europe's emerging democracies to better their record on human rights.
So where is Russia in all this?
Russia is a PFP member but nonetheless sees NATO as a threat.
Most observers view Russia's contribution of troops to NATO's Bosnia mission positively and no longer view Russia as a territorial danger. But the country is unstable and militarily strong enough to scare its neighbors.
NATO and other sources insist that the alliance and Russia need to define a "special relationship." Such an agreement needs to take into consideration the Eastern Europeans' fears of being invaded by Russia or abandoned by the West.
America's political landscape:
The Clinton administration has favored enlargement of NATO. NATO is popular with Republicans, too, and the Contract With America calls for enlarging NATO. During the 1996 presidential campaign, both Republicans and Democrats may well call for NATO enlargement to appeal to Polish-American, Hungarian-American, and other ethnic voters in swing electoral states.
But a treaty on enlarging NATO could face obstacles in the Senate, since that would commit the US to defending more territory than Americans may be prepared to protect. The answer to the question "Will the people of Iowa die for Slovakia?," for example, is not fully clear.
NATO and Americans:
Polling data suggest that American popular support for NATO remains strong. Modest majorities favor expanding NATO, even to include Russia. People may see NATO less as a defensive military alliance and more as part of a collective security system.
Support for enlarging NATO goes down when it is made clear to interviewees that NATO commits the US to defend its fellow members. Support for US military involvement goes up when questions are framed in terms of "joint action."
The following polls show Americans' views on NATO:
* The US should remain in NATO: 73 percent agreed, 15 disagreed, 12 percent didn't know. (ABC, January 1994).
* Should Russia be allowed to join NATO?: 54 percent yes, 37 percent no. (CNN/USA Today, January 1994).
8 Number of US troops in Europe: 48 percent thought the number is about right, 39 percent too many; 7 percent too few. (CNN/USA Today, January 1995).
The hottest long-term issue facing NATO is enlarging the alliance. Advocates say that enlargement will help anchor formerly communist East bloc nations to the democratic West and allay their fears about Russia.
Questions about the consequences of a bigger NATO persist. Would Hungary and Poland's membership, for example, anger and destabilize Russia; redivide Europe with a new Iron Curtain farther east than before; or wrap Central Europe so securely under the West's protection that Russia wouldn't cause trouble?
Countries seeking NATO membership must meet the prerequisites. For example, all NATO forces must be under clear civilian control. But regardless of their readiness to join, little action on expanding NATO is expected until after presidential elections in Russia and the US next year. New members will probably not join before the end of the century.