America's responsibility to protect Europe grew by three countries on Tuesday, when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were invited to join NATO.
And yesterday, many other former Soviet bloc nations, notably Ukraine, were given various assurances at a summit in Madrid that they were candidates to enter NATO's widening military tent.
Yet after all the back-slapping about Europe becoming more secure and cold war divisions melting away, America's European allies were grumbling.
Most of them had lost a fight with Washington to admit five members, not three. And France, especially, dropped plans to reenter NATO's military structure after the US refused to give Europe a key NATO command.
The events in Madrid and other recent examples of US muscle-flexing have served to push Europe even harder to find a security and foreign policy role independent of Washington.
After the US initiative to bring peace to Bosnia, the Europeans desperately sought a mission to prove to themselves and to their US ally an ability to snuff out conflicts in their own backyard.
Then along came Albania.
The tiny Balkan nation slid into anarchy in March, washing waves of refugees onto Italian shores. That spurred Rome to spearhead the first all-European peacekeeping mission, assigned only to deliver humanitarian aid and protect foreign election monitors. Following mostly peaceful elections here last week, some officials are already proclaiming victory for the eight-country contingent and planning for an Aug. 12 pullout.
A European success without the US?
Europe looks "always to the father," says the commander of the Albanian mission, Italian Lt. Gen. Luciano Forlani, referring to the United States. "But we have the military structure and capacity, and with the political will, we can do it."
Yet Italy's performance may prove to be an anomaly.
In the post-cold-war era, when most of the globe's conflicts erupt intrastate rather than interstate, intervention into a conflict is becoming a tougher sell: As Bosnia showed, Western electorates are increasingly reluctant to commit resources and sacrifice troops in far-flung lands, or even next door.
Despite the apparent success of the Albania mission, some analysts are moved to temper any enthusiasm. If the roughly 7,000 troops in Albania - from Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, Romania, Spain, Austria, and Denmark - were directly challenged, they'd likely have to be quickly withdrawn.
"We have to be very careful not to exaggerate the military significance of this mission," says Terence Taylor, assistant director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "The mission is more important politically, because the Europeans have shown the willingness to put their soldiers' lives on the line to back up their diplomatic efforts."
The US's advantage
The conflicts in Bosnia and Albania do make one thing abundantly clear, say other observers. Because of America's enormous investment in NATO infrastructure - and Europe's unwillingness to match that investment, in areas like communications, logistics, and intelligence - the world's lone superpower will have to be involved in any future military mission in Europe.
Coupled with its diplomatic stature globally, and regardless of whether it contributes troops, the US enjoys it both ways. As one academic puts it, America has a "hidden, de facto" veto over European intervention.
"It's embarrassing for a wealthy region of the world not to be able to afford an adequate security arrangement for itself," says Simon Duke, head of the international relations department at Central European University in Budapest.
"Since the end of the cold war, the US has reinforced its role in European security through NATO, while maintaining flexibility on whether it chooses to get involved militarily or not," he adds.
Washington was thrilled to see the Italians step forward. President Clinton made a point of praising their leadership last month.
Ideally, say analysts, future missions will also be led by the countries with the greatest national interest in regional stability. But this usually means neighbors, who, because of past disputes, may not always make suitable candidates.
Take Albania, for example. While much of the public was relieved to see an international force restoring calm, some were unnerved to see it led by Italians, who had occupied Albania twice this century.
The mission has also succeeded so far because it was well-defined and had a time limit, and may serve as model for future intervention. Though there has been a complete breakdown of law and order, foreign troops have strict orders to stick to their mandate. They observe gun-toting Albanians parading in public and look on passively during street battles between rival gangs.
Italians soldiers even sat back as thugs beat up an Italian journalist. "There's a great danger of being sucked into side issues that the forces aren't there to do," says a Western diplomat in Tirana, the Albanian capital. "And if they're not there to do it, they're probably not equipped to do it."
Once you try to disarm folks who are against the idea, adds the diplomat, "you're fighting."
But the hands-off attitude toward such core issues that block a peaceful transition, like apprehending indicted war criminals in Bosnia, raises concerns about the long-term effectiveness of peacekeepers. Their role, say analysts, is to provide "breathing space" for diplomats to help domestic politicians search for their own solutions.
The bitter truth, however, would be highly unpopular in Europe and the US. "The Gulf War painted a very damaging picture of post-cold-war security: It was a quick hit with enormous force," Professor Duke says. "But the reality is that [conflicts] are less clear, less decisive, with more casualties, and in the long run may cost more."