NATO won the cold war without firing a shot, but by standing firm and tall. It also achieved the more elusive, unnoticed, goal of creating a bridge between Europe and America, and of defining an Atlantic identity stretching from Alaska to Turkey. That's taken for granted today - but it was unthinkable of at the end of World War II.
NATO has defined two halves of this century. It made Americans and Europeans realize that they had common interests. With NATO's defensive mission accomplished, members weren't then prepared to send the alliance into retirement. NATO became the cornerstone of Euro-American partnership and the main tool of security in the unsettled post-cold-war world.
The alliance itself might not be threatened, but its neighborhoods are unstable.
Only NATO could stop the Bosnian tragedy; only NATO could provide some degree of stability to other countries of former Yugoslavia and a sense of collective security to the entire Balkan peninsula; only NATO could constructively engage the new Russia and reach out to all the republics emerging from the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In so doing, the alliance has continued to do what it does best: It serves and enhances the interests of the US, Canada and the European members.
NATO will expand because not doing so would have prevented the alliance from enlisting fresh resources in the defense of its values and interests. NATO membership is no free ride. Benefits are enormous, but they come with commitments. It brings security to new members and enhances the security of old and new alike.
In Italy, the alliance is seen as a cornerstone of stability in Europe. Besides its long-standing defensive value, its very presence - and indeed its growth - does prevent conflicts before they arise. NATO has a remarkable record of defusing potential crises in Europe and around Europe. And when a substantial military presence is needed "out of area," as in Bosnia, there is no substitute for it. Peacekeeping doesn't come cheap, but failure to provide it is even more expensive, and its consequences are unpredictable. In southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean, NATO's role might be decisive in defusing crises, preventing conflicts, and encouraging the countries of those regions to cooperate among themselves.
In spite of its vocal opposition to enlargement, Russia has shown to be more interested in cooperating with rather than confronting NATO. Moscow can't and shouldn't interfere in alliance decisions, but a constructive relationship is a very welcome development. As a result, the overall security in Europe, and indeed in the world, has further improved.
When we debate the costs of enlargement we forget that we have already cashed in on our investment - in the long term, the more secure environment that we strive to create and the addition of new allies to the colletive security, will more than offset the modest additional expenses required. Italy will honor its fair share of enlargement costs as assessed by NATO and agreed by all allies.
Finally the new NATO as well as the current NATO will remain a defensive alliance. All members will be expected to add value to its capacity of self-defense. Moreover, they will have to be security providers rather than simple consumers. This is happening in the real world (Bosnia). But rhetoric can be misleading.
Sometimes, when America takes the lead, European contributions pass unnoticed, even if they account for more than half of the military presence as is the case with the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) in Bosnia. American leadership boosts NATO credibility; it's always a welcome commitment and often a necessary one. But Europeans do share the burden of common security - even much of it.
Italy's track record as security provider is a good example. We participated in the NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) and SFOR and will continue to be part of the follow-on-force in Bosnia after June, possibly with increased responsibilities. We are engaged in strengthening politico-military collaboration with new member Hungary and NATO-candidate Slovenia. We took the lead of the "coalition of the willing" that successfully defused the Albanian crisis last year, involving approximately 7,000 European troops, from nine countries, more than half of them Italians.
There is no shortage of arguments in favor of enlargement. As we make the case for it, we should keep in mind its overriding rationale. NATO embodies the soul of the Atlantic partnership: America's engagement in Europe and Europe's willingness to have Americans as allies in Europe.
Lamberto Dini is Foreign Minister of Italy.