Russian President Vladimir Putin made this blunt statement on a trip to Austria last week: "NATO still exists. Why?"
Then this week President Bush ended a speech at Norfolk Naval Air Station in Virginia with this unusual consecration: "God bless NATO."
Obviously, the former rival powers are still struggling for influence in Europe, with NATO as a focus. But that's not their only bone of contention. The latest is a US offer to build a missile defense shield for Europe. Then there was the Kosovo war that so upset Russia. And so on.
The point is not that there's a new and dangerous Russia-US rivalry. Rather, Europe itself remains a work in progress as it tries to expand and unite. The US and Russia are just competing to shape it.
"Europe," which is as much a concept as a place, remains fuzzy around its geopolitical edges. Its two identity-defining institutions, NATO and the European Union, plan to add more than a dozen members from the former Soviet bloc in coming years.
But where does expansion stop? What are Europe's eastern boundaries? And will Muslim nations such as Turkey and Albania be able to join the EU?
After its success in creating a single market and currency, the EU has begun to question the "width" of its membership club and the "depth" of its integration.
And Europeans are conflicted about their collective will to act alone in a conflict. While they decry President Bush's talk of pulling a small contingent of US troops out of Kosovo, they proudly set up a military force separate from US-led NATO.
To create a continent with no more wars, the EU and NATO hold out an incentive for potential members to build strong democracies. When Slobodan Milosevic jeopardized Europe's peace, NATO bombed Serbia in hopes of bringing the Balkans into a Europe with fairly elected leaders.
Now Europe faces another test of its identity, beyond that of just being a trade zone with euros jingling in people's pockets.
Ukraine - which is the second-most-populous nation in Eastern Europe, after Russia, with 52 million people - is in political crisis. Covertly taped conversations seemed to implicate President Leonid Kuchma in the murder of a journalist. He's now trying to repress a popular uprising, while firing many officials.
This week, Russia took advantage of his weakness and had him sign agreements on industrial cooperation. Such steps may help Moscow keep Ukraine from joining the EU or NATO.
But the 15 nations of the EU, Ukraine's biggest source of foreign aid, have so far done little to support Kuchma's opposition. The EU needs to help Ukraine get rid of a corrupt regime - not just to keep it out of Russia's orbit, but to set a valuable example for Russia.
By not limiting the scope of democracy and prosperity in Europe, the EU will enhance the prospects of finally creating the peaceful unity it seeks.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society