NATO leaders launched a radical overhaul of the Western alliance at a summit in Prague Thursday, welcoming seven new members from the former communist bloc and creating a rapid-reaction force ready to fight anywhere in the world.
The heads of state, meeting for the first time behind the old Iron Curtain, also promised to "take effective action" to help the United Nations make Iraq comply with disarmament resolutions. Though their statement did not specifically endorse military action against Baghdad, a senior US official called it "very helpful."
NATO's summit is designed to find a new role for the alliance in a world where the US can - and does - fight wars without it.
Soon after the two-day meeting opened, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson announced that Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia had been formally invited to join the alliance, taking NATO deep into former Soviet territory.
The invitees are expected to join by 2004, in a move that President Bush said would "refresh the spirit of this great democratic alliance."
The 19 NATO leaders also agreed to set up a 20,000-man strike force to be used "wherever needed," as the alliance retools to cope with threats far from its traditional area of operations in Europe. They said the force, first suggested by Washington, should be operational within two years.
That decision, and a pledge to gear NATO's military capabilities to new threats that have emerged since Sept. 11, illustrated how much the prize of a "Europe whole and free" - long the alliance's dream - has lost its glitter.
The seven Eastern European applicant nations invited to join the alliance today may be seeking protection from their traditional nemesis, the Russian bear, but Washington and other Western capitals are more fearful of a very different enemy, and are frantically remaking NATO to face it.
The new danger comes from "unstable failed states and terrorist organizations far from Europe's borders," and especially "the toxic mix of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism," US ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns warned in a speech last month.
Unless this week's summit, "originally billed as the 'enlargement summit,' is truly turned into a 'transformation summit,' NATO will have outlived its utility and will fade away," wrote Gen. Klaus Naumann, former chairman of NATO's military committee, in the NATO Review recently.
NATO's hardest challenge is to make itself useful to the United States.
Even though NATO leaders immediately invoked Article V of the alliance's charter on Sept. 12, 2001, calling the attack on New York and Washington an attack on them all, Washington did not call on NATO to help fight the war in Afghanistan.
And US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said that he has no intention of involving NATO in any war on Iraq.
That is largely because NATO does not have the capability to fight in Iraq, far from its traditional area of operations in Western Europe. The US plan for a 20,000-man "response force" that could deploy anywhere in the world within days and maintain itself for a month is designed to rectify that.
As a political organization, NATO is important to both the Europeans and the Americans, analysts say. The alliance provides a broad security roof over Europe, and offers the continent its only international security forum where it can make its voice heard in Washington.
It also offers the US a ready pool of potential allies to support its global policies and lend them legitimacy.
"If the institution is seen as irrelevant and the alliance continues to fray, the US will find the world a very lonely place," says Dana Allin, a specialist in transatlantic relations at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
In Prague, officials said, much of the corridor talk and private discussions focused on the prospect of war in Iraq, as President Bush sought to rally allied opinion - and allied forces, if possible - behind his tough line.
But if NATO were to become only a political organization, with no real military power to back it up, it would soon drift into irrelevance, leaving Europe without the global capabilities it needs to face global threats, General Naumann comments.
This means Europe must seek ways to keep the US militarily engaged in NATO.
To do so, says Burkard Schmitt, an analyst at the European Union's Institute for Security Studies in Paris, "the Europeans have to try to turn NATO into a useful tool for the Americans, as a military organization without too many complications that is usable worldwide and is readily deployable."
The Pentagon - where officials say they were frustrated by their experience in Kosovo of "fighting by committee" - currently seems happier fighting wars alone, as it did in Afghanistan. In that conflict, so few of the US forces were NATO-standardized that British and French aircraft and ships participating were often unable to relay secure broadband data to their American allies.
The rapid-response force that the Prague summit approved - drawn from the armed forces of all NATO members and on permanent standby - would give the Europeans a way to make themselves useful.
"It would enable the allies to act alongside US forces, and the argument that NATO has nothing to offer would fade away," Naumann says.
Still, the vast disparity in military spending between the US and its allies - Washington last year spent 85 percent more on defense than all its 18 allies combined - means that Washington is in a league of its own when it comes to the battlefield, and few other armies can keep up.
Especially worrying is the 5-to-1 discrepancy between US and European spending on research and development, which "in the long term will make it impossible for the Europeans to work with the Americans" in a war, says François Heisbourg, director of the Strategic Research Foundation in Paris.
"The Europeans have to shape up in that area," he says.
Only France and Britain have increased their defense budgets this year, but all NATO governments pledged Thursday to boost their capabilities in key areas such as transport aircraft, precision-guided missiles, chemical and biological warfare defense, and command and control.
The exact nature of those pledges will be negotiated at Prague, officials said, but Lord Robertson was hopeful.
"It is not 100 percent," he said, "but significant progress has been made, and the momentum has started, which I think is going to turn the tide and save the alliance."
Ever since Sept. 12, 2001, "NATO has been a global alliance," says Naumann, recalling that NATO defense ministers agreed last summer that the alliance must be prepared to fight well beyond its old European area of operations. "It just doesn't have the means to fulfill that role."
This week's summit will chart a course for changing that.
If the alliance's plans work out, Estonian, Slovakian, and Romanian soldiers could find themselves fighting in some very unexpected places.
• Arie Farnam in Prague contributed to this report.
1948: Western nations open talks on defense pact in response to USSR's blockade on Berlin that tightened communist grip on Eastern Europe.
1949: North Atlantic Treaty signed in Washington, by US, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal.
1952: Greece and Turkey join NATO.
1955: West Germany joins NATO. USSR forms Warsaw Pact.
1961: NATO condemns construction of Berlin Wall.
1966: France pulls out of NATO's integrated military structure.
1967: NATO headquarters moves from Paris to Brussels, Belgium.
1968: NATO denounces Warsaw Pact crushing of Czechoslovakia's "Prague Spring."
1979: NATO approves deployment in Europe of US Cruise and Pershing II theater nuclear weapons.
1982: Spain joins NATO.
1989: Communist regimes crumble in Central and Eastern Europe.
1990: NATO offers political, military cooperation to new democracies in Eastern Europe. Germany reunites, whole country becomes NATO member. NATO supports UN resolution demanding Iraq withdraw from Kuwait, but is not involved in US-led coalition against Iraq in Gulf War.
1991: Warsaw Pact dissolves.
1995: NATO launches airstrikes against Bosnian Serbs shelling Sarajevo. NATO deploys 60,000 peacekeepers in Bosnia.
1999: Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic join NATO; NATO begins airstrikes against Yugoslavia over its military actions in Kosovo. The strikes are halted after 78 days when Yugoslavia agrees to pull troops from Kosovo. NATO peacekeepers follow.
2001: NATO sends troops to Macedonia to oversee disarming ethnic Albanian rebels, protect peace monitors. A day after the Sept. 11 terror strikes on New York and Washington, NATO for the first time invokes its mutual defense clause, declaring the attacks to be an attack against the whole alliance. NATO AWACS surveillance planes start patrols over US, but the alliance plays no direct role in war in Afghanistan.
2002: Dropping reluctance to act out of European theater, NATO foreign ministers say the alliance must be able to field forces "quickly to where ever they are needed." NATO and Russia sign an agreement pledging cooperation against terrorism, weapons of mass destruction. American plans for a NATO rapid-response force able to move 20,000 troops quickly against terrorist or other threats win broad support from allies.