Ever since the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse, when NATO lost its enemy and its prime reason for being, the West's military alliance has been in existential limbo. Is its purpose to fight terrorism beyond Europe? Is its identity tied to adding new European countries? Now, with Russia's August invasion of Georgia, NATO's angst is escalating.
Until now, much of the internal wrangling in the alliance had been about "out-of-area" deployments. NATO belatedly intervened to stop atrocities as neighboring Yugoslavia disintegrated in the 1990s. It meanwhile ventured into Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda – but halfheartedly and ill-equipped.
Whether NATO is meant for a more global mission, and if so, whether it can gear up for it are basic questions expected to be the focus of the alliance's 60th anniversary summit next year.
But newer NATO members, such as the Baltic countries, are urging a renewed focus on the alliance's traditional mission: territorial defense.
Moscow's reversion to "sphere of influence" talk and action has awakened these countries' memories of suffocation in that sphere. They feel vulnerable sitting out there on Russia's western edge. They never were militarily fortified when they joined NATO; there was no imminent enemy.
At the same time, Russia's muscularity has deepened the divisions in NATO about taking on new members, specifically, putting Georgia and Ukraine on the path to membership – a subject that the members will take up for the second time in December.
Is the alliance, already overstretched and underappreciated, really prepared to risk war with nuclear-armed Russia to eventually defend these outposts – as its mu-tual defense clause guarantees? That question hardly applied to NATO aspirants during Russia's weak years, but it's a sobering one now.
NATO's ambivalence about responding to the new strong Russia can be seen in its mixed messages.
In a show of solidarity, its ambassadors met this week in Georgia, where the NATO secretary-general proclaimed that "the road to NATO is still wide open." The US ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, said Russia should not be allowed to "veto" Georgia's future. Nor should its conflicts serve as an excuse to keep Georgia out of the alliance.
Yet even Mr. Volker, perhaps NATO's strongest backer of Georgia, was cautious about the timing, as was NATO's secretary-general. Indeed, NATO doesn't allow for taking on members involved in territorial conflicts.
And debate continues on whether Russia's needed cooperation on important global issues, such as Iran and energy, should be the more powerful driver in NATO's relations with Moscow. Perhaps the best way to keep it in check for now is through an economic and diplomatic squeeze. Russia's financial markets are already hurting.
NATO can start addressing its identity question by reaching a consensus on the nature of the Russia threat. Is Georgia a one-off event to be contained? Or does NATO expect other Russian provocations in Europe, perhaps even against its own members?
Not until NATO understands the new Russia can it figure out what to do about it.