Washington, 21 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's commemoration of its 50th anniversary coincides with its military operations in Yugoslavia and Kosovo, a coincidence that some commentators are bemoaning but one that underscores the commitment to principles that has been the hallmark of the North Atlantic alliance since its founding.
When NATO members last year began planning this week's celebration, most of them assumed the meeting in Washington would simultaneously recall what the alliance has accomplished in winning the Cold War and serve as an occasion for marking its enlargement and transformation in the post-Cold War world.
Given these expectations, all too many of the planners and even more academic and journalistic commentators have been distressed that the events in Yugoslavia have transformed what was to have been a ceremony of celebration into a working meeting of the alliance.
Some of these people have voiced concerns that the actions of the alliance in Yugoslavia could highlight strains in one of the oldest defense organizations in the history of Europe. Others have been worried that Yugoslavia could make it difficult if not impossible for NATO to agree on a new and expanded program for itself now that the Cold War is a thing of the past.
And still others have suggested that NATO's actions in Yugoslavia are redividing Europe rather than uniting it. They point to Russian anger about what NATO is doing, note that Moscow is not sending a high-level delegation to the NATO summit, and suggest that the alliance which won the Cold War may, as some Russians suggest, now be in the process of provoking a new one.
No one who plans an event is ever happy to see it transformed by unexpected circumstances. But most if not all of the fears that critics have expressed appear to be exaggerated or misplaced. Indeed, the conjunction of the Washington summit and NATO's military actions against Belgrade appears likely to have the effect of calling attention to just what the alliance has always been about.
First of all, NATO has always been a defensive alliance, one committed to repelling aggression. What Serbian forces are doing in Kosovo is aggression. Repelling it and defending the Kosovars are thus integral to what NATO has always been about.
Even those who argue that NATO is somehow acting "out of area," that is beyond its own borders, appear to be overstating their case. Thanks to enlargement, one NATO member country borders Yugoslavia, and all NATO member countries have to be concerned about both violence in Europe and the possibility of a war that could engulf an even larger area than the current one now does.
The history of the continent in this century has repeatedly shown that intervening early and massively is far more likely to help maintain peace and stability than getting involved only late and in a small way in the name of both those values.
Moreover, NATO's involvement in Yugoslavia and Kosovo demonstrates that the alliance is still a vital institution, that it has a variety of purposes, and that it can act in the name of those purposes despite the varieties of opinions that exist in its democratic member states.
During NATO's first half-century, the alliance has often been divided on all kinds of questions. But it has been united on the big issues, on the need to repel aggression before it can win a beachhead anywhere in Europe. And it has been united precisely because it is a North Atlantic alliance, one that ties Europe and the United States together. Any other arrangement would almost certainly have failed or fail in the future. Obviously at a time when there seem to be many little threats rather than one big one, divisions within the alliance are going to be more obvious than they were. But these differences of opinion are a reflection of NATO's accomplishments in defense of democracy rather than a source of weakness. And consequently, however unpleasant they may be at any particular time, they too appear to most members in the alliance as a cause for celebration rather than concern.
And finally, blaming NATO for redividing Europe by its actions in Yugoslavia superficially appears to be the most plausible argument but in fact is almost certainly the least well-founded. Over the last decade, the North Atlantic alliance has gone out of its way to invite its former adversaries to participate in its activities. It has launched the Partnership for Peace program to assist its former opponents. It has created a special council for direct Russian participation. And it has taken in three new members.
Few earlier alliances have been so willing to extend their benefits to their former adversaries. But while taking these steps, NATO has not given up its principles as its actions in Yugoslavia show. History is likely to hold those who find those actions and the principles on which they are based objectionable far more responsible than the alliance for any new divisions.
As a result, the Washington NATO summit is likely to prove to be a genuine celebration not only of past achievements but of future commitments as well.