Although NATO members offered to join the United States in the war in Afghanistan - considering an attack on one NATO member an attack on all - Bush declined, saying the alliance was "limited" in what it could do and suggesting the U.S. military was better off going it with selected allies. Neither has he asked NATO as a whole to join in any attack on Iraq, fearing the aged and cumbersome force would be more constraining than helpful.

Yesterday, in approving the creation of the rapid-deployment force, NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson addressed the alliance's shortcomings. He said the deployment force marked the creation of a military arm that will enable NATO to answer calls anywhere in the world. The force is to be operational by October 2004.

Bush's call for NATO members to improve their militaries is a tall order given their economies and the shape of their troops. That is especially true for the newest members, who will be formally admitted in 2004 after ratification by the U.S. Senate and the parliaments of NATO members.

"The whole of the armed

forces in any of these countries could not be compared with any Western military power in terms of equipment or anything else," said Phillip Mitchell, ground forces analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "It's going to take quite an effort to integrate in every aspect, including communications, equipment and training."

Slovenia, for example, has no air force and no navy, although its army has an air element that includes about 250 people. Its ground forces rely almost exclusively on T-55 tanks, the Yugoslav version of the Russian T-72, built in the mid-1950s, making them a generation older than those in the fleets of most NATO countries.

The country has a total of about 9,000 military personnel, and about half of them are seven-month conscripts. The United States, by contrast, has a volunteer professional force of about 1.3 million troops.

Of the countries poised to be admitted, Romania offers the largest number of troops - about 99,000 - but also is strapped with aged equipment. None of the countries has communications equipment that enables it to speak with its U.S. or British counterparts, although that is a problem with many of the NATO countries.

Urged to pull weight

The United States has dominated NATO since its creation - Dwight D. Eisenhower was its first supreme commander - and it was former President Bill Clinton who pushed the alliance into its first military operation by launching a campaign of airstrikes against Bosnian Serbs.

On the eve of the summit, Bush encouraged the other NATO countries to pull their weight by spending more on military capabilities. He said, and NATO leaders agreed yesterday, that the alliance needs to be able to fight side-by-side better, to increase special operations forces and to build a larger arsenal of precision bombs.

"Every member must make a military contribution to this alliance," he said. "Never has our need for collective defense been more important."