WASHINGTON -- American and European leaders planning the post-Cold War future of NATO may not realize that they are already staring it in the face -- in Bosnia. It is a future in which the alliance's military muscle is useless, its threats defied and its members divided.
The once-mighty alliance's three-year failure to end Europe's worst conflict in a generation offers a bleak primer on its abilities to cope with the kinds of threats likely to trouble the continent in the future.
With the United States ceding leadership to Britain and France, the 48-year-old North Atlantic Treaty Organization has seemed nearly irrelevant to ending the war.
Some of NATO's leaders prefer to depict Bosnia as a sideshow. But the conflict is increasingly coming to define the alliance.
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, whose country is a NATO member and has troops on the ground in Bosnia, warned in a speech last week that more Bosnias are in store and can't be ignored.
"The international community is being called upon to address conflicts which have traditionally been considered internal matters. It cannot be the case anymore," he said. "These conflicts are posing threats to security that cannot go unchallenged."
Because it kept Europe safe through the Cold War without firing a shot, a myth developed around NATO that somehow its presence alone did the job.
It didn't. At key moments, the United States gave the alliance credibility not just by putting its forces into NATO but by being prepared to use them.
A month after NATO was founded, the United States launched a large-scale airlift of Berlin to counter a Soviet blockade of the city. To back it up, President Harry S. Truman sent B-29s to Britain that were capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
The Soviets backed down.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy, locked in a test of wills over Berlin with Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev, called out 150,000 U.S. reservists.
In the 1980s, the United States and Britain held the alliance together as a wave of pacifism washed over much of Europe and the Soviets launched a charm offensive.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, NATO retained and even enhanced its aura of power by absorbing a united Germany.
But this aura obscured a policy vacuum: The U.S.-led alliance failed to come to grips with the new dangers it would face in the post-Cold War world. High on the list of dangers it did not want to confront was the Balkans.
Having sent a half-million troops to the Persian Gulf, President George Bush was averse to getting NATO involved as Yugoslavia splintered and war broke out between Serbs and Croats in 1992. Mr. Bush refused to intervene.
Even when Bosnian Serbs cut a swath of mass killing, rape, forced relocation and concentration camps across Bosnia-Herzegovina, he viewed the conflict as a European problem.
Legally, NATO wasn't required to act.
That's because no member of the alliance was directly involved in the conflict, which fell outside NATO's defined area of operations.
A European conflict
For a time, the Europeans were only too happy to manage the conflict themselves.
The French, in particular, had long chafed at U.S. power over Europe and saw a chance to enhance their own role in European security. U.N. peacekeepers and diplomacy, rather than NATO force, were the preferred tools.
History, proximity and television eventually made the Bosnian war impossible for NATO to ignore.
Flash point for World War I and witness to gruesome atrocities in World War II, the former Yugoslavia borders two NATO members -- Greece and Italy.
Perhaps more important, it also borders Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania -- nations struggling to redefine themselves after the Cold War.
But the alliance never could agree on how NATO would intervene.
President Clinton wanted to side with Bosnia's Muslim-led government against the Serbs, but only with airstrikes, avoiding the use of U.S. ground troops.
But Europeans balked. They had far less sympathy for the Bosnians and for three years have resisted U.S. attempts to direct policy.
Eventually, as U.N. peacekeepers and civilians came under increasing threat, NATO was drawn in.
NATO planes have bombed Bosnian Serb targets, patrolled the skies to keep Serbian aircraft from attacking Bosnian cities and airlifted thousands of tons of food.
NATO ships patrol the Adriatic Sea to police an embargo against Serbia.
The United States supplies much of the personnel, equipment and money for these operations.
But squabbling among allies deprived NATO of a coherent strategy.
Powers behind the pose
U.S. officials publicly blame the United Nations for repeatedly vetoing forceful military action.
But that has been a charade.
The dominant voices on Bosnia in NATO and in the United Nations are the same: the United States, Britain and France.
The overall U.N. peacekeeping commander for the former Yugoslavia is French. The United Nations' Bosnia commander is British. If the use of force is blocked, it's because either Britain or France -- or both -- does not want it used.
When forcefully challenged, NATO has backed down.
Since April, NATO aircraft have submitted to the Bosnian Serbs' control of the Sarajevo airport and halted relief flights. Without saying so, NATO has also abandoned airstrikes against Serbian targets and curtailed its enforcement of a no-fly zone.
In a candid moment, British Defense Minister Malcolm Rifkind, since promoted to foreign secretary, recently dismissed U.N. Security Council mandates calling for the use of force to relieve besieged Muslim enclaves.
"These are words," he told reporters.
U.S. and European officials insist that they are learning valuable lessons from Bosnia that will prevent the same mistakes in future threats to the continent's security.
But the latest evidence suggests that the alliance continues to disintegrate: In recent weeks, the Clinton administration, Congress and the Europeans have become embroiled in a nickel-and-dime dispute over paying for the European quick-reaction force.
The Clinton administration refuses to pay more than a small fraction of the cost, but it also wants the force to dampen the fighting.
That's because, if the quick-reaction force doesn't work, the United States is committed to dispatching 25,000 ground troops to withdraw U.N. peacekeepers.
This would be the first time NATO embarked on a clearly defined mission in Bosnia.