At the Prague summit this week, Nato members intend to invite as many as seven central European countries to join. The entry of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria is a logical next step in the continuing enlargement of Nato, a process that is helping to consolidate the eastward spread of a democratic and peaceful Europe.
The incorporation into Nato of countries that long suffered under communist rule symbolises their entry into the west - the main reason they have pressed so hard for membership. But ironically and, for these prospective members, unfortunately, they will be entering a western alliance that is soon to be defunct. By the time the new entrants show up at the welcoming ceremony, Nato's lights will be flickering, leaving it up to the European Union to take command of Europe's security. The Atlantic alliance will almost surely be around for the better part of this decade - at least in name. But its founder and primary patron, the US, is losing interest in Nato. The result is a military pact that is hollowing out and of diminishing geopolitical relevance. Prior to the last round of Nato enlargement, which extended membership to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, Washington was abuzz with debate. In the weeks leading up to the approaching Prague summit, there has been a deafening silence in the US; nobody seems to care.
Three potent trends are at work.
First, Europe's own success obviates the need for its American guardian. The EU's aggregate wealth approaches that of the US; Europe is strengthening its collective character as it prepares for its own eastward enlargement; and a democratising Russia, rather than threatening Europe, hopes to one day enter its ranks. Under these circumstances, the Atlantic alliance has lost its raison d'etre.
Second, the two sides of the Atlantic are drifting apart politically. The Bush administration's unilateralism has done an excellent job of provoking Europe's pique, making many Europeans less accepting of the US's heavy hand. The Bush administration has in turn been angered by European criticism, especially by the anti-American rhetoric that emerged amid the German election last September. A combination of Europe's military weakness and its carping has left the Bush team viewing Europe as more of a nuisance than a partner.
Third, US priorities are shifting away from Europe. The US faces pressing strategic challenges in other quarters of the globe, with the struggle against terrorism now added to an already long list of onerous commitments in east Asia and the Middle East. The Bush administration is justifiably directing America's attention and resources to these regions. The war in Afghanistan has already diverted significant US capabilities from south-east Europe to south-west Asia. The impending war against Iraq will further distract America from its European calling.
In an effort to salvage Nato's relevance, Washington recently proposed the creation of a Nato response force capable of rapid deployment well beyond alliance boundaries. But turning Nato into a global strike force is a non-starter. The limited size of the proposed unit - 20,000 troops - minimises its significance. As Washington made clear in refusing European help during the main phase of the war in Afghanistan, it does not welcome the constraints of coalition warfare. And EU members are struggling to come up with sufficient forces to handle conflicts in their own backyard; they are neither capable of, nor interested in, new commitments in distant lands.
The US and Europe are thus parting ways, bringing to an end their close strategic partnership. As America decamps from the Continent, Europe's security order will become much more European and much less Atlantic. The central European countries soon to join Nato are doing so primarily to get America but, like it or not, they will get Europe instead.
The EU must now ready itself to shoulder more responsibility for its own defence. Most EU members have been happy to support the union's decision to form a rapid reaction force, but few have followed through with defence reforms and increased spending. That must change, and the EU must strengthen its ability to formulate and implement a common foreign and security policy. Similarly, the EU's prospective members in central Europe must realise that their future security, as well as their economic well being, rests with the EU. Accordingly, they should get behind the union's push on the defence front, instead of quietly resisting the EU's efforts in the hope of keeping Nato in the lead.
Pronouncements emanating from Prague this week will no doubt affirm that the Atlantic alliance is in the midst of rejuvenation. At best, however, the gathering will merely postpone Nato's inevitable demise.
The writer is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of "The End of the American Era"