PRESIDENT BUSH, Russian President Vladimir Putin and European leaders will unveil a new NATO-Russian relationship tomorrow, taking the first dramatic step that will change the Western alliance forever.
The second step will come in Prague in November when NATO will invite up to seven countries to join, taking the alliance from 19 to 26 nations. Those in the running for membership this time are the three Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Slovakia.
These decisions, while important, have been made without solving a more fundamental issue: What should NATO be for? The past three years have brought two dramatically different answers. The first was the 1999 war in Kosovo that was run from NATO. The second was the war on Afghanistan that for the first time prompted NATO to invoke its self-defense clause (Article V) but was run with the alliance largely cheering from the sidelines.
For the foreseeable future, it's more likely that the latter will prove to be the rule. A NATO with more members and a deeper relationship with Russia - which the new forum on consultation with the alliance on intelligence sharing and terrorism is supposed to cement - is unlikely to look inviting to Washington's war planners. The United States will fight when it needs to with its core allies, but not with an alliance.
This makes sense. NATO now is not structurally or culturally equipped to combat new threats. Its decision-making procedures are too unwieldy. The NATO culture continues to revolve around defending against a Cold War military force from the East, not elusive terrorist cells like al-Qaida.
Afghanistan also shows that the gap in military capabilities between the United States and its allies across the Atlantic has only gotten wider, calling into question the ability of the United States and Europe to act together on the battlefield.
Given all of this, it is tempting to conclude that NATO doesn't need to be - or rather, really can't be - anything other than a talk shop for like-minded states to discuss common threats or a forum for making Russia feel more a part of Europe. Both of these objectives are worthwhile, and some even may argue that they alone justify NATO's existence. But they fall far short of what's really needed.
NATO must be more than a cheerleader. As the war on terrorism extends into the future, it will require painstaking common efforts to eliminate terrorist cells before they attack and to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands.
And here is where a larger NATO working with Russia can - and must - assert itself.
First, the new NATO must lead the discussion about how the United States and Europe can act together to combat threats outside the transatlantic theater in places such as Central Asia, the Middle East and even Africa.
Second, the alliance should establish mechanisms for discrete, small-scale operations that allow for joint consultations in the event that NATO countries need to be called into action.
By allowing Europe to focus its limited military resources to modernize in select areas and develop expertise that the United States may rely on, such specialized missions would go a long way in solving the capabilities problem.
And starting to develop such mechanisms now can test how serious Russia is about real cooperation (and vice versa) without weakening the alliance's future ability to operate.
Over the past several months, there has been remarkably little debate about NATO taking in a large group of members or creating a new relationship with Russia. Some consider this a sign of how little Washington intends to use NATO in the future.
But now is not the time to toss aside an organization of natural allies who maintain military forces that can work well with America's. Instead, the United States and Europe have to change the way NATO functions so that together we can respond to the many real threats we face.
Derek H. Chollet, who served in the State Department from 1999 to 2001, is a Bosch Public Policy Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. James M. Goldgeier is a professor at George Washington University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.