During the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s meeting earlier this month, diplomats argued whether NATO should take a pledge against the "first use" of nuclear weapons. The proposal was defeated, but the testy debate revealed deep divisions between the members of this Cold War-era military alliance.

Below the veneer of camaraderie within NATO’s ranks lie conflicting views about the future of the organization, and even about the fundamental reasons for its continuing existence.

After World War II, NATO was framed as a military barrier to protect war-weary European nations from the growing Russian communist threat. It served the purpose well until the break-up of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

But the diplomats, military officers, bureaucrats and politicians who have grown dependent on or accustomed to NATO’s continuing existence, refused to put this once useful alliance out to pasture, even though geopolitical realities have rendered it obsolete. American officials, with the acquiescence of European "free riders" eager for the United States to pick up their defense tab, have found new missions for this old organization, and have even agreed to admit new members.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, one of NATO’s most ardent supporters, envisions the organization as a sort of worldwide globocop that can deploy its resources as far afield as the Middle East, to combat terrorism, and central Africa, to undertake humanitarian ventures.

No wonder current debates within NATO reflect what the Economist calls an "ominous feel."
Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, NATO members have bickered primarily about its expansion plans. Now that the first expansion phase is complete, with Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland approved as new members, fundamental issues are rising to the fore.

That’s what happened at NATO’s early December ministerial meeting, Barbara Conry told us; she’s an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute. Each member nation has a different, and oftentimes incompatible idea of what it would like the organization to accomplish — a situation increasingly apparent now that the expansion issue is no longer the focus of debate. Few European members agree with Ms. Aibright’s wide-ranging vision, but they are willing to put up with her ideas as long as the United States fills a continental power vacuum.

Yet there is no valid reason, based on constitutional or practical considerations, for America to eternally defend affluent European nations that are now scaling back their already small defense budgets. With the Soviet Union dismantled, Europe has no over-arching threat to fear and plenty of resources to deal with low-level security problems such as Kosovo without continuous American handholding.

"There’s just no reason for the United States to imbed itself in European defense any longer," Robert Higgs of the Independent Institute told us. "The problem doesn’t exist, so it can only be a way the United States becomes a source of subsidy for European defense ... and a way for an organization to ... go out in search of dragons to slay, which is also not in the interest of the United States."

Rather than spend billions of dollars propping up an outmoded defense alliance, U.S. officials ought to use the money to buy, then dismantle, nuclear weapons from cash-starved former communist nations, Mr. Higgs suggested. NATO’s cyrrent strategy, he said, makes that possibility more difficult because Russian politicians see NATO’s eastward expansion as provocative — a justification for maintaining nuclear weapons.

Whatever its merits, Mr. Higgs’ proposal is based on this underlying idea: U.S. policy should spring from current security realities, not from a now-defunct conflict. It’s time for our nation to recognize that fact, then set a timetable for a departure from NATO.