THE MEDIA trumpeted last week's NATO summit as a great triumph for Tony Blair. Most added that the meeting had shown NATO to be united around the key issues in the Balkans. But the reality is of underlying tensions which are set to grow.

There are broadly two sets of views among NATO leaders. One opinion, including the British and US leaders, wants NATO to play the openly imperialist role of policeman across half the world. Last year US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called NATO "a force for peace from the Middle East to central Africa". Republican Senator Richard Lugar backed her up, saying if NATO "does not go out of area, it will go out of business".

But others are much more circumspect, fearing that NATO may blunder into operations beyond its capacity. Such feelings are particularly strong among the new members of NATO—Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. These countries are now in the front line of the Balkan war. Public opinion in the Czech Republic is mostly opposed to the war, while in Hungary it is split. This is potentially very important if, as the Guardian reported, the Pentagon is planning to use Hungary as the staging post for a land invasion of Serbia itself. Plenty of people in these "new democracies" must be beginning to wonder if their role in NATO will be the same as it was in the old Russian dominated Warsaw Pact—as bases for superpower military operations.

There are also divisions closer to the heart of NATO. In his speech to the Economic Club of Chicago on Thursday last week, Tony Blair put forward a "doctrine of international community" which effectively gives NATO a green light to intervene where it claims "democratic values" are threatened. This gung-ho approach was resisted by France in particular. President Jacques Chirac won, against US and British opposition, a compromise under which the summit acknowledged that "the United Nations Security Council has the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security". France and Germany are much more wary about the ground offensive for which Blair has been campaigning.

Behind the immediate splits are uncertainties about NATO's role. Soon after NATO was founded in 1949 its first secretary-general, Lord Ismay, explained that its role was "to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down". The Second World War left Germany divided and prostrate, and the USSR was by far the greatest military power in Europe. Ernest Bevin, foreign secretary in the post-war Labour government, saw NATO as the means by which the US would be the military guarantor of Western European capitalism. US military involvement in Europe was not a disinterested act. It gave the US the leading political role in a crucial zone for American trade and investment.

But the East European revolutions of 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived NATO of the reason for its existence. Moreover, a reunited Germany emerged as an alternative centre of political gravity in Europe. In the early 1990s, when US policy was to try to hold Yugoslavia together, German diplomacy pushed in the opposite direction. The break up of Yugoslavia became inevitable in December 1991 when, under German pressure, the European Community recognised Croatia and Slovenia as sovereign states.

Bill Clinton's administration has responded with a determined drive to maintain the US as the dominant military and political power in Europe. Central to this strategy has been the transformation of NATO from what was, on paper, a defensive alliance in Western Europe into a military bloc that claims the right to roam freely throughout large parts of the world. Thus last week's Washington summit approved a "new strategic concept" which allows NATO to "contribute to effective conflict prevention and to engage actively in crisis management, including crisis response operations" throughout "the Euro-Atlantic region".

Last year 3,000 US paratroops took part in a military exercise in Kazakhstan. Azerbaijan has asked for a US military base. Both these central Asian former Soviet republics border the Caspian Sea, whose huge oil and gas reserves make it a rich prize. The stakes in the Balkan war are therefore very high. Ex US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is among numerous ruling class figures who thought it was stupid to bomb Serbia but now believe that NATO must win the war or face disintegration. The NATO summit may look like a triumph for Blair now. It could look very different in the future.

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