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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO Agony Where Does Europe End?

The pilgrimages to Washington have started, of generals and diplomats and security experts and officials from all across Europe.

The prospect of a NATO summit at the end of the year to review the purposes and the character of the world's longest-lived and most successful military alliance has stirred the chancelleries of Europe into their biggest rethink for a generation.

Either NATO expands and widens its old mission, as a defensive alliance that promises to treat a military attack on any one of its members as an attack on them all, or it stays as it is and withers away into irrelevance.

But how to expand it? A consensus is emerging that Poland and Hungary and the Czech and Slovak republics should be brought swiftly into full membership.

Then the arguments begin on the age-old question of where Europe ends. If a new NATO is to stop at the Polish frontier, does this not imply that NATO is ruling out any responsibility for war and peace in that jumble of fledgling republics that used to be the Soviet Union?

Does it not send a message to Moscow that if at some time in the future it seeks to recover its lost authority over Ukraine or Belarus or the Baltic states, NATO will turn a blind eye? But if NATO extends its umbrella over the Baltic states and Ukraine, does this mean that NATO remains an alliance aimed against Russia?

Very well, say the expansionists, why not extend NATO to include Russia too, a grand NATO alliance from Vancouver to Vladivostok?

But that would transform NATO from a coherent military alliance into a big and loose collective security organization. That is what the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was meant to be - and whatever happened to that?

And if a vast NATO includes Russia, it begins to look rather ominously like a white man's military club, facing the yellow peril of Japan and China to the east, and the brown-skinned Islamic hordes to the south.

It all comes down to Russia, as NATO always did. Can NATO be expanded in any way that does not make Russia feel excluded and thus threatened? and if NATO is not to be expanded, after its miserable failure to do anything about the Balkans, the first European war since 1945, what on earth is it for?

Over 40 years ago, Britain's General Ironside gave the best short definition of NATO's purpose: "to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down".

And now the Germans are up, and the Americans are edging out, and none of the NATO pilgrims to Washington can decide whether they want the Russians in or out. Or perhaps with partial membership that is likely to be seen in Moscow to be patronizing.

The funny thing is, nobody yet seems to have asked the Russians what they want to do. It might be a sensible place to start.