A NATO “summit” meeting is set for Strasbourg, France, at the start of April, preceded by a G-20 meeting on economic issues in London, the two expected to provide the official immersion of Barack Obama in the champagne-flavored waters of the international conference circle that takes up so much of the time of the chiefs of governments and nations.

The G-20 is real, the subject of its deliberations the present financial catastrophe drawing nations and individuals toward ruin.

NATO is not real; one might think it the more important organization, since it (or parts of it) makes war, but its independent existence is virtual; it is an adjunct of the United States, and serves no other purpose.

This is why it constantly is referred to as being in crisis, being remade, or being in need of remaking. Following the Soviet collapse, it first was told to go “out of area or out of business.” It went out of area, to Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, and is still largely out of business.

This has a simple explanation. NATO has no coherent overall purpose and has not had one since the end of the Cold War. The neoconservatives wanted it to replace the U.N., but no one else did. Any number of redefinitions and reorganizations have been proposed or tried and have proved unsatisfactory because no one can explain what it is that NATO really does or is for, other than to clean up behind the United States.

It wanted to extend security to ex-Warsaw Pact Europe. It tried to do so, and characteristically overreached, turning itself into a suspected agency of subversion of post-Cold War Russia. Whereas its initial cooperative overtures to the new Russia were mutually stabilizing, those that followed — the senseless missile installations planned for Poland and the Czech Republic, and the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine — uselessly recreated Central European and Russian peripheral tensions.

The involvement of NATO in Afghanistan has seriously divided an alliance initially anxious to cooperate with the U.S. on terrorism issues. President Barack Obama, as candidate, asked for a big reinforcement of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, but in view of the gravely deteriorating situation there, he is likely to get a smaller one.

No one has explained why Europeans should be at war with the largest ethnic community in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. What have the Taliban done to the Europeans? Try to get a coherent answer to that question from NATO commanders and all you get is confused explanations about Asian terrorist “nests” and “hotbeds” potentially threatening Toronto, Memphis, Berlin or Brussels. The New York Times published a recent editorial saying that Afghanistan is the “right” war to wage because the Taliban extremists oppress women. Is that why NATO is in Afghanistan?

NATO has survived until now because the Pentagon could tap its resources and manpower. To the East European members, it survives because, although a deflated relic of the Cold War, it might be re-inflated if Russia were sufficiently stirred up to threaten Europe. But threaten it how? The Red Army no longer exists. Moscow threatens to turn off the gas in Europe, but gas is a replaceable commercial commodity, on its way to being replaced.

Otherwise, for the Europeans, NATO is like Bear Stearns: too long around, and too big to be allowed to collapse. However, Washington let Bear Stearns collapse.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who thought that George W. Bush would give France a big NATO command if Paris rejoined the military wing of the alliance, is no fool. He was the man who quickly understood what was going on among Georgia, Russia and Ukraine last August and afterward, and he would have been on Time’s cover as “Man of the Year” for 2008 had Barack Obama not come along.

With Europe beginning a year of Czech and Swedish presidencies, Sarkozy knows that European leadership is a bigger game than NATO.

However, everything depends on Barack Obama. Is he really convinced that the war in Afghanistan is the key to enduring peace with the Muslim world? Surely not. But he’s acting as if he does believe it. And does he understand that now is the last chance for an Israel-Palestine settlement? By sending George Mitchell there, conceivably he does. These are the important things. Transatlantic alliance is yesterday’s illusion, and the Europeans will know it if Obama does not put the U.S. on a new course. Europe knows that the challenge is not who will become the next Tony Blair.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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