Inside a zone of incredibly tight security, heads of government from the 19 NATO nations and officials from more than 20 other partner countries, more than 1,700 dignitaries in all, have been in Washington for the past three days worrying about NATO's future and toasting its past.
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A Brief Timeline.
Newsreel headlines in 1949 proclaimed, "In Washington the United States breaks a 170-year-old tradition that joins 11 nations in signing the Atlantic defense treaty."
In April, 1949, the signing of the NATO pact was headline news. It was an alliance to keep the Soviets, with their threatening military machine and expansionist attitude, out of western Europe and to keep Americans in, at the front line of the defense against spreading communism.
NATO was formed against the beauty of one of America's most awesome military and humanitarian moments, an airlift that kept Berlin alive after Communists had initiated a blockade.
Some 40 years later, the Berlin wall came crashing down. It was NATO's biggest trophy as winner of the cold war.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger says, "When NATO was formed the Soviet Union was perceived to be threatening a whole host of nations, none of which could resist by themselves."
Kissinger calls NATO the "core institution" of the Cold War period. "I cannot imagine that communism would've collapsed this way without NATO," says Kissinger.
The Cold War was won without a shot fired by NATO. But 50 years later, as NATO celebrates its past at the Washington summit, there's a dark cloud over it's future. NATO is in its first shooting war.
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Crisis In Kosovo.
Belgrade, Yugoslavia, is being hit daily by NATO commanded planes. From the pictures of buildings exploding it looks like Slobodan Milosevic is taking a beating. But the question is: Is NATO winning?
"It's in the middle of a major war, and it's losing," says Ivo Daalder a former member of President Clinton's national security staff and now a foreign policy scholar.
"It's losing the war, at least the main objective that we went for. We were going to war to protect the Kosovar Albanians. There are now more than 1.2 million people outside of that unfortunate province. Until these people can go back in wit a NATO force to protect them, we will lose," says Daalder.
NATO leaders have spent much of their weekend discussing options in Kosovo, including ground troops. Because of this immediate crisis they have not been able to finalize what NATO calls its "strategic concept," its makeup and mission in a dangerous post-Cold War era that includes a new challenge: ethnic conflicts, first in Bosnia and now in Kosovo.
Prior to the summit, John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, went to the Senate floor to warn against etching anything in stone this weekend.
"Who has the equipment? The good U.S. of A. And we're the ones who are carrying the burden and that's why I have fought so hard on the floor of the Senate and elsewhere to hold off drawing into stone the final document,"
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On The Crisis in Kosovo
This is the first summit for NATO's three newest members, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, which were admitted last month. There are now 19 countries and more knocking at the door. This leaves this summit with still another dicey question. Should NATO be even further enlarged?
Robert Hunter, who was U.S. ambassador to NATO during President Clinton's first term, says the answer is "yes." "NATO should be open to countries that have prepared to share the burdens and the responsibilities of membership," he says. "It's not a club. It's a military alliance. It's an alliance of countries devoted to the same principles of both the freedom and democracy and security and you enlarge as fast as there are countries prepared to do that."
Kissinger says that even though the Cold War is over, we still need NATO because, he notes, "we are now living in a world of over 160 states. There are many who think America can handle every problem by itself. But the danger of this is that we will either get drawn into over-extension and exhaust ourselves, or be driven into isolation and beome irrelevant."
At its creation 50 years ago, President Harry S. Truman talked about NATO's "will." Truman said, "If there is anything certain today, if there is anything inevitable in the future, it is the will of the people of the world for freedom and for peace."
The NATO that is in Washington this weekend has had its "will" tested in a cold war. But keeping the peace in a new world of ethnic and religious conflict is turning out to be even bigger test for NATO's future. That doesn't leave much time to celebrate the past.
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