It was only when the Kosovo crisis erupted in 1998 that NATO allies were confronted with the practical implications of what had been largely theoretical until then. In early autumn, the alliance had to consider whether to threaten major airstrikes against Serbia, a sovereign Central European country that indiscriminately uses violence against civilians in the province of Kosovo. The France and others argued that NATO, as a defence alliance, could not act in situations other than self-defence unless the action was explicitly authorized by the United Nations. French President Jacques Chirac rejected a NATO capable of giving its own mandate as the “Holy Alliance,” arguing that Paris “insists on it. on the need for a Security Council mandate for any NATO military intervention. This view has been shared by most NATO governments in Europe, including Germany. Bonn, which has always been reluctant to use military force, has been particularly cautious in occupying a new post in the run-up to the Kosovo decision in October, as elections at the end of September 1998 brought to power a new centre-left government. In contrast, the US has argued that UN authorization would be welcome, but not necessary, for NATO to act. As the Pentagon spokesman argued in early October, “the American view has always been that NATO has the right to act alone – the right and obligation to act alone on European security issues.” Instead, common ground must and will most likely be found.

While NATO`s main function must be to create not only collective defence, but also a basis for joint military action whenever the affected allies so desire, its central objective should be to extend the security and stability that its members have long enjoyed to other countries in the Euro-Atlantic area. Allies can achieve this goal in part by keeping the door to Alliance membership open to all European states that want to join and have carried out the necessary political, economic and military reforms. But it also means that the Alliance must become a key instrument for promoting the values and interests that distinguish Europe from other regions of the world, including support for democracy and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. NATO brings to this task the undisputed ability to use and deploy overwhelming military force. The threat of its use is often sufficient to ensure that European states respect the standards, values and codes of conduct that govern their behaviour towards their citizens and neighbours. Sometimes, however, it takes more than threats, and NATO has shown in the Balkans that it is ready to use force to promote security and stability throughout the region. NATO`s evolution from a collective defence alliance to an organisation primarily concerned with crisis management has raised fundamental questions about its overall objective, the missions it should prepare for and the role that the threat and use of force should play in such missions. As for NATO`s future goal, there is still no real agreement among Allies on what it should look like.

Some members continue to view NATO primarily as a collective defense alliance whose main purpose is to provide cover against a militarily vindictive Russia that could emerge from the political and economic chaos that characterizes Russia today. Others believe that NATO should be a collective security alliance whose main purpose is to promote the values of the Atlantic community of market democracies throughout Europe in order to spread the stability and security that flow from membership of the transatlantic security community. Still others argue that NATO can be an alliance of collective interests whose primary purpose is to defend threats to common European and American security interests, regardless of the origin of those threats. As the discussion above has made clear, Allies` differences on the circumstances under which NATO should threaten or use force, how far its power should extend geographically, and the legal basis on which NATO threatens or uses force in any of these situations should remain profound. At the same time, some of these differences are more obvious than real, often a matter of style rather than substance. And in any case, reasonable compromises can be developed that agree with most views. However, their acceptance by NATO allies depends on a willingness to abandon, at least for the time being, very restrictive and very ambitious views on NATO`s overall objective. If NATO`s objective is solely to ensure the collective defence of its members, then many of the issues related to the Alliance`s use of force will have been resolved, but only by rendering the organisation virtually unrelated to the main security challenges of the day. If NATO`s objective is to defend challenges to a wide range of European and American interests at the global level, then differences between Allies over the interests at stake, threats to those interests and the nature of the appropriate response are likely to paralyse the Alliance and ensure that inaction becomes the rule rather than the exception. The final effect of NATO`s withdrawal would be the near-collapse of what has been called the “liberal international order.” This order consists of treaties, alliances, agreements, institutions, and behaviors created primarily by the United States to protect democracies.