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The Fire Down Below

WARSAW: Bombing Serbia and Serb forces in Kosovo are not exactly what NATO's new members in Central Europe expected when they joined the West's premier security organization. Poland, but also Hungary and the Czech Republic, believed they were joining yesterday's NATO - an alliance to protect Europe against threats from the East. It is this goal that made them mobilize resources and public opinion in order to join the privileged group. Now they find themselves in an organization in the process of radical transformation.

It is said of NATO's attack on Serbia that it is the first war of the 21st century. Fighting in Kosovo is the first significant conflict which, for one side at least, involves no considerations of strategy, territory, population, natural resources, or even ideology. The West is fighting a war over principles, a war, as President Clinton put it, "to end a moral tragedy." At issue is an attempt to stop an epidemic, the carriers of which in 20th century Europe have been nazism, communism, fascism, and now, nationalism.

NATO, for the first time, has intervened in the internal affairs of another country. This is a significant change in NATO policy, which downgrades the idea of the sovereignty of states and elevates the status of ethical norms in international relations. A lot seems to rest on a consensus about moral norms and about who is right and who is wrong. While few question the immorality of Serbs' behavior, future moral crusades may be more controversial.

In addition to moral considerations, the decision to intervene was motivated by concerns about the future of European-American relations, and of NATO after the cold war. The fall of the Soviet Union undercut the primary source of NATO's legitimacy. Who is threatened by Russia today? It is Russia's weakness that is a threat, and raises fears of chaos, unforseen uses of nuclear weapons, or another Chernobyl. NATO is in the process of working out a new doctrine that is to be adopted later this month in Washington during the celebrations of NATO's 50th anniversary. It remains a defensive alliance, but one ready to attack to protect peace and stability or to fight terrorism and nuclear proliferation.