The level of bitter recrimination over Bosnia within the Atlantic Alliance is unparalleled since the Suez crisis of nearly four decades ago. Only this time there is no unifying threat to impose a sense of urgency to the quest for unity.

At their periodic meetings, foreign ministers invoke the old verities while avoiding the new realities brought about by the end of the Cold War and the unification of Germany.

A good place to begin a reassessment would be to recognize that the Bosnian debacle was due to conceptual failures within each of the allied governments rather than to the structure of an alliance that was never designed to deal with ethnic conflicts on its periphery. Otherwise, the Western democracies would have thought twice before recognizing a Bosnian state within borders reflecting none of the ethnic, linguistic or historic unities traditionally identified with nationhood. What made these statesmen think -- if indeed they were thinking -- that Croats, Serbs and Muslims, whose mutual hatred had caused the breakup of Yugoslavia, would be able to coexist in a unitary state in much smaller Bosnia?

Unable to define the challenge, the allies could hardly deal with it adequately, either individually or collectively. Was the Bosnian conflict a civil war or was it aggression on the model of the fascist assaults of the '30s and of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait? The Bush administration and our European allies treated it as a civil conflict of no relevance to international stability. Prepared to ease suffering and, in the case of the Europeans, even to send troops, they recoiled before the sacrifices connected with imposing a settlement.

The new Clinton administration affirmed moral outrage without, however, being willing to commit forces. Starting from opposite ends of the spectrum, neither Europe nor America ever reconciled its objectives with a willingness to run commensurate risks.

What the Bosnian failure demonstrates is not so much the failure of the alliance as the penalty of evasion. It poses above all these questions: Is the alliance still important? And, if the answer is affirmative, will it be able to generate common purposes even in the absence of a strategic threat?

The oft-invoked "new world order" will only emerge, if at all, at the end of a period of instability that is its birth pang. That process is made the more difficult because all the major players in it are essentially flying blind. America has never been part of an international order that it could neither dominate nor withdraw from. The European nation state can no longer deal with contemporary crises by itself, and the European Union is only at the beginning of extracting a common policy from nations that have, through most of their history, aimed their strategies at each other. Russia must adjust to borders it transcended three centuries ago. China, growing at an awesome rate, has never been engaged in world politics. Japan is redefining its national mission. And most of the emerging players -- Korea, Indonesia, Brazil and India to name only a few -- are just embarking on the major international roles likely to be their destiny.

A vital Atlantic Alliance could play a crucial role in the resolution of the attendant crises provided it is able to focus on its common necessities, as it previously did on common fears. If the enlargement of democracy is to have any operational meaning, it must begin with the Atlantic Alliance, which unites the oldest functioning democracies with genuinely pluralistic systems and economies based on the market.

In the end, the nations of the Atlantic area need each other. Without America, Europe turns into a peninsula at the tip of Eurasia, unable to find equilibrium much less unity and at risk of gradually subsiding into a role similar to that of ancient Greece in relation to Rome -- the only outstanding question being whether America or Russia will play the role of Rome. Without Europe, America will become an island off the shores of Eurasia, condemned to a kind of pure balance-of-power politics that does not reflect its national genius. Without Europe, America's path will be lonely; without America, Europe's role will approach irrelevance. This is why America concluded twice in this century that the domination of Eurasia by a hegemonic power threatens its vital interests, and has gone to war to prevent it.

Some Europeans advocate European union as a device to render America dispensable. In fact, a major American role in Europe is a prerequisite for European coherence. Without it, the European Union would founder on the fear of German domination; France would see reinsurance in a Russian option; historic European coalitions would form, compounding their traditional tenuousness with irrelevance; Germany would be tempted into a nationalist role, Russia into revanchism.

An American presence in Europe provides a measure of equilibrium. It gives France a safety net against German hegemony and Germany an emotional harbor as European unification slows down, as well as protection against outside dangers and excessive European nationalism. Even Russia has much to gain from an American presence, which is one of the best guarantees against the reemergence of historical European rivalries.

Europe by itself cannot handle the two most dangerous Russian contingencies: resurgence of nationalism or implosion. A Russia facing a divided Europe would find the temptation to fill the vacuum irresistible. An America cut off from Europe would lose an anchor of its foreign policy.

There are new threats as well. While technically a subject outside NATO competence, Muslim fundamentalism, were it to dominate North Africa, would pose a grave challenge to Western security. Nor is it necessary to define every threat in detail in order to wish to preserve the Atlantic system of regular consultation; and the existing infrastructure provides a vital, perhaps indispensable, resource for this period of transition.

Until recently, the Clinton administration has been hesitant to give Atlantic relations the traditional priority. Many of its key members, having formed their political convictions during the Vietnam protests, viewed the Cold War as unnecessary and its institutions as potentially dangerous. Treating NATO as a relic of the Cold War, they preferred to rely on Russian goodwill as the key to international order rather than on the historic alliance.

The administration's new emphasis on Atlantic cooperation is welcome. It needs to take account of a number of principles:

The crisis in the Atlantic Alliance can be solved only by opening a dialogue on fundamentals; previous American vacillations complicate the ability to restore confidence. But the task is not insuperable since, despite all controversies, the current NATO leaders all have a long record of friendship with the United States and, even in France, understand the need for a continued American role in Europe.

The structure of American-European relations needs to be modified. With the military threat receding and the risk of political crises growing, the political role of the Atlantic Alliance should be given greater emphasis.

The most sensitive immediate issue is NATO expansion, which the administration courageously put before the recent NATO ministerial meeting. But it must take care lest, in seeking to please every constituency and respond to every pressure, it winds up in the same dead end as Bosnia.

The expansion issue arose because Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary (the Visigrad countries) -- all victims of Soviet occupation -- sought NATO membership. If this request is rejected and the states bordering Germany are refused protection, Germany will sooner or later seek to achieve its security by national efforts, encountering on the way a Russia pursuing the same policy from its own side. A vacuum between Germany and Russia threatens not only NATO cohesion but the very existence of NATO as a meaningful institution. NATO cannot long survive if the borders it protects are not threatened while it refuses to protect the borders of adjoining countries that do feel threatened.

The new American proposal calls for an exploration of NATO expansion with each member of the Partnership for Peace, which is composed of all NATO members, the former Soviet satellite orbit and all the successor states of the Soviet Union, some 40 altogether. If this is anything other than an opening gambit, it will lead either to stalemate or to confrontation. Russia will either veto expansion or approve it only if Russia itself becomes a member. In that case, NATO would stop being a defensive alliance and turn into a system of general collective security similar to the United Nations.

Russian membership in NATO would dissolve the Atlantic Alliance into just such a vague system without meeting the security concerns of Europe, especially of Eastern Europe, or of America. It would remove NATO as a shield of Western Europe because the NATO obligation does not run to protecting its members against each other. Instead, it would place NATO's frontiers at the borders of China. This is why Russian membership in NATO and in the European Union was standard Soviet fare in Communist times.

Having started down the road of NATO expansion, the administration must choose between the concept of the NATO alliance, based on defining an area to be protected, and the concept behind the Partnership for Peace, designed -- by President Clinton's own statements -- to unite the former blocs. NATO is not the instrument to serve both purposes. Nor can the decision wait until an acute Russian threat in fact appears. Pressures against NATO expansion will grow more insistent at that point, compounded by the fact that a skillful Russian challenge will be made to appear ambiguous. It is not wise to defer obtaining fire insurance until the house is actually on fire.

Of course, Russia must be given every opportunity for a truly cooperative relationship. But not at the cost of tempting Russian expansionism by removing the obstacles to it. Even the presumably reformist Yeltsin government has insisted on an assertive superpower role by throwing its weight around.

NATO expansion represents a balancing of two conflicting considerations: the fear of alienating Russia against the danger of creating a vacuum in Central Europe between Germany and Russia. A wise policy, instead of pretending that Russia has an option for NATO membership, would take two steps. It would proceed with membership for the Visigrad countries and reject a Russian veto. But at the same time, it would propose a security treaty between the new NATO and Russia to make clear that the goal is cooperation. Such a treaty would provide that no foreign troops be stationed on the territory of new NATO members, on the model of the arrangement for East Germany (or, better, no closer than a fixed distance from the eastern border of Poland).

At the same time, such a treaty could provide for consultation between NATO and Russia on matters of common interest. In such a structure, there would be no reason for Russian security concerns. Going beyond it would grant Russia a right to create a vacuum around its borders, preserving the options of historical Russian expansionism.

Failure to expand NATO in the near future is likely to prove irrevocable. Russian opposition is bound to grow as its economy gains strength; the nations of Central Europe may drift out of their association with Europe. The end result would be the vacuum between Germany and Russia that has tempted so many previous conflicts. When NATO recoils from defining the only limits that make strategic sense, it is opting for progressive irrelevance.