Less than three months after NATO's triumph in Kosovo, a paradoxical but nagging question has become inescapable. Did Kosovo mark the end of NATO, at least as we have known it?

For America, the Atlantic Alliance -- our sole institutional link to Europe -- has epitomized the twin pillars of sound American policy: the buttressing of both security and democratic values. For our European allies, NATO has given Britain the framework for its "special relationship" with America; to Germany a safe haven from European suspicions and Eastern dangers; to France, a safety net against changes in the geopolitical balance it cannot handle by itself; and to Italy, an anchor for the emotional Atlantic commitments of its population.

Yet, unexpectedly, the first joint military operation of the Atlantic Alliance, carried out with extraordinary political cohesion and blessed both with apparent success and involving no allied casualties, has evoked calls for greater European independence, expressed with a vehemence and at a level never heard before. The ink on the agreement ending warfare in Kosovo had hardly dried when, in Cologne on June 15, the 15 leaders of the European Union affirmed the urgency of creating a separate military force capable of acting without the United States and without the approval of NATO: "The [European] Union must have the capacity for autonomous action backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them and a readiness to do so without prejudice to actions by NATO." Carried to its logical conclusion, this implies a revolution in the structure of the West: an all-European chain of command capable of bypassing NATO.

The timing of this sudden quest for autonomy is puzzling, even jarring. The European reaction would make sense if our European allies felt they had been dragged into what, in retrospect, they consider an aberration, or if the NATO allies were squabbling about the consequences.

Neither of these conditions applies. Far from feeling imposed upon, all allied leaders insist that henceforth the pattern of humanitarian intervention displayed in Kosovo is to be the rule, not the exception. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has proclaimed Kosovo a victory for the "progressive" approach to foreign policy, replacing outdated traditional concepts, adding: "This war . . . was fought for a fundamental principle necessary for humanity's progress: that every human being regardless of race, religion or birth has an inalienable right to live free from persecution."

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany said the same more operationally: "The Alliance had to demonstrate . . . that the weak have in NATO a strong friend and ally ready and willing to defend their human rights." President Clinton adopted the most sweeping formulation: ". . . If somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion, and it is within our power to stop it, we will stop it."

When all the allied leaders agree on the significance of their actions, the sole remaining European motive for developing a capacity to act autonomously is to escape American tutelage and increase European bargaining power. If these goals reflected a desire to make a greater contribution to joint action, or to give weight to occasional European warnings against American impetuosity, they would contribute to the effectiveness of the Alliance. To be meaningful, this would require a vast increase in military spending (some experts estimate as much as threefold), or at the very least a major effort of defense modernization and restructuring.

If, however, Europe fails to make a real defense effort, resentments against American dominance will only increase. And if the quest for independence is driven largely by anti-American motives, it will saddle the Alliance with all the compulsive competitiveness that nearly destroyed Europe before the Atlantic Alliance was founded in 1949.

The new European eagerness for autonomy is partly a function of the end of the Cold War and of America's emergence as the sole superpower. But it also reflects and compounds the key Alliance challenge: the growing confusion about what NATO is supposed to accomplish in the first place.

The various allied leaders are correct in treating Kosovo as a watershed. The Alliance abandoned its historical definition of itself as a strictly defensive coalition and insisted on the right to occupy a province of a state with which it was not at war. And it reinforced this unprecedented ultimatum by coupling it with a demand for the right of free movement of NATO troops throughout Yugoslavia.

This abrupt abandonment of the concept of national sovereignty coupled with a truculent diplomacy marked the advent of a new style of foreign policy driven by domestic politics and the invocation of universal moralistic slogans. But to implement such a policy on a permanent basis will not be nearly so simple as the self-congratulatory rhetoric implies. Those who sneer at history obviously do not recall that the legal doctrine of national sovereignty and the principle of noninterference -- enshrined, by the way, in the U.N. Charter -- emerged at the end of the devastating Thirty Years War, to inhibit a repetition of the depredations of the 17th century, during which perhaps 40 percent of the population of Central Europe perished in the name of competing versions of universal truth. Once the doctrine of universal intervention spreads and competing truths contest, we risk entering a world in which, in G. K. Chesterton's phrase, virtue runs amok.

In the Clinton/Blair version of allied policy, NATO must act because it is the only posse in town and because its motives are pure. This is not only incompatible with the notion of a defensive alliance but probably with the notion of alliance altogether. Traditionally, alliances have expressed the aggregate national interests of the member states. They define a special, not universal, obligation. The casus belli is generally the crossing of the national borders of the alliance, or those of a country considered vital to the alliance.

Once borders lose their sacrosanct quality, how is one to define the casus belli for the humanitarian wars of intervention of the new dispensation? Since they reflect a universal, not a special, obligation, they should -- logically -- be implemented by a global consensus. But if NATO is subordinated to the United Nations, its high aspirations will almost certainly be stymied by the Russian/Chinese veto. On the other hand, if NATO insists on defining a universal legitimacy on its own, it will face the opposition of most of the rest of the world.

In the end, the dirty little secret of the allied leaders may be that their sweeping assertions reflect no operating policy. Shaped by protest movements of the 1970s suspicious of alliances and assertions of the national interest, and by the experience of the 1990s, which witnessed the disappearance of the Soviet threat, they treat foreign policy as an aspect of domestic politics and ideological goals rather than as a pursuit of long-range strategic objectives. They undertook the Kosovo operation, at least in part, in reaction to public repugnance at television footage of refugees; but a similar fear of the pictures of allied casualties caused them to adopt a military strategy that, perversely, magnified the suffering of the populations on whose behalf the war was ostensibly being fought.

In the aftermath of the war, the Alliance has learned that even just wars cannot avoid ambiguity and can have political consequences. A war to vindicate the inadmissibility of ethnic cleansing has concluded with replacing one ethnic cleansing with another. It has also projected the Alliance into a political dilemma: whether to carry out the U.N. resolution, in effect making Kosovo a NATO protectorate, or allow it to become independent. The former course guarantees clashes with the local population on the model of Somalia; the latter course will produce a long-term Balkan crisis when the quest for a greater Albania threatens the stability of Macedonia and perhaps of other states.

No more important task confronts the Atlantic Alliance than to bring the rhetoric of its leaders in line with realistic choices. Various declarations and "spins" since Kosovo have stated, or implied, that humanitarian military intervention is not contemplated against major powers (China, Russia, India), against allies, against allies of major powers or countries far distant from Europe. Then what is left? It would be an odd revolution that proclaimed new universal maxims but could find no concrete application except against a single Balkan thug.

To be sure, concern for human rights has become a major component of the foreign policies of the democracies, and it is supported by powerful domestic constituencies. Undemocratic governments court trouble when they ignore this reality. But the leaders of the Alliance need to keep in mind that they have obligations not only to the emotions of the moment but to the judgments of the future.

Joseph Nye Jr., in a thoughtful article in Foreign Affairs, has put forward four principles for humanitarian intervention with which I generally agree: having a just cause in the eyes of others; proportionality of means to ends; high probability of success; and, wherever possible, reinforcement of the humanitarian cause by the existence of other strong national interests.

Thus more narrowly defined, the rhetorical distinction between humanitarian and national interests erodes. But the task of NATO's leaders is to be even more concrete and to supply answers to questions such as these: Where and for what humanitarian causes will NATO project its military power? What risks is it prepared to run? What price is it prepared to pay?

Even more important is to reverse the hollowing out of the traditional purposes of the Alliance. Some of this has occurred because, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cold War threats have largely disappeared. But allied leaders, systematically deprecating historical notions of national interest, bear a heavy responsibility as well.

No wonder that NATO headquarters is increasingly preoccupied with peripheral, essentially psychological, activities such as the Partnership for Peace program and a plethora of activities far removed from the basic NATO mission which water down the functions of the Alliance. Meetings of NATO heads of government are turning more and more into preludes to G-8 summits or to public spectacles of all the various associates, numbering some 50 nations.

If the Atlantic Alliance is to continue as more than a relic of a fading period, it must answer these questions: How do we define strategic threats to world order? What political changes will we resist for security reasons? Above all, and especially in light of the sweeping political goals recently enunciated, the political structure of NATO must be broadened and strengthened.

But this cannot happen unless there is a reaffirmation of the centrality of the Alliance, not for liturgical purposes at periodic formal meetings but as a living institution systematically adapting itself to new realities.

The writer, a former secretary of state, is president of Kissinger Associates, an international consulting firm that has clients with business interests in many countries abroad.

(C)1999, The Los Angeles Times Syndicate