The NATO newbies may have to help the organization determine the reason for its existence. "NATO members right now can't agree on the organization's purpose," says Graff. "The U.S. is proposing a strategic concept that includes intervening far beyond Europe's borders to secure Western interests, but other members are reluctant to expand the mandate of an organization dominated by Washington." And expansion raises its own problems: Russia may have reluctantly acquiesced to the current additions, but Moscow will likely fiercely resist the Western alliance absorbing the Baltic states, which have applied for membership. And before NATO even gets to such long-term challenges, it has to overcome the disunity and indecision of its members over forcing the Serbs to accept a Kosovo peace deal. If the continuing defiance of President Slobodan Milosevic is any indicator, the alliance's enemies are not convinced of its unity of purpose.
Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary make their triumphant entrance into NATO Friday -- although through the metaphorical back door. "The original plan had been to induct them at NATO's big 50th anniversary celebration in Washington in April," says TIME Brussels bureau chief James Graff. "That plan was scrapped for fear that it would make the Russians boycott the anniversary celebrations."