NATO - the Atlantic Alliance - will stage a welcoming ceremony for its seven new members Friday at its Brussels headquarters, raising their flags and playing their national anthems. But the festivities will be followed by serious business as NATO foreign ministers deal with Russian anger at alliance expansion and discuss its involvement in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and the war against terrorism.
NATO's new members - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria - do not bring a great deal of military muscle to the alliance. But they have, or are developing what NATO officials call niche capabilities, areas of special expertise.
Professor Jerome Sheridan, a security expert who heads American University's Brussels Center, says that, despite their limited military capabilities, the new members are adapting themselves to the new challenges NATO faces in the war against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
"I think that they will continue to develop expertise in small parts of the war against terrorism," he said. "So they might be able to provide a chemical weapons protection unit, a biological weapons detection unit. It is not big, but they will be players. That is for sure."
NATO officials say it will take 10 to 12 years for the new members to adapt their military forces to NATO standards. The officials point out that, five years after Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary became the first former Communist states to join NATO, they are still in the process of modernizing their forces.
But NATO sees this expansion, like the previous one, as primarily political because it means extending Western values like democracy and the rule of law eastward to the Russian border.
Russia, as expected, has reacted with irritation to NATO's inclusion of the Baltic states. It fears NATO air defense patrols over those countries will be used to spy on its territory. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will get a chance Friday to vent his country's concerns when the NATO-Russia council meets, despite NATO's insistence that there is no threat to Russia.
Analysts like Professor Sheridan think recent Russian expressions of concern about NATO's move eastward are mainly for domestic political consumption. But he says the future relationship between Moscow and the alliance will depend on what the alliance does in the future.
"If NATO does something particularly provocative, like station a bunch of troops in the Baltic states, right up against Russia's borders, then you are going to see Russia emerge very opposed to NATO and the old-style Russia coming back," said Jerome Sheridan. "If NATO basically keeps a low profile in the new accession states, is there at a political level but does not keep any kind of military hardware or anything near Russia, Russia will come to see that this is absolutely no threat to them."
All of the new NATO members, except for Romania and Bulgaria, will also be joining the European Union next month. Even though they are mostly considered pro-American now, security expert Daniel Keohane, at London's Center for European Reform, believes that could change as they become more reliant on the economic benefits their EU membership will bring.
"These countries that have been very pro-American will be a little bit less pro-American and a little bit more pro-European, if I can put it that way, because there will be less incentive, or they will be less likely to want to annoy Paris and Berlin, whom they will depend upon in the European Union, than perhaps they would have done in the past," he said.
But other experts say the Baltic republics, at least, will continue to be more oriented toward Washington as long as they perceive that Russia could threaten their security.
The new allies formally joined NATO on Monday at a White House ceremony. With 26 members, Mr. Keohane wonders whether the alliance, in which all decisions must be unanimous, can continue to operate effectively just as it gears up to face new threats.
"It is becoming politically a lot more unwieldy than it used to be," he said. "One is tempted to say that NATO's war in Kosovo in 1999 was both the alliance's first and last war because it is pretty clear that the Pentagon did not enjoy running that war by committee. It did not enjoy having to consult what was then 18 other allies on targeting and on how the war was run. So it is very difficult to see whether or not the Pentagon will want to run an actual war through NATO again."
Mr. Keohane says the only way NATO can function effectively is if most of its European members vastly improve their military capabilities. He says U.S. forces are so far ahead of their allies technologically that it is difficult for most European armed forces to work alongside their U.S. counterparts.