Waving his hand toward a bank of filing cabinets running the length of his office, a NATO headquarters staffer helping to plan the peace mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina 18 months ago dismissed every file as useless.
"For 40 years, we did nothing but plan scenarios to block a mass invasion from the east," he said. "And what am I doing now? Sending peacekeepers south. Everything here has changed."
Indeed, change has been the only constant for the United States' most enduring military alliance in the years since the disintegration of the Communist enemy it was formed to combat. Since then, the 16-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization has altered its strategy and its mission, cut overall spending by more than 20%, reduced its forces by one-quarter and restructured them to deal with new security challenges such as peacekeeping and crisis management.
And even these actions pale in comparison with the revolution about to hit NATO's sprawling low-rise complex on the Belgian capital's eastern outskirts: For better or worse, the alliance's eastward enlargement is about to happen, and--despite endless studies and three years of planning--even the most senior officials admit they have little idea of what the ultimate effect will be.
"Since 1989, NATO has gone through a kind of cultural revolution, but enlargement will transform its institutions," said one senior alliance official. "It's going to become a fairly complicated place, and nobody knows how it's going to work out.
"Will NATO be weaker?" he asked. "It's like asking about heaven. We won't find out until we get there."
For Americans, as for Europeans, the answer is not academic. In the 48 years since NATO was founded as a transatlantic alliance of like-minded democracies, it has preserved both freedom and an uneasy peace in a part of the world where the United States has twice this century sent too many of its young to fight and die. A seriously weakened NATO would make Europe a more dangerous place.
But for most of the 1,650 military and civilian members of the alliance headquarters staff, and the hundreds of others who work in NATO's 16 national diplomatic missions, there has never been an alternative to enlargement: Failure to expand, they believe, would eventually erode NATO's fundamental role as a partnership between the U.S. and the democracies of Europe.
In his office at NATO headquarters, Secretary-General Javier Solana went still further.
"What happens if you don't open the alliance?" he asked. "What happens to these countries if they can't become members? Frustration sets in. Some say it's either enlarge NATO or chaos."
Whether NATO emerges stronger or weaker, Solana--like almost everyone here--is certain about one thing: A larger alliance will be a more complicated alliance.
"Every decision has it costs and its benefits, but for me, the benefits of enlargement make the costs worthwhile," he said.
There are even signs that what Solana believes will be enlargement's most troubling side effect--a hardening of relations with Moscow--will someday pass. An ornate Russian teapot sits on his desk, a gift from Alexander I. Lebed, Russia's former Security Council chief.
But some observers question whether Solana and the political leaders pushing enlargement forward may be dangerously underestimating its effect. By accepting at least three of the 12 formerly Communist Central and East European states that have asked to join the alliance, the United States, Canada and their 14 European partners will be doing far more than placing a few additional chairs around them at the NATO decision-making table.
In contrast with NATO's earlier enlargements--in 1952 (Greece and Turkey), 1955 (West Germany) and 1982 (Spain)--this one will alter the shape as well as the size of the alliance. NATO, which acts only when all its members agree, has managed until now to achieve consensus on some very thorny issues in large measure because its decision-making is so straightforward.
Just one body debates and decides alliance actions. This body, called the North Atlantic Council, is composed of one representative from each member country.
Enlargement will change that.
Besides taking on at least three new members, NATO will bring a recalcitrant Russia into a closer consultative relationship and will upgrade ties with about 25 "partnership countries." To complicate matters further, tensions have already developed between existing alliance members as they try to work out the mechanics of turning over a greater share of Europe's security burden to the Europeans themselves.
At alliance headquarters here, senior NATO officials admit that they are unsure how they will deal with these strains, while outsiders worry openly that the varied interests of a larger, more diverse membership, coupled with the deeper involvement of Russia and partner countries, could complicate decision-making to the point of paralysis.
What will happen once Russia sits at a NATO table, even without veto power? Could it disrupt alliance business? Could it intimidate neighbors who become members? Could it use its time-tested tactic of turning one member against another?
And apart from the potential problems with Russia, have countries such as Hungary--expected to be offered admission in July along with the Czech Republic and Poland--really resolved divisive disputes over borders and treatment of ethnic minorities? Or might these nations merely bring such arguments with them into the alliance and make consensus all but impossible on important issues?
There is also uncertainty about enlargement's impact on crucial but little-understood factors that have allowed an alliance of 16 diverse democracies to mesh.
Veteran alliance diplomats worry, for example, whether NATO's new size and complexity could dilute the effect of corridor chatter and spontaneous cafeteria meetings that so frequently have provided ways to solve knotty problems facing the alliance.
"The larger NATO gets, the harder it gets to manage," noted retired Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), long one of the most respected voices in Congress on security matters and a critic of enlargement. "Napoleon once said that if he got all his enemies together in one alliance, he'd be assured of victory. This is a weakening of NATO and its military capabilities."
Solana, whose native country, Spain, was the last member admitted, rejects such thinking.
"This is no argument," the secretary-general said. "Maybe NATO should have stopped at three or four. This isn't going to change things. We've just got to maintain the spirit [of cooperation] of the alliance."
But two new bureaucracies will be injected into the process--a NATO-Russia Council as a concession to Moscow and a partners council for the many countries initially left out or uninterested in immediate membership.
The NATO-Russia Council, replete with a full support staff, will be established with offices at NATO headquarters. The exact limits of the council's role are still being worked out, but Moscow is expected to receive the right to be consulted on a broad variety of alliance business, to place matters on the alliance agenda and to have a voice in decisions that directly affect Russia or its military units.
Many supporters of enlargement worry that the Clinton administration is overdoing its campaign to allay Russia's concerns about expansion.
"Enlargement itself won't undermine NATO, but the danger to watch out for is that the expectation is created that whenever NATO addresses a serious security issue, Russia is present," warned Robert Zoellick, who dealt with European security issues as an undersecretary of state in the George Bush administration. Zoellick said he initially suggested that NATO-Russia discussions be restricted to agreed-upon issues such as nuclear proliferation and arms control.
Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger expressed a similar concern about the extent of possible Russian involvement.
"Once the Russians are in a meeting, it changes the whole dynamics of what goes on in the room," Kissinger said in an interview. "Unless steps are taken, this will weaken Atlantic cohesion."
Together, the two new councils will substantially complicate life at NATO. "It's going to be a problem, but we don't have an alternative," admitted one alliance staffer. "We're talking about a different kind of NATO now."
To sustain both flexibility and political backing in an organization that is about to grow substantially, the alliance agreed last year to a plan that would give European members greater responsibility, including the ability to undertake their own joint missions.
Such operations could include, for example, small peace-enforcement missions in which only some alliance countries would take part, but with the support of key NATO aspects, including intelligence, communications and airlift capabilities.
Negotiating the details of such a shift, however, has proved unexpectedly difficult, with France insisting both on a greater degree of European autonomy than the United States is willing to give and on a French replacement for the American currently commanding NATO's Southern European sector.
For some Americans, such friction with France will only make the Czechs, Poles and Hungarians more welcome as new members.
"These countries will be like the Dutch," predicted Zoellick. "When we get into our perennial fights with the French, they are going to be on our side."
Times staff writer John-Thor Dahlburg in Paris contributed to this report.
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At a July summit in Madrid, leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will decide how far east to expand their alliance. This decision will have huge practical and strategic importance. It would, for example, ensure an American role in Europe, committing the United States and its allies to defend a new set of nations, many of them former satellites of the former Soviet Union. President Clinton and other advocates insist that this is good. But opponents say NATO expansion would needlessly alarm Russia. Because of historical and geographical reasons, Moscow views the presence of alliance forces at Russia's borders as a grave threat. The expansion, critics say, also could prove costly and would divide Europe along new lines. They also charge it has not been well thought out.