Leaders of the 26 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have just arrived in Bucharest, for what may prove to be one of most important summit meetings the alliance has held since the end of the Cold War.
What the debate should be focused on is NATO's ongoing mission in Afghanistan, which currently lacks the men and equipment it needs to succeed. Canada - which has 2,500 soldiers deployed in the volatile, Taliban-friendly Kandahar region - has borne a disproportionate share of the fighting and the casualties thus far, and has threatened to withdraw its forces unless other alliance members step up and contribute an extra 1,000 troops, as well as additional drones and helicopters.
So far, no member nation has stepped up and offered the needed forces, raising the possibility that the NATO alliance may be sliding towards ignominious defeat in the Afghan mountains, just as the Soviet Union did 20 years ago.
But as crucial as the Afghan debate is to the alliance's future, the war against the Taliban is not even the top item on NATO's agenda. Instead, the wobbling alliance is debating the merits of taking on Ukraine and Georgia as new members. (U.S. President George W. Bush continues to praise the idea, while France and Germany have wisely made their opposition plain.)
Adding the two ex-Soviet states to NATO is dangerous for many reasons. First and foremost is the possibility that it could put the alliance on a military collision course with Russia over the future of two breakaway regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
As I've written before, the West's poorly examined decision to back independence for Kosovo has heartened the Moscow-backed separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, pushing them closer to their own unilateral declarations of independence. If the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians choose to follow Kosovo's path, look for Russia (and Serbia) to quickly support them and for Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to threaten military measures to keep his country together.
If that happens today (which it could), the crisis could be defused by international mediation, even if a few shots are fired. But if a fragmented Georgia is made a NATO member before Abkhazia and South Ossetia are brought back into the fold, any standoff between Tbilisi and the separatists suddenly becomes a crisis between Moscow and the West that could have serious implications.
Former British defense secretary Malcolm Rifkind put it succinctly in an opinion piece published in today's London Telegraph:
If Ukraine or Georgia become full members, Britain and other members could find themselves required to contemplate war or other forms of military intervention if either of these countries faced armed attack.
This cannot be considered a hypothetical concern. For some years, Georgia has been unable to enjoy full territorial integrity because of the de facto secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both secessionist regions enjoy strong Russian support and there have already been clashes between Georgian troops and those of the two breakaway regions.
Would it really be wise for Nato member states to accept a legal obligation, not just an option, to come to the aid of Georgia if either or both of these secessionist regimes, with or without the support of Moscow, continued to use armed force against the Georgian government?
There are similar reasons to tell Ukraine that now is not the time for it to join NATO either. Not only is the Kremlin even more heatedly opposed to seeing Ukraine join NATO than it is Georgia (President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly raised the possibility of targeting its neighbour with nuclear weapons if Kyiv joins), most Ukrainians are themselves either opposed or indifferent to the alliance, raising the possibility of further internal strife if President Viktor Yushchenko pushes ahead without public opinion fully on his side.
And, it has to be said again that NATO's relentless eastward expansion (Croatia, Albania and Macedonia are expected to join this week) - while never inviting Russia to join - raises questions of what the alliance's purpose is in the 21st century.
NATO, on paper, has always a defensive coalition. Does adding a few Balkan states, Ukraine and Georgia make the other members safer against any external threat? Or does it increase the likelihood of its members being drawn into an armed conflict?
NATO's previous waves of expansion into the former Communist bloc (including the 2004acceptance of the former Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) have nutured the Kremlin's suspicion that NATO remains an anti-Russia bloc, thus feeding the growing paranoia and surliness in Moscow. In the minds of the ex-KGB agents who now run the country, NATO's push east demands a response.
We've already seen how this goes. NATO pushes east, ignoring Russia's concerns; Russia responds by investing more money in its military, testing new weapons systems, and doing all it can to thwart Western interests around the globe. The West's conviction that Russia is hostile necessitates Russia behaving in a hostile manner. Eventually, the damage done to the relationship between Russia and the West will become irreversible.
There's a new president on the way to the Kremlin, and while I hold little hope that Dmitriy Medvedev will be anything more than Putin's loyal second-in-command, I also once believed that Yeltsin would control Putin. Until we see what Medvedev's Russia looks like, perhaps this is a time to put the escalations on hold.
So here's a vote against expanding the Old Cold War alliance in hopes of calming the new one. NATO has other things to worry about right now. So do Ukraine and Georgia.
P.S. The New Cold War has just been published in Turkey and Estonia. That's the Turkish cover top left. Can't say I'm a fan, but maybe orange is the new black in Istanbul.