Among the many anniversaries of world events marked in 2009, NATO’s founding 60 years ago stands out. At the start of the cold war, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was built to provide for the external as well as internal security of its member states. By pooling West European defense efforts, it put an end to intra-European wars. By permanently involving the United States and Canada with Western Europe, it created a security community spanning the North Atlantic: the modern world’s first zone of stable peace.

Since the end of the Western-Soviet confrontation, NATO has not withered away—it has evolved, alongside the European Union, into a premier pillar of European security. The transatlantic link has withstood both the loss of a common adversary and divisions among the allies. The alliance has demonstrated, in the Balkans, a resolve for military action on its periphery and, with its involvement in Afghanistan, a capability to project power into the heart of another continent. Meanwhile, NATO membership has expanded to almost double its level at the end of the cold war.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, one major piece of unfinished post–cold war business remains: fitting the former Soviet lands into a pan-European security framework. The heart of the issue is Russia’s absence from the European and Euro-Atlantic security structures. Moscow’s one-time favorite among intergovernmental bodies, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), has ceased to be an ongoing dialogue platform and has failed to live up to its title. This institutional deficiency affects not only Russia, but also its neighbors, such as Ukraine and Georgia. The brief war in the Caucasus in August 2008 and the tensions it produced in Crimea—which continue to linger and may produce another crisis in the future—point to the reality and potential severity of the problem.

There is no simple way to resolve this conundrum. Russia’s membership in the NATO alliance, sought by Moscow in the 1990s and again explored in the early part of this decade, is not a realistic proposition for the foreseeable future, if ever. Above all, it is not realistic at this stage to expect Russia to join a US-led alliance such as NATO is today, and it is even less realistic to anticipate some sort of NATO coleadership by the two nuclear superpowers. Even if one of these highly unlikely conditions were met, Russia’s hypothetical accession would needlessly exacerbate Russia’s own, and the West’s, relations with China, much to the detriment of global stability and security.

Thus, since no shortcut is possible, the West and Russia need to embark on a long, tortuous, and potentially rocky path toward creating a security community in Europe that would include both NATO members and nonmembers. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s idea of revamping European security, which he first announced before the Georgia war but has amplified since, is useful not so much because he calls for a new, legally binding treaty on security, but because it represents a de facto invitation to an ongoing dialogue. NATO needs to see the importance and urgency of the situation, seize the opportunity, and generate forward-looking ideas of its own.