The most desirable club in the world (if you aren't a member)

Nato's long-term viability is in the interests of the UK and other European nations

The first 59 years were the easiest, the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation may well be thinking when they meet in Bucharest on 2 April to discuss their future.

Members predict quarrels about the continuing lack of progress in Afghanistan; enlargement (should Georgia be considered for entry, risking the wrath of Russia? Will Greece veto Macedonia's proposed membership, against the wishes of all other members?); and whether it will be possible to agree a coherent future strategy.

Back in 1949, Nato's mission was clear. A handful of European states, along with the United States, agreed on a military alliance granting each other mutual protection in the North Atlantic area. An armed attack against one or more would be considered an attack against all. Each would assist the attacked, with armed force where necessary. Within a few years, the Cold War provided the new organisation with an even firmer raison d'être - defence against the perceived Soviet threat. Many today, including the House of Commons defence committee, which has just released a report on Nato's future, would argue that merely by existing, the alliance has maintained a remarkable stability and prosperity in Europe since.

In the post-Cold War period, former Warsaw Pact nations have been eager to join a club that offers protection from aggressive neighbours and internal bullies and promises to safeguard ". . . democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law".

Yet, today, Nato's long-term viability is seriously in question. Since 9/11, threats to member nations have been not only regional but global. In Afghanistan, a mission to disempower one source of international terrorism is on the verge of humiliation, as Chris Sands reports on page 32. An overwhelming reason, the US has complained, is Europe's reluctance to commit the necessary troops to ensure success. Earlier this month, Canada threatened to pull out its forces unless other countries made a greater contribution. France has responded with a further 1,000 troops, sufficient only to keep tempers at bay until the Bucharest summit.

The boast that the Afghanistan mission involves the troops of 40 countries (including all 26 Nato members) in reality means a force overwhelmingly American (35,000). Britain has 7,800 soldiers there, but the contribution of all other countries is tiny, leading the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, to warn of "a two-tiered alliance, in which you have some allies willing to fight and die to protect people's security, and others who are not".

Yet Europe's reluctance is not without basis. The mistakes made by the US in the lead-up to war in Iraq reverberate. Countries are happy to be involved in creating viable civilian structures but not to put their soldiers in the front line of a US-led military mission. The Commons defence committee reported that it found confusion among public and politicians in Europe over Nato's objectives. Few understood the alliance's military purpose.

The UK report could hardly be more forceful in its conclusion that Britain's continued commitment to Nato is vital to the security of this country. After Iraq, many in Britain will need persuading. And yet, there are strong arguments in favour of exchanging blind acquiescence to US defence policy for a more vigorous engagement with an enlarged Nato.

It is too simplistic to dismiss Nato as a tool of US policy. The US does not need such a tool to behave badly, as Iraq has shown. But a stronger alliance would give European nations a greater chance of acting as a countervailing force. Britain should use Bucharest to convince the rest of Europe that Nato's viability is in their interests. That will involve re-emphasising the alliance's original political vision of a force that would protect democracy. It will also mean questioning US tactics in Afghanistan, not least the disastrous narcotics strategy.

If Europe were to drift away from Nato, each European nation would be less secure. A handful of countries know this. They are the ones desperate to be admitted to an organisation in which democratic nations share military strength in order to protect each other and foster peace.

Monsters of the imagination

What do we think of when we imagine a human/animal monster? A centaur, perhaps? Jeff Goldblum in The Fly? Something walking around with the body of a man and the head of - oh, let's see - a squirrel?

Possibly Cardinal Keith O'Brien did not intend to conjure up such visions when he described as "monstrous" the products of research that would be permitted by the embryology bill. Or perhaps he did. He would not be the first Catholic priest to employ disturbing language to frighten mortals into toeing the Church's line. Fortunately we do not live in a society ruled by religion. When the Church labels science immoral, we may consider the evidence.

The procedure in question uses the empty shells of animal eggs to house minute quantities of human DNA for a period of 14 days. Animal eggs are used because human eggs are not available for this research. The shells and contents do not develop further. The purpose is to advance understanding of diseases such as cancer, Parkinson's, diabetes and stroke. Are we opening the door to demons? We do not believe we are. What we do believe is that the research will save the lives of many people and spare the suffering of thousands more.

Gordon Brown, under pressure from the interventions of Cardinal O'Brien and others, has allowed MPs a free vote on this portion of the bill. We urge them to cast out imaginary monsters and vote in favour of scientific truth, knowledge and humanity.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?