Can NATO Modernize Before It Becomes Obsolete?

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Dmitry Astakhov / AFP / Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, shake hands during a bilateral meeting held days before the summit with the Euro-Atlantic defense alliance

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) brands itself as the most successful military alliance in history, a bulwark of freedom and democracy for 61 years, and the coalition that won the Cold War without firing a single shot. But while the end of the Cold War made our world safer, it also made it more complex. Today, as sources of danger have diversified — from terrorism and piracy to cyberwarfare — NATO has been left looking flatfooted and ill-equipped to cope. More than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the alliance risks being seen as a relic.

Which is why it is planning a reboot. At a summit in Lisbon on Nov. 19-20, Barack Obama will join the other leaders of the 28-nation alliance to agree on a new NATO mission statement that aims to reaffirm their core commitment to collective defense. Together they will usher in a new era with a 10-year "strategic concept" setting forth how NATO will tackle today's many challenges. They will agree on a leaner alliance — achieved by dismantling at least four of its 11 command bases — while modernizing weapons defense. And, in a sign of the new times, NATO allies are moving toward approving an anti-missile system, and they want Russia to join in creating such a shield.

The aim, as NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Germany's Parliament last month, is to build "an alliance able to defend its members against modern threats, an alliance capable of managing even the most challenging crises." In practical terms, according to Rob de Wijk, a member of the Atlantic Council's Strategic Advisors Group, it means redefining NATO's underlying objectives, geographic reach and the military mechanisms. "The shift in emphasis from protecting territory to defending strategic interests requires NATO to transform the [territorial] armed forces of all member states into deployable armed forces, remove obstacles for risky 'away' operations and forge a new understanding of solidarity," de Wijk says.

The imperative to reform reflects the momentous changes in Europe and the world. Founded in 1949, NATO was initially a traditional alliance that ensured the collective defense of 15 nations against the threat of Soviet aggression. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO embraced many of the East European countries that were once harnessed to Moscow's yoke, and finally got to fight, in Bosnia and Kosovo.

But despite these milestones, NATO has struggled to adapt to the post–Cold War era. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, committing each member state to consider an attack against one state as an attack against all, was invoked for the first time after Sept. 11. That led to Afghanistan, a massive operation that has placed a huge strain on the alliance and fueled tensions on whether its future focus should be on distant missions or closer to home.

Earlier this year, a specially commissioned panel of experts called on NATO to become more versatile and efficient to cope with modern challenges including terrorism, cybercrime, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The panel, led by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, also said it must be better at communicating its achievements, or risk losing public support.

But as well as new security threats, NATO has had to cope with the new timidity of European nations when it comes to putting troops on the line, as the war in Afghanistan has revealed. Daniel Keohane, a senior research fellow at the E.U. Institute for Security Studies in Brussels, says Europe's public support is falling in part thanks to the draining Afghanistan campaign and the unpopular Iraq war. "Many Europeans no longer want to follow the U.S. on military operations if their core security interest is unclear or if they think they have little say over strategy," he says. That is mirrored in dwindling defense spending. Even with their Afghan commitments, total defense spending among NATO's European members fell from $311 billion in 2001 to $272 billion in 2009.

In March, Rasmussen, a former Danish Prime Minister, cautioned that Europeans could not take the transatlantic alliance with the U.S. for granted. He said the E.U., which moved to establish a stronger defense and security policy under last year's Lisbon treaty, "will remain a paper tiger if it is not followed up by concrete contributions when we need concrete military contributions."

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has regularly warned about the "demilitarization" of Europe. "My worry is that the more our allies cut their capabilities, the more people will look to the United States to cover whatever gaps are created," Gates said in Brussels last month.

At the same time, as the U.S. looks to Iran, the Middle East and the rise of China, "it has ceased to be full-time European power," says Mark Leonard, co-author of "The Spectre of a Multipolar Europe," a report published last month by the European Council on Foreign Relations. "Washington sees Europe as essentially 'fixed,' and thinks it is time for Europeans to step up to provide their own security."

Despite these existential questions, NATO has never been busier. There are some 120,000 international troops attached to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. NATO troops only left Bosnia in 2004, and they still turn out together for peacekeeping duty in Kosovo. And last year, NATO warships mounted anti-piracy patrols off Somalia.

But all that might still not be enough. The question for Obama and the other leaders gathering in Lisbon will be whether they really mean what they say in their invigorating new mission statement or whether these recent NATO operations represent the last twitches of an ambivalent alliance.