During the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was Europe's first line of defense against an attack by the Soviet Union. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the alliance has expanded from 12 to 26 members and is now transforming itself in order to respond to global threats.
NATO was formed in 1949 as a bulwark against Soviet expansion into Western Europe. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, European security was at the core of both American foreign policy and the transatlantic relationship. The establishment of NATO, say observers, helped guarantee peace and democracy in Western Europe and positioned the United States as the guarantor of global security.
In the first decade following the demise of the Soviet Union, NATO remained focused on Europe's security. However, the emphasis changed from collective defense to the economic and political reintegration of once communist Eastern Europe. The alliance began its enlargement by reaching out to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.
An exception of the successful process of European integration was the violent break-up of Yugoslavia. In response, NATO eventually took up a brief military action in Bosnia in 1995 and a ten-week air campaign in Kosovo four years after.
Robert Hunter, Senior Advisor of the RAND Corporation in Washington and former US Ambassador to NATO under President Clinton, says the alliance's involvement in the Balkans was a major turning point in NATO's history.
He says, "I remember back in 1995 when we were trying to get NATO involved in Bosnia. For some, it was a far away country of which we knew nothing, to quote [former British Prime Minister] Neville Chamberlain. When the first three [East European] countries were taken into NATO [the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland], some said: Whom are these people coming in? Of course, Poland is now one of the mainstays of NATO and people ask why it was not in the alliance before. The miracle is that you took an institution that was designed for one purpose -- to contain the Soviet Union -- but the institution found new roles and we were able to transform NATO into an institution that would do more things. So same building, same patterns of behavior in terms of cooperation, but a whole new agenda."
But Mr. Hunter cautions that the 26-nation alliance, which includes eight former Soviet bloc states, has yet to bring its agenda of enlargement and integration to a close. At the same time, he adds, NATO has embarked on its 21st century agenda, which focuses on the war against terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and the Middle East.
At the 2002 NATO summit in Prague, the Allies launched a modernization process designed to ensure that NATO can effectively deal with 21st century threats. This process was further strengthened at the summit in Istanbul, last year.
Bruce Jackson, a long-time proponent of NATO expansion and founding member of the American Enterprise Institute's New Atlantic Initiative here in Washington, says in the face of new threats NATO is changing from a defense alliance into a rapid response expeditionary force, one that regularly sends troops beyond its member-nations' borders. This started, he adds, after NATO's intervention in Kosovo.
According to Mr. Jackson, "At that point, both the Europeans and Americans recognized that they had to look outside of Europe for these threats. It is a geographical adjustment. In the East are Ukraine and Georgia, where I think we will respond with membership. And there is broad agreement in NATO that the greater Middle East, which is everything from Morocco to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is part of an area that is adjacent to Europe and that they have security interests, humanitarian interests, and a range of interests that affects security."
Mr. Jackson notes that NATO's new operations include what he calls hard missions, such as bringing stability to Afghanistan, protecting against terrorism in the Mediterranean and helping the African Union bring peace to the Darfur region of Sudan. Some of NATO's soft operations range, he says, from training Iraqi security forces to providing humanitarian relief to earthquake-stricken Pakistan.
"If we handle these small missions well, the monitoring and peacekeeping, we will not have a major war and that is NATO's responsibility," says Mr. Jackson. "So by handling brush fires -- the protection of civilians, stabilization operations, if it does those things well -- NATO will spend the next 50 years without having to fight a major war, which, of course, is the purpose of an effective democratic military."
Analyst Bruce Jackson says that at the center of the alliance's transformation is the NATO Response Force, or NRF, a technologically advanced corps made up of elite land, sea and air units that can perform missions worldwide. These include evacuations, disaster management and counter-terrorism. Currently, the NRF numbers about 17,000. By October of next year, NATO is expected to be able to deploy on short notice as many as 21,000 NRF members for extended operations.
But as most observers point out, burden-sharing within NATO is far from equal. The United States still provides the lion's share of the organization's resources and wields the most influence. And there continue to be significant differences of opinions over how to prioritize and handle new global challenges.
John Hulsman of The Heritage Foundation contends that burden and risk-sharing is essential if the alliance is to last. He adds that Washington expects Europe to support and supplement American power through NATO as it did during the Cold War.
Mr. Hulsman says, "We are not going to remake the European militaries; they are never going to spend enough money. We accept that, but they can't free-ride off the American taxpayer indefinitely. And in order to share risk, they must do some of these high-end, high-risk missions. Otherwise the Americans are the mercenaries, the Europeans are the social workers and we are never going to agree on how to run it. And politically, NATO will cease to exist. What NATO is evolving into is a toolbox for the coalitions of the willing. We are never going to get total agreement in Europe. But we will get five or six allies if we bother to engage them."
Still, defenders of NATO maintain that the United States should pursue its traditional strategy that views the transatlantic security partnership not as an instrument, but as a foundation for a peaceful world order -- just as it has been for nearly 60 years.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.