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NATO Seeks to Redefine Role, Again

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Al Pessin

In the more than 20 years since the Cold War ended, the Atlantic Alliance, NATO, has been struggling to redefine itself through expansion and by taking on new missions.  Now, the 28-nation organization's identity crisis is entering a new phase, as officials work to finalize a Strategic Concept to guide the alliance into the new decade.

When the West saw the Soviet Union as a threat to its way of life, NATO had a natural role in balancing that threat.  But when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1989, the western alliance's main reason for being disappeared.

It quickly became an organization dedicated to solidifying the end of Russian domination of Central and Eastern Europe.  It has admitted 13 former Soviet allies over the years, and has plans to admit several more.  NATO found new missions, sending troops to the Balkans in the 1990s, and to Afghanistan a decade later.  But that did not help it prove its continuing relevance to skeptical West European populations.

"Relevant or relic might be a question if NATO was still camped in Europe waiting to defend the borders.  But we're anything but that," said U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, the top NATO military officer.  

He told a gathering in Washington recently the alliance is doing important things to ensure its security from conventional threats and from new ones like terrorism, piracy and cyber attacks.  He says its troops are ensuring stability in Kosovo, working to defend Europe against missile attacks and fighting every day to ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists.  

But Admiral Stavridis admits there is one thing NATO is not very good at. "We're very good at launching missiles.  We need to get better at launching ideas," he said.

The problem for the admiral, and for the alliance as a whole, is convincing the people in member countries, particularly in Western Europe, that what NATO does is important for their future.  That is why European defense spending is below the alliance target of two per cent of GDP, and why members can not come up with enough combat troops for Afghanistan, or even enough other resources like aircraft and trainers.  

The new Strategic Concept, due to be approved by NATO leaders at a summit in November, is supposed to help inspire support for alliance missions.  Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has just finished chairing a team that did a first draft of the Concept, and presented it to NATO officials in May.  

"The onus on this does rest on all of us.  I think we have to explain why this alliance that was started 60 years ago for a totally different reason is something that's important now.  And we determined that we were living in the world's most unpredictable time.  And here was this amazing tool that needed to be versatile and agile in this time of unpredictability, and that there was a lot of bang (value) for the buck.  But we have to keep making that case," she said.

Albright says making the case is important because NATO is an alliance of democracies.  For years now, many of its member governments have had a lot of trouble convincing their parliaments, and their people, to spend money on defense during what seems like a peaceful time in Europe -- a job made even more difficult by the current economic crunch.

Damon Wilson of the Atlantic Council says the new Strategic Concept itself will not likely do that convincing, any more than the first post-Cold War NATO strategy did ten years ago, before the September 11 attacks, the invasion of Afghanistan and a series of terror incidents in Europe.

"This is not going to be a paper that grips the European publics and seizes the imagination of the American people.  No, it's not going to be that.  But it does need to basically provide the common talking points so that allied leaders, allied presidents and prime ministers, have on one sheet of paper, one page, a set of common talking points that they can speak from to their people to explain why the alliance matters, what it's about, what it's mission is and that they've got their common set of arguments," he said.

But Wilson says the process of defining NATO's role is important.

The Albright report calls NATO "an essential source of stability in an uncertain and unpredictable world," and says it must have the capability to respond quickly to new and complex challenges.  It says that means better planning, more intelligence sharing and strong focus on today's security issues, such as missile defense.  But the draft also acknowledges that "although NATO is busier than it has ever been, its value is less obvious to many" of its people than it was when the Soviet Union was a constant and very obvious threat.

At the Heritage Foundation, European security expert Sally McNamara does not disagree with that, but she says a year of consultation is not what NATO needs to develop a consensus. "I don't think a document or a process creates that.  I think consensus is something that you have to work at and it's something that will happen by action," she said.

McNamara says rather than talk about concepts most members already agree on, officials should focus on taking action to demonstrate the alliance's relevance, like spending more on defense and providing the troops, trainers and equipment needed to succeed in Afghanistan.

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