NATO holds its first ever summit behind the old Iron Curtain this week when leaders of its 19 member countries meet in Prague to make decisions that could change the nature of the Atlantic Alliance. The summit will shift NATO's focus toward new threats such as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and expand the alliance's membership to include several former communist countries.
NATO is billing the Prague meeting as its summit of transformation, with an emphasis on new capabilities, new members and new partnerships.
Seven countries, stretching from the Baltic Sea down through Central Europe and into the Balkans, are expected to be invited to join the alliance and become full members by 2004.
But with more terrorist attacks and a war against Iraq looming on the horizon, enlargement is no longer the summit's main priority.
The main issue on the leaders' agenda is how to make what has always been a collective defense organization designed to contain the old Soviet Union, more relevant in a world that was changed by the September 11 terrorist attacks last year on the United States.
NATO officials say most of the threats facing the West are expected to come from a region stretching from North Africa to Central Asia. So, the alliance has quietly shed its reluctance to operate outside its traditional North Atlantic and European theaters.
But NATO's main problem remains a huge gap in capabilities between the United States, with its awesome high tech firepower, and what NATO Secretary-General George Robertson calls the military pygmies among Washington's allies.
Only Britain, France and Norway have boosted military spending this year. NATO is demanding that other members increase their capabilities by spending more and pooling resources.
Britain's defense secretary, Geoffery Hoon, says the aim of the Prague summit is to give the alliance flexible, modernized military capabilities to respond to today's multifaceted, unpredictable threats. "More than ever, we need a NATO that has the flexibility, the structure, the forces and the strong partnerships that can face down the threats and challenges that are going to come our way. The Prague summit presents a unique opportunity to get the NATO we need," Mr. Hoon said.
So, what exactly does NATO need? According to those like Mr. Hoon, who are seeking to transform the alliance, the needs include more transport planes, refueling aircraft, precision guided munitions and equipment to protect troops from chemical and biological warfare, better communication systems, more special forces, fewer tanks and anti-submarine warfare units, and less bureaucracy.
Mr. Hoon and others say that, if the Europeans do not undertake to modernize their armed forces, they will lose their credibility with the United States and damage NATO as an alliance. "Americans are concerned that NATO needs to change, that Europeans lack the right capabilities, that current NATO structures may lack the required flexibility and ability to deploy in order to lead and conduct operations in the new security environment. And they are right. NATO has not been ideally configured and equipped to tackle challenges like international terrorism," he said.
As part of an effort to give alliance forces greater mobility, NATO leaders are expected to approve a U.S. proposal for a 20,000 man rapid response force that could be deployed anywhere in the world in one week's time. But, as with all the other ambitious plans to make NATO more relevant, it remains to be seen whether approval is followed by implementation of the commitments that are undertaken at Prague.