In the aftermath of World War II, the United States and Europe created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to try to ensure the mutual security of its members and bring lasting peace to Europe. Nearly 60 years later, that once well-defined mission has taken some extraordinary turns.
NATO soldiers today are fighting a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, protecting UN food ships from pirates operating offthe Somali coast and training police in Iraq. Last year, NATO forces helped train and airlift African Union troops into Darfur; the year before they flew relief supplies to Pakistani earthquake victims. A coalition that until 13 years ago had just 16 members and had never conducted a military operation now relies on troops from 26 member nations to operate multiple missions at once—missions not all the members agree on.
As President-elect Barack Obama takes office, one of his key jobs will be helping NATO—an organization that has seen its Cold War focus shift to more amorphous counter-terrorism and peacekeeping—hold together and remake itself for an age of new threats, from a nuclear-armed Iran to a resurgent, saber-rattling Russia.
"It’s the perennial problem: How do you reinvent NATO?" asked Robin Shepherd, a trans-Atlantic expert at Chatham House, one of London’s key foreign-policy think tanks. "Both sides of the Atlantic want to sustain NATO and keep its energy going, but there are difficult questions to answer."
NATO’s foreign ministers this week ended a two-day meeting focused, in part, on the question of how vigorously the trans-Atlantic alliance should resume building ties with Russia in the wake of Moscow’s short war with Georgia earlier this year.
Russia’s president, analysts say, would like to see Europe replace NATO as its dominant security body with a new alliance incorporating Moscow. But NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer indicated Wednesday that "there is not a shimmer of a chance that, whatever the discussion, NATO could or would be negotiated away."
The continued growth of the alliance—and particularly plans to incorporate Ukraine and Georgia—is one key issue now dividing NATO members. NATO’s offer of membership to the two nations has infuriated Moscow. Earlier this year Russia seized control of parts of Georgia, effectively halting the planned NATO expansion since "you can’t import an open conflict with Russia," Shepherd said.
Now central and east European nations, including Poland, continue to see Russia as a major threat, while West European giants like France and Italy, which have forged growing economic ties with Moscow, want to push ahead with strengthening relations and put NATO expansion on hold.
"There are serious divisions about the political direction of NATO," Shepherd said, with countries like Poland now grateful to have the U.S. "effectively underwriting their national security" while France and Germany see an American-led expansion push as against their own interests.
"NATO has lost some of its character as an alliance and as a military organization," Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, complained in an interview this year, after West European nations refused to take strong action against Russia’s capture of Georgian territory.
NATO’s most divisive challenge at the moment, however, is its mission in Afghanistan. In October, Gen. John Craddock, an American who is NATO’s top European commander, said he saw commitment to keeping NATO troops in the region faltering.
"It’s this wavering political will that impedes operational progress and brings into question the relevance of the alliance here in the 21st Century," he complained.
The problem, said NATO spokesman James Appathurai, lies in persuading European nations that defending "a country halfway around the world, in which we have no economic interest" is key to their own defense.
But "Afghanistan is forcing a fundamental retooling of NATO," he admitted.
Another question facing NATO is whether Obama will continue President George W. Bush’s push for a missile defense system in Europe. Obama could back out of the pact, citing technological questions about the system. But an increasingly aggressive Russia might take that as a sign of weakness, analysts warned.
As the post-World War II alliance marks its 60th anniversary next year, "NATO’s mission, NATO’s purpose, the collective defense of its members … remains unchanged," Kurt Volker, the U.S. acting assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, said in a speech this year. But "the way it has to go about that mission in today’s world is very different."