A failure to agree on a new comprehensive strategy when NATO leaders meet this week in Bucharest risks relegating the military alliance to irrelevance.
Almost two decades after the end of the Cold War, the alliance has failed to define its role in world affairs clearly as well as to display political coherence and military effectiveness.
NATO, a Cold War-era bulwark against Communism, appeared to have lost its purpose with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, at least in the eyes of the Europeans.
However, when war broke out on the Balkans in the 1990s, Europe proved politically and militarily incapable of providing peace and security without the United States. And as terrorists began targeting not only the United States, but also European capitals, allies began to accept that they still faced common outside threats to their security and that NATO could assume the role of a world policeman.
Today three competing visions for NATO's future plague the process of transformation:
- For the United States, NATO is primarily a military instrument and serves to prosecute the war on terror.
- For Central and East Europeans, NATO is also primarily military, but serves above all as a deterrent against Russia’s imperial aspirations.
- For West Europeans, NATO is a political crisis management organisation whose military component only serves as a last resort.
Increasing European reluctance to provide adequate human and logistical resources for both military and civilian operations, especially in Afghanistan, further weakens NATO's position.
Key questions for NATO leaders
- Can the competing visions be accommodated into a common one?
- Should NATO be reactive -- responding to crises once they have broken out -- or pro-active, using early engagement to shape international security?
- Can the defence burden, especially troop commitments, be shared more evenly?
- Does the enlargement of membership add or subtract from the effectiveness of collective defence?
- Are leaders, especially in Europe, willing to confront disapproving publics at home to prioritise collective defence contributions above individual political and national interests?
None of these questions will be answered directly at the summit. The prospects for the organisation's enlargement will help to measure the extent to which the summit is a success or failure.
While Croatia, Macedonia and Albania can expect to receive invitations next week to join NATO, this is less likely for Russia's neighbours Georgia and Ukraine. Washington has been actively promoting Ukrainian and Georgian membership ahead of the summit, arguing that this would safeguard democracy in these countries and that they would make contributions to collective defence.
The United States might also hope that Ukraine and Georgia would offer diplomatic support to its initiatives, allow greater flexibility for US troop deployments and even clandestine operations.
West Europeans are much less enthusiastic, fearing that the countries' inclusion would further alienate and antagonise Russia. They also doubt that these two countries can make a significant contribution to collective defence and security: Ukraine's and Georgia's unresolved conflicts with neighbouring countries would risk making NATO a party in these conflicts rather than an outside mediator. Finally, West Europeans believe that enlargement would undermine efforts to improve NATO's military effectiveness.
Since a membership invitation for Ukraine and Georgia at this week's summit would only increase internal and external threats to NATO cohesion, it is unlikely to be offered. Yet the debate on this contentious issue will demonstrate in how far allies are prepared to abandon short-term and nationally driven priorities in favour of strategic and collective interests.