Since the fall of the Soviet Empire, the rationale behind NATO's existence has been questioned. However, not only is NATO necessary for the West's protection, but its broader raison d'être has never been more meaningful. The common values that unite NATO members-freedom, liberty, human rights, and the rule of law-remain under threat from both state and non-state actors that are using asymmetric and symmetrical tactics.
It remains in America's vital interest to maintain and revitalize the NATO Alliance to address the global challenges of today and the future. The International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan has exposed strategic and political shortcomings, and the alliance must use the Bucharest Summit on April 2-4 to initiate reforms designed to cope with the demands of this rapidly changing security environment. NATO now needs a new post-Cold War role.
It is also vital that NATO members in Continental Europe take regional and international security more seriously in terms of defense spending and political will. The European Union (EU) has become far more concerned with creating a separate defense identity to constrain American power than with complementing it.
NATO has been one of the most successful multilateral institutions in modern history. It has secured peace in Western Europe for nearly 60 years and has done so without demanding the surrender of member states' sovereignty or independence. It remains the central feature of the Euro-Atlantic community and a key target for accession for newly democratizing countries. But if NATO is to survive as a relevant institution capable of protecting the West and its strategic interests, it must be strategically reformed, enlarged, and politically revitalized.
New Strategic Concept. The alliance should embark upon a new strategic concept based on a shared threat perception. This new strategic concept should have the support of all NATO members, based on an implicit understanding of NATO's purpose, organization, and tasks. It should broadly outline how NATO can employ its military, diplomatic, and economic tools to address these threats, accompanied by a thorough public diplomacy effort at the highest levels.
NATO: Cornerstone of the Transatlantic Alliance. Afghanistan has tested NATO not just in theory, but operationally, allowing some nations to make positive transformations through their experiences in theater and work together in ways previously not considered. However, it has also exposed deep divisions, and the failure of some member states to meet their obligations has been spectacular. Although any serious reform of NATO will require strong leadership from the United States, it must be a recognizably multilateral effort and ensure the buy-in of all members.
Enlargement and Open Door Policy. The aspirant countries of Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia undoubtedly have political flaws, just as some of the accession countries of 1999 and 2004 had. However, they are European democracies on a long road of political, social, and defense reform that are willing and able to contribute to regional and international security. Although Georgia and Ukraine have some ground to cover before they should be treated as prospective members, they should be invited to begin the Membership Action Plan (MAP) process.
What the U.S. and NATO Should Do. At the Bucharest Summit, the U.S. needs to push for reforms to mold NATO into a modern, effective alliance that advances the interests of the United States and other NATO members. Specifically, NATO members should:
- Start negotiating a revised strategic concept for NATO that will outline the alliance's purpose, organization, and tasks based on a shared threat perception. Its realm of operation must be global, and its scope of action must be comprehensive.
- Reaffirm that NATO is the cornerstone of the transatlantic alliance and the primary actor in European defense cooperation.
- Readmit France into NATO's integrated military command structures only if Paris is willing to uphold the primacy of NATO in European defense cooperation and if the alliance can be confident that Paris will be a cooperative, not a confrontational, partner.
- Begin determining the NATO-EU relationship on a more systematic basis. The European Security and Defense Policy should be a civilian complement to NATO missions, and its resources should be put at NATO's disposal in a fashion similar to Berlin-Plus.
- Explicitly reject any movement toward a two-tiered alliance and reinforce this message with more equitable burden-sharing arrangements.
- Launch a thorough public diplomacy effort to communicate NATO's mission and purpose effectively, starting with a domestic and international strategy for Afghanistan.
- Conclude a comprehensive strategic political and military plan for Afghanistan that makes a hard-hitting appraisal of what is needed politically and militarily to make Afghanistan a success.
- Accept Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia as full members of the alliance and invite Ukraine and Georgia to begin the MAP process. NATO should also clearly restate its open door policy.
Conclusion. Washington has a small window of opportunity to mold NATO into a modern, effective alliance that advances the interests of the United States and the other member countries. The United States will always retain the option of unilateral intervention to defend its strategic interests, but effective partnering with NATO is a sensible and realistic way to formulate burden-sharing arrangements with its European allies.
There will always be serious threats to global security. If Europe's major powers genuinely believe that the world's response to these threats should be multilateral, they should invest in a thorough reform and revitalization of NATO. Anything less than a high-level endorsement of NATO on both sides of the Atlantic will doom it to marginalization.
Sally McNamara is Senior Policy Analyst in European Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. Erica Munkwitz assisted in preparing this paper. The author is also grateful to James Phillips, Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Institute for Foreign Policy Studies, and Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center, at the Heritage Foundation for their advice on Afghanistan.