If NATO didn’t exist, we’d create it

NATO has been one of history’s most powerful and successful alliances, preserving and extending liberal values for more than 60 years. It must continue to do so.

For much of its history, NATO was essential to the stability and prosperity of Western Europe, once the center of political gravity. It was formed, in the words of Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, “to keep the Russians out (of Europe), the Americans in and the Germans down.”  Its charter, signed 63 years ago last month, is one of the most elegant political documents ever written.  Running a little more than 1,000 words, its Article 5 remains the core of the alliance — “An armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”

Article 5 has been invoked only once in the history of the alliance, and that was not when the Soviets came rolling across Eastern Europe as was originally feared, but rather on Sept. 12, 2001, after the terrorists attacked the U.S. When the U.S. truly needed its allies, they were there. NATO was also there to extend a security umbrella over Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union collapsed and countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic were transitioning to democracy. During those years, NATO provided a security umbrella that allowed fragile and vulnerable states to undergo important political transformations while keeping at bay outside threats and reducing the likelihood of cross-border conflict. There was no law of nature or politics that stated Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy would be relatively bloodless. NATO gets much of the credit for ensuring that outcome.

In recent years, NATO has become a force projection arm of liberal Western states that share common values. For all the differences that exist between the 28 NATO allies, they share common views about the importance of democracy, the sanctity of the individual and the need to subsume military to civilian rule. In an increasingly heterogeneous world, NATO must continue to play this role.

Over the past decade or so, NATO has become an expeditionary force, engaging in newer missions that are more appropriate to the 21stcentury threat environment. It is well known that NATO is undertaking operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo.  Perhaps less well known is that it is currently undertaking counterterrorism operations in the Mediterranean Sea, conducting anti-piracy operations around the Horn of Africa and supporting the African Union in peacekeeping missions on that continent. Over the past decade or so, NATO has conducted humanitarian relief operations in Pakistan (after the 2005 earthquake) and the U.S. (in response to Hurricane Katrina), helped the Greeks manage security for the Olympics and, of course, led an anti-genocide campaign in Libya.

After more than a decade and a half of operating “out of area,” NATO is finally coming home. Moving forward, the challenges facing NATO are truly daunting. They include how to (1) withdraw responsibly in Afghanistan, (2) invest smartly in defense capabilities during a time of fiscal austerity, (3) engage new partners in the new threats of our time and (4) protect partner states from new threats such as terrorism and ballistic missiles emanating from Iran and the broader Middle East.  This is a far cry from NATO’s founding concerns outlined by Lord Ismay. These are also the key agenda items for the Chicago summit.

In Chicago, we have the opportunity to host NATO’s continued efforts to tackle its existential questions. Is the alliance worth the costs? Can a creaky old alliance retool to confront dangerous, complicated new threats? What new countries need to be brought in and, most important, how to do so? It is too easy to say that NATO has no purpose. Given that it comprises some of America’s most important if challenged allies, the real question is, how can it be reconfigured? These are the questions that will be on the table at McCormick Place this weekend. Chicago has the privilege of having a front-row seat to these deliberations.

Rachel Bronson is the vice president of studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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