by Senator John F. Kerry
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's summit in Lisbon this week is one of the most crucial in the Western alliance's 61-year history. The agenda calls for approval of a new strategic concept to confront the threats facing the 28 NATO members over the next decade. At the heart of the document is determining how NATO adapts to the unconventional threats that have replaced the fears of an orthodox military assault.
Many have written NATO's obituary. Some of same people declared the alliance dead at the end of the Cold War, when its job was to block Soviet tanks from rolling into West Germany. NATO demonstrated its value in the years that followed -- transforming into a political engine for integrating the former Soviet states of Eastern Europe into the larger community of nations.
Today, critics are again saying prayers over NATO's remains, especially after its frustrating and uneven performance in Afghanistan. U.S. commanders have been disappointed that many countries refused to commit troops, or placed cumbersome restrictions on those they did deploy. But European leaders have been equally frustrated by what they see as Washington's lack of communication and consultation.
Nonetheless, we should not forget that our allies are contributing 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, where many fought bravely and too many lost their lives. Nor should we forget that NATO was left holding the bag in Afghanistan when the Bush administration shifted U.S. military focus to Iraq in 2003.
The patient may not be completely healthy, but President Barack Obama is going to Lisbon to pay his respects -- not say last rites. He is going to help persuade our allies that NATO remains vital to their collective defense -- and ours.
NATO leaders are scheduled to unveil a strategy to begin handing over significant security responsibilities to Afghan forces later this year, completing the transfer by 2014. This is an important commitment that demonstrates both the symbolic and practical unity of 28 nations.
The strategic plan represents NATO's effort to again adjust its policies and address new military and political challenges. In crafting the change in posture, a team of international experts led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright restated NATO's core commitment to collective defense, enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
But the key to NATO's future lies in the recognition that the serious threats have changed. Today, they are largely unconventional, ranging from terrorism and rogue nations with weapons of mass destruction to disruption of the international economy and cyber attacks on critical infrastructure.
The summit details are now being finalized, and some differences may need to be papered over for the time being. But the overall strategic concept should reassure member states, who feel strategically exposed, that NATO recognizes these new challenges and is adapting to meet them. There is still life in the old alliance.
A key element centers on NATO's commitment to invest roughly $280 million over 10 years to link its missile defense capabilities with new missile systems being developed by the United States. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister who is now NATO's secretary general, says the determination to press ahead with the missile shield is likely to calm skeptical publics that NATO can protect them. It should also provide a better bulwark against Iran.
In addition, NATO has pledged to make substantial cuts in its command and staff structures to improve efficiency. Shepherding scarce defense funds is essential in these days of global economic troubles. A stronger NATO will enable all the allies to build better security together than they would individually -- and at less cost.
Finally, a vibrant NATO -- capable of confronting the threats of the 21st century -- provides a consolidated strategy for dealing with concerns that could escalate if the United States tried to tackle them unilaterally. The joint missile defense shield will be less of a threat to Russia than one run only by Washington. Improved cooperation is also possible with non-NATO countries, like China, India and Japan.
We don't invent missions to keep NATO going. But the events in Lisbon later this week should show us all that, when new challenges arise, we can develop new concepts within a trusted framework that will serve well in the coming decade.