Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, NATO has been working to transform itself from a cold-war, Europe-focused bulwark against a communist threat to a military and political alliance relevant to the world of the 21st century.
The answer has been for an expanded NATO – now including some of the very Eastern European nations that were formerly considered the enemy – to broaden its sense of defense and to take on out-of-area challenges that are seen as crucial to global security broadly and the West's well-being specifically.
Perhaps most notably so far, that has meant an expanding role for the alliance in Afghanistan – NATO's first assignment outside Europe. There, the United States has increasingly turned over operations supporting the government of President Hamid Karzai to NATO command.
The fact that the transatlantic alliance has gone in less than a decade from doubts about its purpose to requests for its participation in even the most intractable international disputes – from the Darfur region of Sudan to the recent Mideast war – suggests the pact's transition is considered a success.
"It's no longer 'What's its purpose?' when the topic turns to NATO, but rather 'How can we best use it?' " says NATO spokesman James Apathurai. "That's a big transition."
But officials say the transition from "Europe" to "global" is still incomplete, with major challenges remaining in areas ranging from capacity for intervention to efficiency and member financial commitments.
Some observers worry that demands on NATO are surpassing its abilities and jeopardizing its transition process. The Afghanistan assignment, which involves 16,000 NATO-led soldiers now and a projected 25,000 by the end of the year, has the leadership of some member countries holding their breath, as NATO forces face increasing attacks and an entrenched enemy.
But officials here say the growing violence was to be expected as units moved into more of the country beyond the capital of Kabul. And they say that assignments like Afghanistan and even Iraq, where NATO operates a training center for security forces, are preparing the alliance for the 21st-century functions envisioned in its transition.
"Yes, it's a hot summer in Afghanistan," says US Ambassador to NATO Victoria Nuland. "But it's also a very important summer for stabilizing the country." Explaining the intensifying heat that NATO forces are facing there as a result of their penetration into more sectors of the country, she adds, "There's more permanent pressure in more of the country ... and neither the Taliban nor the narco-traffickers are happy about it."
Ambassador Nuland says NATO has come a long way since its Balkans intervention in the mid-1990s, including reforms that streamlined military operations. "We've gotten a lot more flexible – but there's still a lot of work to do in that regard," she says.
For example, she notes that during NATO's bombing campaign against Serbia designed to stop Serbia's ethnic-cleansing operations, each target had to be approved by NATO's highest decision-making structure, the North Atlantic Council. Now in Afghanistan, operations are more in the hands of a country mission command.
As fraught with dangers as it may be, NATO's role in Afghanistan is still putting the alliance on the world stage.
"The international community recognizes that NATO has unique assets among international institutions," says Mr. Apathurai. "It's still the best organizer of large multinational military operations. In terms of robust peacekeeping," he adds, "it's still the only game in town."
This fall, the alliance is also planning for a summit to be held in Riga, Latvia. NATO officials hope the summit, in November, will inaugurate a fully operational NATO Reaction Force. It's also expected to push ahead with plans to endow the alliance with "strategic lift" – the means of getting rapid-reaction forces where they need to be. The US is proposing that a consortium of NATO countries purchase eight C-17 transport planes.
But such an expensive proposition raises the touchy topic of spending – and the concerns of NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and some members, such as the US, that many NATO countries simply aren't spending enough on defense.
"Low European defense budgets are a brake on our transformation," says Apathurai. Germany, under Chancellor Angela Merkel, is one country that has expressed a desire to spend more on defense. That willingness, however, is being held back by slow economic growth.
This year's summit will take up an expansion of cooperation to "global partners," including Japan and Australia, but it is also expected to mark a pause in the 26-country alliance's expansion.
Mr. De Hoop Scheffer has spoken of the summit offering an encouraging "signal" on membership to several countries including Albania and Macedonia, and a less direct signal to Georgia and Ukraine – countries whose potential membership worries Russia.
"Maybe the bumper sticker for this year's summit is, 'Building a NATO that has global partners and a wider reach,' " says Apathurai.
Yet NATO officials acknowledge an in-house resistance to an alliance that is too broad in its membership and aims. France expresses concerns about a "weakened core," while others fret NATO could become a "mini UN" – with all the inefficiencies and lethargies that comparison entails.
Still, in an era of growing pessimism about the utility of international institutions, NATO has won respect among the doubters. "NATO is one of the few international institutions that has proved its relevance and not fallen into the traps of bureaucracy and grandstanding," says Joshua Muravchik, an analyst of international institutions at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
The Bush administration has tended to favor ad hoc efforts or "coalitions of the willing" to spearhead its international efforts – whether in Iraq or in "soft" diplomatic initiatives such as on global warming.
But it has also bucked that trend with its growing reliance on NATO – as in Afghanistan. How NATO stacks up against the growing expectations of its capabilities will be tested over coming months as its engagements grow outside its traditional European arena.