On Friday, President Obama will join 25 other presidents and prime ministers around a large table to mark North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 60th anniversary. Far from being an occasion for fond remembrance of shared history, the meeting will be freighted with anticipation.
How the new US president approaches this milestone – as a perfunctory nod to an aging icon or as an opportunity to renegotiate and update the "transatlantic security bargain" – will do much to determine NATO's future.
Mr. Obama could join those who see the alliance as essentially a military bulwark against Russian intimidation and, in so doing, seal NATO's fate with low expectations. What he should do is encourage a new and more versatile role for NATO as a "security broker" among its members and official nonmember partners.
NATO is essentially a robust military potential at the collective and exclusive disposal of the leaders of member nations. It is an ensemble of officials, committees, headquarters, standard operating procedures, and war plans – rules and mechanisms designed to negotiate and facilitate common action.
For its first 45-plus years, NATO's potential remained unproven in action. In the past 15 years, that potential has been tested, and it has worked. NATO has mounted combat operations, air patrols, and maritime escorts, and even conducted earthquake relief. Its partners span the globe, from Argentina to New Zealand.
In mounting these operations, NATO has employed its structure of rules and organizations to effectively set goals, enlist participants, match forces to missions, and reconcile national limitations. NATO has, in effect, acted as a security broker for its members and partners. Each member and partner has different objectives for its national security "portfolio" and different levels of resources to invest, while all share a common goal of getting the best return on their investment in security.
Images of NATO as a ponderous collection of inert functionaries shackled by outdated rules and doomed to move as a ponderous bloc belie the recent record. NATO has proven it can make deals, within and beyond the organization.
For example, within a year of the cyber assault on the Estonian government in 2007, NATO brokered the creation of the Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence among a subset of its members. Similarly NATO has brokered a deal between 10 of its members and two partners to establish the NATO Airlift Management Organization to operate C-17 cargo planes. The extremely successful Partnership for Peace program prepared recently independent Central and Eastern European states for eventual membership in the alliance. NATO has been much more adaptable than its reputation suggests.
Why not put that adaptability to work?
xercising the capacity to broker collective action will give NATO member nations and partners – collectively, but more likely in small groups – a new capacity to anticipate problems and engage forces in time to head off a crisis rather than just react after things have gone bad. And what rises to the level of crisis for some will not necessarily do so for all. We have seen that in Afghanistan.
To operate effectively as a broker, NATO will need some changes. The custom of making final decisions by a consensus of all members won't work anymore. A system of qualified majority voting will be needed. This will ensure that those members and partners most interested in pursuing a particular course of action are given fair opportunity to make a case for action, without risk of delay or obstruction.
The load must be better balanced. European member nations' reliance on the US to provide the bulk of forces and leadership, and American willingness to allow this, distorts the alliance capacity to respond. A member nation or partner seeking NATO action should be prepared to fully contribute.
An option for formal association with the alliance, beyond Partnership for Peace but short of membership, should be created. For example, Australian officials have said they have no interest in NATO membership but want to have a role in shaping the operations in which they participate. A council of contributors, sponsored by NATO and incorporating any nation seeking a part in an operation, whether a member or a partner, would meet this need.
It would take both imagination and hard work to adapt NATO's committee structure and rules to give contributing partners a voice in operations, but it seems a small price to pay for the benefits the alliance receives in return.
In the future, the same NATO that has been around for six decades can play a big part in forging a new multilateral security bargain for the decades to come. Obama will have the opportunity this weekend to help create the future of NATO and with it to construct a collaborative new transatlantic security partnership.