NATO tries to reinvent itself at Lisbon summit

NATO leaders are expected to approve a new blueprint for the next 10 years when they gather at a summit in Lisbon on Friday. The 'strategic concept' is long overdue, but will it suffer from defense budget cuts among alliance members?

It’s being called NATO version 3.0.

After more than a decade without a blueprint for the transatlantic alliance, NATO’s 28 member states are expected to unite behind a “strategic concept” at a summit in Lisbon this week.

The update is long overdue. Threats to NATO have changed dramatically since the end of the cold war, when the 40-year-old first version of NATO suddenly seemed to lose relevance.Without the Soviet menace, what was the purpose of static armies positioned in a defensive posture toward the East? In a post-cold-war version 2.0, NATO rediscovered its purpose as it consolidated peace in newly democratic Eastern Europe, managed crises in the Balkans, and entered a long war far afield in Afghanistan.

Now it is reinventing itself again.The primary mission of the Canadian, American, and European allies will still be mutual defense: An attack on one is an attack on all.

But the “new” NATO is expected to commit itself to modernizing in order to face modern threats: not just international terrorism, but also attacks on cybersecurity and energy.

Remarkably, its members appear to be on board with a missile-defense shield to protect from potential ballistic missiles. More than 30 nations are acquiring such technology. That includes troublesome Iran, which flexed its muscles on the eve of the Lisbon summit by testing a new air-defense system and describing NATO decisionmakers as “politically backward.”

The war in Afghanistan, meanwhile, has taught the alliance that threats to home can be centered in far-off places. NATO is set to formally acknowledge that it needs to be able to rapidly deploy to those places, train local troops there, lash up with civilian tools, and partner with other countries – especially Russia.

Whether the nine-year war in Afghanistan will discourage future forays is another matter. In Lisbon, alliance leaders are set to agree on 2014 as the target year to hand over security of the country to Afghans.

Even as NATO heads of state agree on a new expanded mission, however, old problems will accompany them. As before, members of the alliance have different priorities and circumstances. This will make implementation of 3.0 a challenge, to say the least. Turkey wants a softer approach to Iran, for instance, while southern Europe is concerned about migration from Africa. The Norwegians worry about control of a thawing Arctic, while the Baltic states fear Russia.

NATO leaders are expected to invite Russia to participate in the missile defense shield when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev arrives at the tail end of the summit. Whether the Russians will eventually join such a project is up in the air. Deep skepticism remains in Moscow about the purpose of the shield, while some alliance members fear NATO is selling out to an aggressor.

Meanwhile, who will pay for a modern alliance when core contributors such as Germany, France, and Britain are slashing defense spending? As usual, the Americans want to see more burden sharing by their alliance friends, even while some members of Congress question the need for US troops in Europe.

NATO should be commended for its reinvention on paper. The question is whether an age of austerity will clip NATO’s fledgling wings.

It musn’t be allowed to.

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