At Chicago summit, NATO must take stock of its big shoulders

The NATO summit in Chicago can overcome the alliance's current woes about Afghanistan and defense cuts by remembering how unique NATO is in history as a club of democracies with shared principles and interests.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP Photo
An Afghan National Army soldier lines up with others before joining a patrol in Logar province, Afghanistan. NATO sits down May 20 in Chicago to prepare for the eventual withdrawal of international forces and the hand over of Afghanistan's security to the Afghan National Army.

Twenty years ago, the world’s most successful military alliance was in crowing mode. NATO had just helped force the bust-up of the Soviet empire, bringing with it a sudden expansion of democracies and market-based economies.

This weekend, however, as the 28 member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meet in Chicago, this bulwark of freedom now seems a bit lost as to its purpose and drained by the debt woes and political divisions of the European Union and the United States.

It needn’t be.

Democracies still need to hang together or surely they will hang separately. Their best defense for freedom, as the 20th century taught us, is to keep expanding the club of democracies against whatever dark force comes along – whether it be communism, fascism, or, lately, Islamic terrorism (Taliban Afghanistan in 2001), bully tyrants bent on slaughter (Serbia’s Milosevic in the 1990s and Libya’s Qaddafi in 2011), or pirates off the Horn of Africa.

NATO even has a role today in making sure Moscow doesn’t again occupy foreign territory, as Russian troops did just four years ago by taking over two enclaves of neighboring Georgia. And Russia’s recent threat of a preemptive attack on a proposed NATO defense shield against Iranian missiles is reason enough to keep the alliance strong, not to mention Russia’s recent rigged elections and resulting protests.

Until the day when the United Nations Security Council is made up of only democracies, the world still needs a NATO that is based on the shared – and practiced – principles of liberty and civil rights.

Those values attract nations to NATO, either as aspiring members or in support of NATO missions. Once-belligerent Serbia is now eager to join. Pakistan will be at the Chicago summit. Democracies like Australia and Israel easily work with the alliance. And Turkey’s longtime membership may be one reason it hasn’t slipped into Islamic autocracy.

These strengths must be remembered as NATO meets for the first time in the US in 13 years amid one of the biggest cuts in American defense spending in history. The US remains NATO’s dominant military force, as seen in its essential role during last year’s air campaign over Libya. The summit can remind Europe to quickly overcome its debt crisis so that it can boost its defense budgets.

Alliances need constant morale boosting to make sure everyone contributes. As a former White House national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, once warned, “When everyone’s responsible, no one is responsible.”

The summit’s prime topic of Afghanistan illustrates NATO’s problems and potential. Europe sees less danger from the Taliban in that country than does the US. This difference in perceived threats requires a deeper discussion about the mutual loyalties and sacrifices to the shared purpose of the alliance.

One measure of how much each NATO member still embraces the universal purpose of the alliance will be seen in their individual contributions to the cost of running the Afghan National Security Forces after 2014.

As difficult as it may be to put money on the table in Chicago, doing so will help unite the alliance for whatever world challenge comes next. Democracies are still being born – Syria may be next – and NATO must remain both a model and guardian of humanity’s aspirations for freedom.

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