Cold war era fades further as Russia, NATO agree to 'reset' relations

Russia accepted NATO’s decision at a two-day summit in Lisbon, Portugal to develop a missile defense system to protect Europe’s territory and population from ballistic missile attack.

Armando Franca/AP
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gives a media briefing at the end of a NATO summit in Lisbon on Saturday. NATO planned Saturday to deliver a historic invitation for Russia to join a missile shield protecting Europe against Iranian attack, a milestone for an alliance that was built to defend against Soviet forces.

In a speech last week to “young Atlanticists” - young people from Europe, the US, and CanadaNATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he realized that to them, talking about the cold war must be akin to discussing the Peloponnesian War.

Yet the six-decade-old North Atlantic defense alliance between Europe and North America has its origins in the cold war. And that is one reason that anyone a little older than Mr. Rasmussen’s audience could have been justifiably amazed at the degree of cooperation launched between NATO and its old nemesis, Russia, at this weekend’s NATO summit.

As Russian President Dmitry Medvedev joined NATO leaders including President Obama on Saturday, Russia formally agreed to expand its cooperation with the NATO effort in Afghanistan. Russia will allow more NATO supplies to pass through its territory, and for the first time agreed that non-lethal military equipment leaving Afghanistan can also exit across its borders.

Perhaps even more striking for anyone with memory of the cold war, Russia not only accepted NATO’s decision at the summit to develop a missile defense system to protect Europe’s territory and population from ballistic missile attack, but Mr. Medvedev also agreed to a plan for Russia and NATO to study missile defense cooperation and how the two might eventually coordinate their systems.

In a post-summit press conference, President Obama said that one advantage of launching NATO-Russia cooperation on missile defense was to demonstrate how “a topic of past tension can become a point of cooperation in the future.” Obama, who referred to Medvedev as “my friend and partner” – a characterization that hinted at what is one of the few warm relationships Obama has developed with a foreign leader – said that just as the US and Russia have “reset” their relations, “we are also resetting the NATO-Russia partnership.”

Focus on 21-century threats

NATO’s reinvigorated cooperation with Russia – a process that began earlier in the decade, but was cut off in 2008 over Russia’s incursion into Georgia and occupation of two Georgian regions – was only one of the summit’s signs of the cold war era retreating further into history books. More broadly, the new “strategic concept” or mission statement the Alliance leaders adopted was a re-orientation of NATO away from the 20th -century threats of its origins to those of the 21st century.

As Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush said after the summit, “The purpose of the new strategic concept is to answer the fundamental question: ‘Why does NATO exist?’ By agreeing at 28 nations,” he added, “that the Alliance has three tasks – collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security – the strategic concept has answered the question and made clear NATO’s determination to be much more than a cold war relic.”

Among the 21st century threats NATO will turn its attention to are the growing proliferation of ballistic missiles – thus the missile defense program – cyber security, terrorism, piracy, and the threats posed by failed or failing states like Afghanistan or Somalia.

Shrinking budgets, growing indifference

But as General Scowcroft suggests, perhaps the biggest threat to NATO’s survival as a meaningful collective-defense organization is to be found within NATO’s own borders in the falling defense budgets in many European countries and a growing public indifference towards the military and relevance in the 21st century.

“The key test for NATO now, for … the nations and NATO’s military leaders, is whether they will provide the resources, forces, equipment, and training the concept makes clear are required to carry out the three tasks” the Alliance adopted, says General Scowcroft, who is also chairman of the international advisory board of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank focused on North Atlantic affairs.

Obama promotes START treaty

Obama said the American people should take great pride in the fact that an Alliance born under American leadership 60 years ago and following the sacrifice (in World War II) of so many young Americans has “resulted in a Europe more united than ever before.”

But he also alluded to the politics of today, saying that the Atlantic security the US built is now threatened by the dangers and cost of maintaining a cold-war era nuclear arsenal. And he called out directly to Republican senators back in Washington to consider that reality and drop their opposition to ratifying the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia in the current lame-duck session.

Noting that failure to ratify a treaty he signed with Medvedev in April threatens the new spirit of cooperation with Russia, Obama said “It would be a profound mistake for us to step back into mistrust.”

Reaching back into that relative ancient history himself, the president added, “With the cold war over, it’s in everybody’s interest to [reduce] our nuclear armaments.”

RELATED: At Nato summit, Obama's ride is the talk of the town

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