NATO Secretary General Rasmussen addresses a news conference in Brussels.
Francois Lenoir / Courtesy Reuters

This week, Chicago will host the 25th Summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The stakes are high: the capitals of nearly all NATO member nations are wrestling with unprecedented economic challenges -- fiscal crises that have forced unwelcome austerity measures, declining defense budgets, and weak economic growth -- as well as a rapidly evolving security situation, including rogue nations with nuclear ambitions, unrest in the Middle East, instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and global terrorism.

Noting all these challenges, critics have lamented the "decline of the West," and have started to question NATO's relevance. It is hardly the first time they have done so. Just seven years after NATO's founding, General J. Lawton Collins, the former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, summarized the criticism of NATO in a 1956 Foreign Affairs essay defending the alliance:

Since the Geneva "summit" conference [in 1955], questions have been raised as to whether the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has outlived its usefulness. Is it outmoded in these days of possible thermonuclear war? Is it sufficiently flexible and viable to meet the new threats posed by the "atomic stalemate" between East and West? These and other similar questions have arisen in the minds of responsible men.

More than fifty years later, I have been hearing similarly misguided rhetoric from naysayers in the halls of the Capitol and in forums across the Atlantic. So how should NATO respond to these arguments about its alleged weakness?

With strength and pride. At this year's summit, the West must push back and remind the world that the United States and its NATO allies still wield unrivaled power to shape the world for the better. This summit should demonstrate NATO members' commitment to the principles that have fed its strength for two generations: perseverance and a dedication to meeting the challenges of the day. Members should set an agenda for NATO that will both address its shortfalls and build on its successes -- starting with the recent operations in Libya.

At the previous summit in Lisbon, two years ago, alliance members adopted a new Strategic Concept -- a ten-year plan for NATO. The document, the first of its kind since before 9/11, outlined what capabilities NATO would need in the future given the operations it would be expected to take on. It called on the alliance to become more agile, more capable, and more effective. I doubt that many envisioned at the time that NATO's path from Lisbon to Chicago would take a detour through the streets of Tripoli and that its new Strategic Concept would be tested so quickly.

History will be the ultimate judge of whether the Libyan intervention was a long-term strategic success. What is not in question, however, is the fact that NATO and its partners acted swiftly and effectively to save thousands of innocent civilians from a coming massacre.

I recall visiting NATO headquarters in Brussels just one week into the military intervention in Libya to hear directly about the alliance's plans and objectives. Though it felt a bit hectic and freewheeling, there was a distinct sense of renewed purpose and a determination to respond quickly and effectively to the requests for intervention from the Arab League and the UN Security Council. In just 222 days, NATO laid the groundwork for the overthrow of an entrenched and brutal dictatorship. It did so at a fraction of the cost of previous engagements (an estimated $1.1 billion in U.S. funding, compared with the hundreds of billions of dollars spent in Iraq and Afghanistan) and with no NATO military casualties.

At the summit, NATO should not shy away from touting the success of its effort in Libya. But at the same time, it should acknowledge and attempt to address the significant capability gaps that the operation revealed, including in terms of targeting, surveillance, refueling, and shortages of ammunition. In addition, critics have noted that only 14 of 28 member states were involved in the operation. It is dangerous to judge a mission on such a measure alone. Even so, allies with much-needed capabilities, such as Germany, must bring those to bear when the alliance chooses to act. The United States cannot continue to shoulder so much of NATO's military burden.

Next on the agenda in Chicago should be resolving the details of the upcoming transition in Afghanistan. At the Lisbon Summit, NATO members unanimously agreed to 2014 as the date to hand over responsibility for security. Chicago will thus be a time for the United States and NATO to more fully define the parameters of the drawdown and to plan a post-2014 relationship with Afghanistan that is credible and realistic. Plans need to include specific troop numbers and financial commitments from alliance members.

The summit should also contemplate the long-term sustainability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Current plans envision a force of around 352,000 members at a cost of at least $4 billion per year. Kabul only takes in a total of $1 billion each year in revenue, so the international community would be expected to make up the difference. This is not a burden the United States can shoulder alone. NATO allies should use the Chicago summit to zero in on a more realistic, sustainable number of troops in the years after 2014.

While we're talking money, NATO's Smart Defense program, which is an effort to better prioritize projects and capabilities among NATO members, should be another focus of the Chicago summit. In a time of limited resources, there is no question that NATO will need to better pool and share them. There are several ways to go about this; for example, the organization can build on the successes of the Baltic Air Policing mission and the Strategic Airlift Capability, which brings together 12 nations to procure and operate C-17 transport planes.

There is a real danger, however, that Smart Defense will become an excuse for continued European underinvestment. This is a particularly difficult economic time in Europe, and the eurozone debt crisis will certainly bleed into the debate over military commitments. But as members of a global military power, European allies still have responsibilities and commitments abroad. Over the last decade, they have fallen short. They cannot continue to do so.

The NATO Strategic Concept outlined the capabilities the alliance will need to deter and defend against future threats. In Chicago, Smart Defense should be used as a way to focus on meeting those objectives, not as political cover to further diminish much-needed defense spending by our allies.

After discussing current operations and capabilities, members should turn to NATO's open-door policy. NATO enlargement has so far been a success, bringing in critical allies in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, which have rapidly transformed from needing security to contributing to security. Poland and Romania will soon host critical missile defense sites. Estonia may be one of only a few NATO members to actually reach its defense spending requirements. And most of the newer members have also made significant troop commitments to the fight in Afghanistan.

But there are also signs of strain. NATO officials have emphasized that Chicago will not be an "enlargement summit," and the prospects for adding new members are slim due to outstanding political matters in several aspiring countries. For example, Macedonia is still locked in a dispute with Greece, barring it from joining.

One country that deserves to see progress on its membership aspirations is Georgia, which was first promised NATO membership in Bucharest in 2008. Despite the lack of movement since, Georgia continues to act as a contributing NATO partner country. It currently provides a full battalion to NATO forces in Afghanistan and has committed to adding a second. This would make Georgia the largest troop-contributing nation on a per capita basis in Afghanistan.

At Chicago, the alliance must recognize the important contribution Georgia is making to NATO and demonstrate, through the formal summit communiqué, some advancement toward the country's ascension to NATO. If NATO's open door policy is to remain credible, it must acknowledge and reward countries like Georgia that are meeting the alliance's high expectations.

Last, let me raise a topic that should not be addressed in Chicago. The alliance's relationship with Russia and the possibility of Russia's cooperation on missile defense would represent an unnecessary distraction.

The issue has earned plenty of headlines in recent weeks. At the summit, the alliance plans to announce that its missile defense program, which is aimed at Iran and other rogue states, has reached interim operational capability. Russia -- still caught up in a Cold War mentality -- perceives this effort as a threat and has been reluctant to cooperate, making unacceptable demands, such as hard limits on the use or capability of NATO missile defense assets and mandated release of information on sensitive defense technologies. Early hope for a NATO-Russia summit on missile defense in Chicago quickly diminished as Russian intransigence blocked any progress on this issue.

However, recent unguarded comments made by President Barack Obama on missile defense negotiations -- the infamous "hot mic" moment -- have revived the discussion. The president's suggestion that a sensitive and bipartisan agreement on missile defense would be difficult in the midst of a heated presidential campaign should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever worked in politics. Unfortunately, the incident resurrected a tired and false refrain from political opponents, that the United States is somehow not committed to the security of our European allies.

The United States remains committed to all four phases of Obama's missile defense plans for Europe. The first phase has already been successfully implemented. Countless American and NATO officials have made it perfectly clear that Russia will never have any veto over U.S. missile defense.

To be sure, NATO does share a wide range of interests with Russia outside of missile defense, including security in Afghanistan, counterterrorism, and halting proliferation. The alliance must continue to engage Russia on those issues, but cannot allow the deadlocked discussions on the missile defense question to overshadow all the other critical agenda items at the summit.

The summit in Chicago should be a turning point -- a time for the organization to redefine its role in a world where the security focus is shifting toward Asia and military budgets are shrinking. Chicago should be a chance to tell everyone that the U.S. and its transatlantic allies will remain the preeminent force for peace and stability now and for future generations.

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