NATO Leaders To Define A New Mission President Obama and other leaders open a two-day summit Friday in Lisbon, where the alliance is expected to adopt the first major changes in its security posture since the 2001 terrorist attacks. But NATO still needs some convincing about the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
NPR logo NATO Leaders To Define A New Mission

NATO Leaders To Define A New Mission

A policeman stands guards in front of a NATO summit security checkpoint in Lisbon, Portugal. Heads of state of NATO's 28 member countries gather for a two-day summit beginning Friday, where they will discuss Afghanistan, missile defense and other issues. Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

NATO is ready for a makeover.

Leaders of the 28 member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — much of Europe, plus the United States and Canada — are gathering in Lisbon for a summit starting Friday that is being called one of the most important in the group's history.

Heard On 'All Things Considered'

President Obama, who arrives in Portugal early Friday, will seek agreement from European allies on the administration's new "transition strategy" for Afghanistan, which calls for U.S. and other Western forces to continue their combat role until 2014.

It is an important, yet delicate, pitch for the future of the U.S.-led mission: seeking to persuade European allies to maintain a presence in the coalition even as the U.S. looks to begin reducing its troop levels in Afghanistan beginning next summer.

But the first order of business is to define its role in the world. NATO will approve its first new "Strategic Concept," or mission statement, in more than a decade. It's an ambitious document that sets out broad goals in areas including missile defense, cyberwarfare and terrorism.

It's a challenging restart for an organization that since the end of the Cold War has struggled to define a coherent purpose.

"This is the real burden — to explain very clearly to the NATO publics what this institution is trying to accomplish, what is its purpose today and how NATO is going to protect the population of the member states," says James M. Goldgeier, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

NATO Summit At A Glance

As NATO leaders gather in Lisbon Friday, here are some of the items on the agenda.

Afghanistan: The focus shifts to training as President Obama assures Europeans the U.S. stays in until 2014. Afghan President Karzai will attend.

Strategic Concept: NATO adopts its first new mission statement since Sept. 11, 2001.

Missile Defense: The debate over new protections turns on how clearly to target Iran.

Nuclear Arms Control: Germany is insisting on strong disarmament language but faces resistance from France.

Russia: President Medvedev attends, but some near neighbors of Russia remain nervous.

European Union: After skipping the last EU summit, Obama meets with top leaders on Saturday.

Updating The Mission

"If [NATO] did not exist today, the United States would not seek to create it," Goldgeier wrote in a paper for the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this year.

NATO was created in the wake of World War II to protect Western Europe against Soviet invasion — a threat that no longer exists.

"Ever since the end of the Cold War, NATO's been searching for the rationale for what it's all about," says Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who previously served as a foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

Its last Strategic Concept was adopted in 1999, when the big question for the organization was whether it would drop its purely defensive posture and project power outside its territory, performing a humanitarian intervention in the Balkans.

Then, the focus was on regional instability. Today, it's about protecting member states from threats that are likely to originate outside its territory, such as terrorism, maritime piracy and cyberwarfare.

Arriving At Consensus

Tweaking will occur up until the last minute, but the member states are expected to adopt a Strategic Concept that looks very much like the one drafted in recent months by a group headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

NATO, which operates by consensus, has always been riven by factions. It has a dozen more members today than it did in 1999. In Lisbon, there's likely to be disagreement over issues such as whether to make nuclear arms control a central focus, as Germany desires.

Still, there's broad agreement on the need to work together to address threats of common concern, says Stephen Flanagan, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "What they found in the official discussions over the last few months is that the alliance wasn't as divided as many people thought," he says.

Defending Against Which Missiles

Members from Central Europe remain more concerned about possible challenges emanating from Russia than, say, the host country of Portugal.

But generally there is hope for more cooperation than confrontation with Russia right now. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is attending the summit — the first time Russia has had a presence at a NATO meeting since its incursion into Georgia in 2008.

A man walks by NATO's summit venue in Lisbon, Portugal, on Thursday. Markus Schreiber/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Markus Schreiber/AP

"Russia doesn't want to look too open, unless it can get something," says Flanagan. "But senior officials there know that their interest lies in cooperation with the West, that their bigger problems will be with China and their southern neighbors."

NATO is hoping that Russia will bless its plans for missile defense — or at least not feel threatened by them. Following the lead of the Obama administration, NATO seeks to make clear that its missile defense shield is designed to protect not against Russia, but against short- to medium-range missiles coming from Iran.

Some member countries want to name Iran specifically as a threat in the strategic concept. But Turkey objects to singling out its neighbor and trading partner. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this month that his country would not "accept an approach that considers Iran a threat."

Turkey will remain wary about plans to locate parts of the missile defense system — even radar — within its borders. But it won't block language calling for protection against nuclear threats in general.

"Turkey is nervous about specifying Iran as the threat, but that's an easy problem to solve," says Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Institution Arms Control Initiative. "Everyone will know who they're going to be talking about."

Afghanistan: Stay The Course

The greatest immediate challenge facing NATO from the east is Afghanistan. About 140,000 Western troops are in the country, including 100,000 from the United States. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander there, is expected to assure NATO leaders that the coalition is making slow but steady progress.

The main goal for the U.S. is to sell its European allies on its new transition strategy for Afghanistan. That war has become even less popular in much of Europe than in the U.S.

Still, the Obama administration hopes that its plans to stay in Afghanistan until 2014 will assuage NATO allies' concern that the American troop drawdown scheduled to begin next July does not signal the end of the U.S. commitment.

"The widespread sentiment among NATO allies is, tell us when the Americans are leaving because we want to leave six months before that date," says Fontaine, the former McCain adviser. "By pointing to 2014, what this hopefully leads to is more staying power from the Europeans than if the U.S. is pointing at July 2011."

The European nations will be looking for assurances that some benchmarks and adjustments in approach will be in place by next summer. But it appears that the new strategy will guarantee continued European participation, with NATO expected to announce at the summit that it will hand over security control to the Afghans in 2014.

Canada, which is planning to bring home its combat troops next year, announced this week that it will send 950 trainers to Afghanistan through March 2014, providing the bulk of the new NATO troops striving to build up the capacity of the Afghan military and police.

Does Europe Matter?

The coalition in Afghanistan reflects a broader truth about trans-Atlantic relations. When the U.S. talks with European allies, it's often about problems that are happening outside Europe.

"Europe has to fight to be relevant right now," Nicole Bacharan, a historian and political scientist at the Institute of Political Science in Paris, tells NPR's Ari Shapiro in a story for Morning Edition Friday.

Asia and the Middle East are receiving the lion's share of the Obama administration's foreign policy time and attention these days. But that doesn't mean Europe has lost its relevance.

"In terms of security issues and promoting global growth, Europeans are our most capable allies in promoting stability and global growth," says Flanagan, the CSIS vice president. "It's not a question of either/or, but how do you maintain these deep-standing relationships at the same time you're deepening ties to China and other Asian nations."

Even if Europe is not where the action is from a military standpoint, it's still a major force in world affairs. And the fact that no one sees any chance for an outbreak of war between great powers of Europe in the foreseeable future may be one of the greatest indicators of NATO's success.

"From the U.S. standpoint, Europe is no longer a national security problem," says Goldgeier, the George Washington University professor. "And that is a product of the success of the U.S. and Europe strategy for the past 20 years."