Today almost 350 lawmakers and foreign dignitaries from NATO and its partner countries will descend on the Czech capital Prague, for the 58th Annual Session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA). Over the years, the Assembly has come to represent the best of NATO’s democratic tradition—the strong democratic bond that remains unique among military alliances past and present.

Although not always enjoying front-page attention, the NATO PA has served as an essential link between the Alliance and the parliaments, and by extension citizens, of the member states. Founded in 1955, the Assembly provides a specialized forum for members of legislative bodies from both sides of the Atlantic to meet and discuss pressing security issues of the day. The Assembly fosters greater transparency of NATO policies and provides governments, through its resolutions and policy recommendations, with a collective voice on Alliance issues. In recognition of its special statues, the NATO Secretary General regularly addresses members of the Assembly and responds to the policy recommendations put forward by the legislators.

When the NATO PA holds its annual session this weekend, legislators from across the Alliance will have a chance to immerse themselves in an exchange of ideas on security issues, not only with each other but also with experts and government officials. Through their participation in the NATO PA, parliamentarians become better equipped for national debates on issues relevant to the Alliance. Being able to hear other national perspectives on key defence and security issues opens up an entirely new vista for many as they can move beyond the remit of domestic politics, which can sometimes obscure the bigger picture of the Alliance politics.

Sure, some may argue that longwinded parliamentary debates plagued by time-consuming procedures are less suitable for dealing with security issues. Yet today, perhaps more than ever before, this premise is inaccurate, or downright wrong. The battle for the future shape of the Alliance is being increasingly waged closer to home in budget committees, town-hall meetings and TV studios. Severe budgetary pressures put the Alliance member states under considerable strain to meet their defence commitments, whilst balancing their domestic challenges.

NATO parliaments play a crucial role in influencing national defence as, among other things, it is their exclusive prerogative to authorize defence expenditures and troop deployments abroad. They can also raise citizens’ concerns in the parliament and see to it that they are reflected in security policies.

New outside threats, such as terrorism, cyber security, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, have forced NATO to develop new sets of tools and approaches in order to meet its core task of providing security for its members against the backdrop of a transformed security environment. Given the complex nature of modern security threats coupled with declining defence budgets, there can be no doubt about the need for greater defence cooperation. In the coming decade, NATO militaries will have to increasingly rely upon each–— giving up certain capabilities in favor of excelling in others to boost the overall capabilities of the Alliance. A good case in point is NATO’s Smart Defense initiative championed by Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. This will ultimately require unwavering trust among the Allies, in a way perhaps even more so than at the height of the Cold War. However, fostering greater trust will be only possible through securing solid public support at home and that is why the important role of national parliaments cannot be stressed enough.

As NATO undergoes its transformation, it will have to go to great lengths to ensure that it stays relevant to all citizens. And it is here where NATO legislators, such as those meeting in Prague, can be expected to be called upon to fill that void. With close contact with their respective constituencies, legislatures are ideally placed to explain the merits and intricacies of defence collaboration to the NATO publics while hearing their concerns.

Jan Hamacek is head of the Czech Delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.