Next May, NATO will have its biannual heads of government summit in Chicago. Few Americans are interested in or know much about NATO these days. Fewer are aware of this forthcoming summit and the crucial challenges facing the alliance and threatening its cohesion.

The numbers in the headline — 600, 2012 and 0 — reflect this condition.


“600” has two applications. The first refers to the billions of euros of Greek debt. The second refers to the approximately $600 trillion of derivatives held by four of the largest U.S. banks. As happened in 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers., when or if the Greek debt implodes, the contagion may indeed infect these banks. If that were to happen, the recent financial crisis would look mild. What would that do to NATO?

The second number refers to next year. The White House is preoccupied with the election and is in full campaign mode. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen met with U.S. President Barack Obama two days ago in Washington. But because of the November election, NATO isn’t going to remain high on the agenda even though Chicago is our commander in chief’s hometown and he will want to be seen as a strong and confident leader at that summit.

“Zero” refers to the number of people in the administration who see this summit as an opportunity for making major and even transformational change in the alliance.

As former White House Chief of Staff — and now Chicago’s Mayor — Rahm Emanuel famously pomposed, “never waste a crisis.” NATO is at a potential crisis point. Yet, almost certainly, the summit will be overshadowed by the Group of Eight meeting coming immediately before and the November election later become grounds for making the NATO meeting a bully pulpit for the presidential campaign and not a forum for presenting bold ideas.

Clearly, Libya could become “Exhibit A” touting NATO’s prowess and remarkable alacrity in taking on the U.N.-and Arab League-sanctioned mission to protect civilians that ultimately toppled and killed Moammar Gadhafi — unless things go very badly over the coming months in creating a new government. If that happens, then the May summit could become more wake than rite of passage. And other “black swan” events particularly regarding Afghanistan could likewise cast menacing shadows on the summit.

Hence, Chicago will be viewed by the White House as something to get through rather than as a vehicle for making NATO more viable in the 21st century.

If, however, the White House were to embrace some creative ideas for hosting a transformational summit, what might they be? And while risks in taking any bold initiatives are real, Britain’s Special Air Service motto should become NATO’s: “Who dares, wins!”

In plain language, NATO’s challenges are clear. It was created as a military alliance 62 years ago against a well-understood and dangerous threat but for the past two decades, that threat has been long gone. Further, as NATO has expanded to 28 members, the interests and threat perceptions of each are far from identical. Newer members rightly worry about a reconstituted Russian threat. Others see new missions from cyber to out-of-area operations as vital. And others believe that collective defense should be narrowly defined to Europe.

As a result, NATO struggles with the question of whether it is relevant or a relic of the Cold War. And the financial crisis means that virtually all of its members will slash defense, including the United States. At the same time, NATO still calls for spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, a goal that is possibly unrealistic in the extreme.

“Smart defense” is a nice term invented by NATO’s secretary-general for wiser, more effective and collective spending on “must have” NATO and not national capabilities. However, smart defense is unlikely to be more than a snappy sound bite unless the members agree to bold changes.

What should NATO do? First, even if the alliance spends only 1 percent of GDP on defense, what is the problem? NATO is still the most powerful military alliance on the globe with several million in uniform and robust nuclear weapons. Given the absence of clear-cut threats, let us not moan but rather use the considerable resources at hand with fewer complaints and as Rasmussen says, more smartly.

Second, NATO must maintain a military capability across the entire spectrum of force even if some of that is virtual, i.e. left to war games and table top exercises or filled by fewer forces. With such huge technological advantages especially in precision weapons, numbers can count less.

Third, NATO needs to move towards a reconstitutional strategy — that is the ability to build back when or if new threats emerge.

This thinking would be truly transformational. But who will push for this and who will lead? “600,” “2012” and “0” likely mean that no one will.

Harlan Ullman is senior advisor at the Atlantic Council, and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business. This article was syndicated by UPI. Photo courtesy of UPI.