From its creation in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO in English and OTAN in French, nicely reflecting long-standing and often-competing views within the alliance – has faced one perilous crossroads or another.

The raison d’etre for NATO’s first 40 years was countering the Soviet Union’s military threat, an unambiguous and unarguable objective. Since the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1989, NATO has been searching for a rationale to meet today’s challenges, threats and dangers.

To rewrite NATO’s strategic concept approved in 1999 and in part to fulfill this quest, a group of 12 experts was formed last summer to provide for NATO’s secretary-general, former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a construct from which he can fashion and submit to heads of state, a 21st-century update of the strategic concept at the alliance’s Lisbon summit next fall.

The GoE has made the rounds in Europe in three “seminars” designed to solicit input and generate consensus about the fundamentals to be contained in the new strategic concept.

This week, the fourth and final seminar was at Washington’s National Defense University. Attending were the members of the GoE; the North Atlantic Council, consisting of permanent representatives from each of the 28 member states, i.e. ambassadors to NATO; the Military Committee, consisting of the chairman and three-star representatives from each member state; the two strategic commands (Allied Command Transformation and Allied Command Operations); and several hundred experts and observers.

The fundamental issue that casts a dark shadow on this massive effort can be put in the form of a simple question raised before in this column: Is NATO relevant or is the alliance a relic?

The easier political course is to assume the former. Unfortunately, merely assuming that the alliance is as or even more relevant to the future security needs of its members will not sit well with a public that is skeptical and even cynical about the need for NATO in the light of Afghanistan and so-called out-of-area operations against enemies that possess no armies, navies or air forces. The decision by the Netherlands to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan this summer underscores these reservations.

Whether relic or relevant very much depends on whether NATO can continue as a military alliance conceived to counter a military threat that no longer exists or whether it will expand further to conform with security threats and dangers that exceed these traditional military boundaries.

Given the current economic crisis that now must deal with possible financial insolvency in Greece, Spain, Portugal and perhaps Italy, defense is not the first priority of NATO’s members. And, as some members fear Russia above all, NATO must reconcile often powerfully conflicting and opposite perceptions of threat that make gaining consensus very difficult.

Hence, the absence of an agreed-upon threat such as the old Soviet Union greatly confounds and impedes winning consensus among each member state required for approval by the alliance as a whole.

The Strategic Concept must deal with Afghanistan – the first sustained ground war NATO has waged. There, NATO can ignore or defer; confront; or finesse Afghanistan.

The argument for deferral is that NATO must look beyond Afghanistan as it defines its future. The countervailing case is that NATO has bet its future on success in Afghanistan and to ignore it is irresponsible.

Finally, the path of least resistance could be to finesse by accepting lessons learned from the conflict in Afghanistan as input to the strategic concept and not taking on the central issue of whether out-of-area roles are central to the safety and security of the alliance.

The four seminars were meant to provide raw material to be turned into a final product by Rasmussen.

Here, one reality obtains: NATO is at a profound crossroads.

It can therefore deal directly and frontally with the challenges it faces along with strongly held differences of opinions on a future course. Or it may not. Either choice could weaken or rejuvenate the alliance. To resolve this dilemma, strong leadership among the heads of government is essential to demand the direct approach wins out, softened perhaps on the margins but only the margins.

Otherwise, in all likelihood, the Strategic Concept will become milquetoast and paper over these powerful, centrifugal forces that left unchecked will weaken and possibly collapse the alliance.

Hence, at the very least, the strategic concept must take on this matter of relevancy or relic and explain in understandable language how and why NATO is relevant and crucial to the future security of the Atlantic community.

If the concept cannot do that, NATO tragically will become moribund and even a relic. If it can, NATO’s best days lie ahead but backbone is needed to make that happen.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business.  This column was syndicated by UPI.