Nato: Do what you do best
By Jos Boonstra
Nato is holding its 25th Summit on 20 and 21 May in Chicago, where President Barack Obama will host colleagues from 27 Nato allies.
There is a lot to discuss but Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen chose wisely by highlighting three main subjects: building security in times of austerity; partnerships; and Afghanistan.
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These three broad issues correspond with Nato's core business of collective defence and the two greatest post-Cold War developments for Nato: building partnerships with neighbouring regions and like-minded organisations, and going 'out of area' - embodied by Nato's war in Afghanistan (for better or worse) and the counter-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa.
How can Nato leaders productively discuss building security in times of austerity? Despite ongoing defence cuts, the many European leaders present will yet again need to try and convince the Americans that they are serious about defence.
The partnership with Europeans is important to Americans but the US will act without Nato if needed. In contrast, most European countries fully rely on the alliance for their last security resort.
The economic crisis and divisions within the EU over the development of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) have left this instrument weak in terms of hard security.
The transatlantic discussion of division of labour should now be more frank: Nato does hard security while CSDP works on matters such as security sector reform, border management and monitoring and police missions. Meanwhile increasing European bi-, tri- or multilateral defence co-operation should benefit CSDP and Nato alike.
Second, Nato will discuss partnerships, such as with the EU, Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
But it is Nato's 'European neighbourhood' that should stand central. Nato's Partnership for Peace (PfP) has been a success since its inception in 1994. The initiative connects European non-Nato members to the alliance. It played an influential role in preparing Central and East European countries for membership, including defence reform.
But the PfP needs a new impetus, especially because no new members will join Nato any time soon. Nowadays more opportunities can be found south of Europe in terms of defence co-operation and binding neighbours in a partnership for peace. PfP look-a-likes designed for North Africa (the Mediterranean Dialogue, or MD) and the Middle East (The Istanbul Co-operation Initiative, or ICI) have so far yielded little success, mostly due to limited interest in and knowledge about each other.
Provided that there is interest among current southern partners and other Arab countries, Nato should discuss opening up PfP and end the Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Co-operation Initiative.
The Arab Spring events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere have resulted in new freedoms, but there is also a need for democratic control of armed forces and defence reform.
Nato PfP could deliver this just as has been done in Central Europe where Nato helped on defence reform while the EU focussed on most other areas within economic and democratic reform. After all, Nato's image has improved in the Arab world. PfP membership - if presented well and backed up by political will - would enhance relations to the benefit of all involved and give new imputes to the countries relations with Nato that have never blossomed in the MD and ICI.
While Nato membership will likely remain a Euro-Atlantic affair, a broadened PfP would go beyond this regional straightjacket and thus partly rid the Alliance of its cold-war eastern-focused image.
Third, Afghanistan will stand central, especially concerning the troop withdrawal that should be largely concluded by the end of 2014.
Naturally most attention will be devoted to the training and readiness of Afghan security forces; the sort of presence Nato envisages post-2014; and the role of Pakistan.
But there are broader regional concerns to consider too. Central Asia's Northern Distribution Network will be important to Nato for withdrawing hardware from the region.
Nato will need to constructively co-operate with authoritarian states in Central Asia that fear spill-over effects from Afghanistan in the future, but for now choose to blackmail Nato and the US by demanding favours for access.
Severe pressure needs to be exerted to make clear to these countries that genuine co-operation is necessary if these countries do not want to be left at the mercy of their big brothers, China and Russia, which they fear. After all, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan might be next in line to suffer from radicalism or popular revolts.
Though Nato leaders are likely to place different emphases on these three broad matters, it remains a full agenda that is as crucial to Nato's future as to the future of its partners.
The writer is a senior researcher at the Madrid-based think tank, Fride