As they meet in Prague on Nov. 21 and 22, NATO nations have a full agenda. They will likely induct seven new East European members, try to figure out ways to meet the terrorist threat, and cajole one another to modernize their armed forces. All well and good. But perhaps the No. 1 item should be: Why are we here?
A dozen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO has no clear reason for being anymore. On paper, it is the world's most formidable collection of armies--with nearly 4 million soldiers including the new members--yet it displays a curious reluctance to fight. Having let the U.S. handle the serious combat in the Balkans and Afghanistan, NATO is groping for a new way to justify its existence.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer argues NATO should be a "community of values." But it's not a given that NATO members are sailing by the same moral compass. Europeans reject the death penalty, fret about the treatment of Al Qaeda prisoners, and regard U.S. President George W. Bush as dangerously warmongering. They are wary of globalization and the onslaught of U.S. culture to the point where some commentators veer into sympathy for terrorists. Even German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der, who once promised unconditional solidarity in the war against terror, flirted with anti-Americanism during the recent election campaign.
NATO is primarily a fighting force, and is better off sticking to clear military objectives. What should they be? So far NATO has been effective at peacekeeping in the Balkans, and that should continue. But NATO can do more than just mop up after the U.S. NATO needs to broaden its definition of a common threat while establishing the means to take quick action. The so-called Defence Capabilities Initiative, which calls for better air transport and other means to support troops far from home, is a good blueprint. For it to work, members, especially Germany, must spend more and spend smarter. That may mean scaling back weapons systems such as the eurofighter. And better armies are meaningless without a decision-making structure to allow quick deployment.
The war on terror should be the crucible for reform. Up to now, the U.S. has been happy to take the lead against bad guys like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Allied contributions, Britain aside, have been mostly symbolic. But the day may come when the U.S. needs help, just as it would have needed help to repel the Soviet Bloc. Will NATO be there? Only if its members recognize that the threat now is just as real as it was then. Whatever their differences, all NATO members are fundamentally committed to democracy. That means they must also be committed to defending it.