In preparation for the Chicago NATO summit this May, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has released NATO's first ever annual general report. The report is both an assessment of NATO's achievements in 2011, which he described as "one of the busiest years" ever for the organization, as well as a document setting up the Chicago summit agenda.
Afghanistan remains a long term NATO priority and with the deadline for withdrawal set to 2014 the summit will focus on charting out a long term strategy to create stability in the country. France's recent threat to pull out of the country early (as a response to the death of four of its troops) highlights the difficulties the allies will have in finishing the project in Afghanistan.
The seminal event of 2011, the Arab Spring, will also be high on the agenda. In the report Rasmussen notes that the intervention in Libya was NATO's biggest undertaking of 2011, but partnerships in the region must now go beyond Libya and the Arab Spring:
"The Alliance should also be much better connected with its southern neighbors - across the Mediterranean and into the Middle East and Gulf regions. We have many shared concerns - from fighting extremism, through security sector reform, to maritime security."
Rasmussen has also confirmed NATO will continue to push ahead with a missile system in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, despite Russia's continued protestations. Laying out the next step in the process he added:
"Poland, Romania and Turkey have already agreed to host key elements of this system. And my goal for Chicago is that we declare an interim operational capability for NATO's territorial missile defense... Cooperation on missile defense makes sense... politically because it demonstrates that our missile defense is not directed against Russia."
While attempting to reconcile its relations with Russia, NATO has also offered Ukrainan President Viktor Yanukovych a prominent meeting with Rasmussen in Chicago. Pavel Wolowski and Piotr Zochowski have suggested in "New Eastern Europe" that these movements into deepening alliances should be taken with caution:
"In having a seemingly symmetrical cooperation with both NATO and Russia, Ukraine aspires to convey the image of beign an effective partner, involved in dialogue on important international security matters. This is the framework in which Kyiv's engagement in talks with NATO on missile defense should be considered"
If establishing new partnerships is problematic, there is also an emerging debate on whether the bonds between NATO's traditional allies are themselves strong enough to survive the strain that the current economic pressures are placing on them. Strengthening member countries' common values remain one of NATO's primary focuses and there has been a large movement to quell fears that a great divide between the US and its transatlantic partners is emerging.
Isabelle Francois of the US-based Institute for National Strategic Studies assures us in her comprehensive study of "NATO Partnerships and the Arab Spring" that post-Libya NATO is not at any risk of splitting over core differences:
"If anything, these events have provided the context for reinforcing the validity of a longstanding commitment to partnership within the Alliance... along with the necesity to preserve some of its core principles, such as that of "specifity" when it comes to various partnerships."
The Secretary General's Annual Report is also optimistic, describing the forthcoming summit as an
"opportunity to renew our commitment to the vital transatlantic bond between us and to redouble our efforts to share the burden of security more effectively... to keep NATO committed, capable and connected."
The problem of how to adequately maintain strong military resources within the context of austerity and global recession nevertheless remains. Rasmussen's core concept of smart defense is still on the agenda for Chicago:
"Our task is to make sure we emerge stronger, not weaker, from the crisis we all face. But we can draw great strength from an enduring source: the indivisibility of security between North America and Europe."
Rasmussen's smart defense project has the backing of the NATO hierarchy, but a recent research paper by Karl-Heinz Kamp of the NATO Defense College has brought the concept, in its current form, into doubt:
"Pooling and sharing will either not work at all or will only be possible between those few nations willing and bale to do so... It will not be a cure-all for NATO's severe budgetry problems. Significant gaps between NATO's high ambitions and the low contributions made by many European NATO allies need to be addressed."
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Mathew Shearman is an editor of atlantic-community.org. Mathew holds an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and focuses his research on German foreign policy, Europe and transatlantic relations.