Mutual threats to the Alliance continue to manifest today, however there exists no singular threat like the Soviet Union. Instead NATO is faced with a whole host of new threats to peace and security that include cybercrime, terrorist networks, the shift of power away from the West towards the East, the collapse of political regimes across the globe, and the spread of nuclear weapons and technology to unstable countries. The geopolitical area has also widened, meaning that NATO must not only safeguard its traditional interests, but must also be aware of those in the wider region.
Given the differing interests and widened geopolitical area of the Alliance today, it is too difficult a task to place any one threat at the forefront of NATO's mission. Further, as many of these new threats come without prior warning, it makes developing a concrete policy to deal with them even more difficult. As a result, what seems most practical is for NATO to develop a policy flexible enough to respond and adapt as best it can to these threats.
However a flexible policy that prepares NATO for a fast response is not enough on its own; it must also encourage common action. The situation in Libya last year was evidence of this. While NATO was quick to respond and adapt its strategy here, the military weakness of the European Alliance became very clear. This led to criticism by many on the American side of the Alliance, that the Europeans were not taking their fair share of the security burden.
In a speech delivered by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in June, 2011, concerns were expressed about NATO turning into a "two-tiered alliance," composed of the Europeans who favoured "soft" peacekeeping missions, and the U.S. who preferred the "hard" combat missions. The reluctance of the Europeans to spend money and dedicated resources to defense was also strongly criticised by Gates, who warned that:
"there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress... to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense."
He is not alone in his view, and as long as this consensus remains, the idea of NATO becoming "we" instead of "they" will remain elusive.
In order to solve this problem and achieve common action between the Alliance members, NATO needs to do more, or in this case less, than its 2010 Strategic Concept outlines. Even before it was adopted in November, 2010, former U.S. ambassador to NATO Robert E. Hunter made the point that while the Strategic Concept would have ambitious goals, it was still likely to just "paper over the cracks" that were separating the U.S. and European Alliances.
To bring the Alliance together as "we," NATO needs to start thinking more strategically about its goals, and also to clearly define the roles of its members in achieving these goals. If the U.S. wants Europe to increase defense resources, then it must give them incentives to start doing so. Robert Gates said that Europe's preferred mission is that of the peacekeeper, so delegate this role to them. Let them be in charge of post-conflict reconstruction, while the U.S. remains in its preferred role of the "hard" combat missions. The burden is shared, Europe is providing more resources to security, and both Alliances are working in the areas they are best suited to.
A "two-tier" NATO will eliminate any chance for an "us" to exist; it will simply concrete the "they" within the Alliance. The further the rift between the U.S. and Europe goes, the harder it will be to return to NATO's original values. For the survival of NATO the gap needs to be closed, but in order to do so, NATO must learn to expect the unexpected, ensure common action occurs, and remain flexible enough to respond and adapt to situations as best and quickly as it possibly can.
Louise Fahey is a student of Law and European Studies at the University of Limerick.