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WASHINGTON — For the 60th anniversary of NATO, the center of the policy wonk universe has come alive with nostalgic Cold War reviews and worrisome 21st -century predictions of the alliance’s purpose, relevance and ability to protect its member states.

President Barack Obama and his team attended the two-day summit to push European nations to reaffirm their commitment to the alliance, which he said was at a crossroads.

In Strasbourg, France, Obama said on Friday, “It is probably more likely that al-Qaida would be able to launch a serious terrorist attack in Europe than in the United States because of proximity.

“This is not an American mission; this is a NATO mission. This is an international mission.”

But James M. Goldgeier, a senior fellow of trans-Atlantic relations at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said Obama arrives with hat in hand for help in Afghanistan at a hesitant NATO session, where “the lack of burden sharing, evident in Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates’ ‘two-tiered’ remark, will hover in the background.”

Gates said at a Munich conference in February that NATO could not survive if it became an alliance “of those who are willing to fight and those who are not.”

But outside of the new U.S. leadership, America’s foreign policy elites offered sharply divided visions for NATO’s future.

One universal theme is clear: NATO must change.

Commentary in Washington spotlighted the now-familiar set of NATO issues that question how many more European countries should be folded into the alliance, especially ones with such small military capabilities as recent addition Croatia; whether an organization dedicated to European defense should be committed to expeditionary wars beyond its borders, namely in Afghanistan; and whether NATO has simply been a way for Europe to pass the buck of its costly military defense to Americans, stretching the U.S. military needlessly thin.

The last point is the crux of an argument made out of the Cato Institute, a conservative-libertarian think tank.

“By multiplying its security guarantees, the U.S. is becoming less secure,” Cato’s recent commentary on NATO reads. Cato defense policy expert Ted Galen Carpenter said the alliance is “superficial” and a “hollow façade,” a dinosaur with a “feck less military performance” in Afghanistan.

Carpenter for at least 15 years has called for the U.S. to quit the alliance, and in a talk Friday said, sighing, “It seems like I’ve been writing about NATO forever.”

Down the road at rival Brookings Institution, Carlos Pascual, a former ambassador to Ukraine and a National Security Council veteran who is now the think tank’s vice president of foreign policy, said on Monday that NATO’s membership must clearly define its changing mission to its old adversary Russia or “what certainly is likely to happen is that Russia is going to continue to perceive NATO’s role and certainly any enlargement of NATO as a threat.”

Perhaps the most thorough attempt at forging a way forward for NATO has come from a group of scholars and policy veterans who put their names on an 82-page report called “Alliance Reborn.”

Calling itself the Washington NATO Project — representing policy institutions such as the Atlantic Council, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the military’s National Defense University — the group heralds the combination of NATO’s birthday and the arrival of Obama’s administration as an “open but fleeting moment” for “courageous decisions” on NATO’s future.

It also cites persistent “unorthodox challenges” that give reason for an even more robust U.S.-European partnership, including a better-defined NATO, rather than an excuse to cancel the strategic coalition.

“These challenges require us to affirm our mutual defense commitment,” it asserts.

“They’re cyber hackers; they’re energy cartels; they are terrorists,” said Daniel Hamilton, a former senior State Department official overseeing NATO affairs who is now professor at the School for Advanced International Studies and co-author of the report.

But trans-Atlantic institutions have not kept up with the times, he added, and have struggled to handle contemporary threats such as the economic crisis and climate change.

“They have not adapted in the way they need to, and this is the opportunity now to do that,” he said.

NATO did not fire a shot in its first 40 years, but is engaged in five operations today, the Brookings panel noted.

Additionally, Hamilton argued that many naysayers have lost sight of one key goal NATO helped achieve after World War II that persists today: to create a collective European identity to move those nations beyond their history of warring with each other.

European countries long have complained the U.S. uses NATO as a facade for collective action without true partnership.

Pascual said the French representative to NATO told him shortly after the Iraq invasion, “What you Americans want to do is run a dinner party, i.e. run a military operation, and you want us, the French and the others, to be the bottle washers.”

Steven Pifer, senior Russia and Eurasia scholar at CSIS, said last week in an online chat on the Brookings Web site: “After the Cold War, people asked what would be NATO’s role. But the organization had a unique capability — to manage multinational military operations in which German, Italian, Dutch, British and U.S. troops could work effectively together. That was worth keeping. And NATO now is running a major multinational operation in Afghanistan.”

“They used to say that NATO had three goals: to keep the Russians out, the Germans down and the Americans in,” Pifer said. “NATO remains the most important channel we have to Europe on security issues, but both sides of the Atlantic support that.”

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