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LISBON, Portugal — When President Barack Obama sits down with fellow heads of state here Friday evening for the start of two days of meetings with NATO partners, he will be negotiating over more than an Afghanistan exit strategy.

He also will attempt to reach a deal on a new "strategic concept" defining how NATO operates and reorganizes the alliance to confront new post-Cold War threats.

During the Lisbon summit, NATO will try to reinvent itself to deal with lurking modern-day dangers such as terrorism, piracy, cyberwarfare and weapons proliferation. However, post-Cold War political realities and conflicting strategic interests could make it difficult for allies to achieve consensus on how to best deal with those threats, according to some NATO observers.

NATO finds itself at a crossroads.

“Today, it’s a situation where there are real threats out there. The problem is that those threats are perceived differently within the alliance,” said Marko Papic, a Europe analyst at STRATFOR, a foreign affairs think tank. “That’s a much harder situation to deal with.”

The last time NATO members gathered to craft a new strategic concept — the tactical mission statement that guides NATO actions — it was a time of relative tranquility. The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the years of warfighting it spawned were still two years away. It was 1999: a time of economic stability with no obvious security threats to point at. But all of that changed in the decade that just passed.

Over the years, NATO membership has grown, making it tougher to reach a consensus to deal with threats. Veto capability of member nations means issues can get held up for years without resolution. And unlike the threat of a Soviet invasion of western Europe during the Cold War, there is no equal menace today for alliance members to rally around.

In Lisbon, the new strategic concept will likely include a statement about making missile defense part of the alliance’s mission. The document also will emphasize the need to invest more in cybersecurity, counter-piracy efforts and focus more on asymmetrical emerging threats. Reforms in the command structure also are expected, which could help make NATO more nimble. The U.S. also will also make an increasingly difficult sales pitch to win more troops contributions from war-weary Europeans for the effort in Afghanistan.

But at a time when resources are scarce, with militaries across Europe cutting their budgets, will NATO be up to the task?

Some NATO watchers argue that divisions within the alliance, coupled with reduced defense spending, will gradually weaken its influence. NATO could be headed toward irrelevancy as smaller, more bilateral strategic alliances take on greater significance in the years ahead, according to Papic.

“In 20 years, I see NATO completely weakened as a relevant force in military affairs,” Papic said

Such dismal views about NATO and its long-term outlook are not unusual.

Increasingly — despite NATO’s long involvement in Afghanistan — the alliance is being described by naysayers as a Cold War relic that’s too bogged down in bureaucracy to deal with the threats of today. Allies also have sharply different views on questions of European security matters. While shared commercial interests have brought Germany and France closer to Russia in recent years, old Eastern bloc nations that are now part of NATO remain fearful of the Russian threat.

Some U.S. lawmakers also are among the chorus of NATO critics, albeit for different reasons.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass, who is part of an effort in Congress to cut defense spending, said Europe needs to take more responsibility for its security.

“NATO was a wonderful concept. But 61 years later, I think it’s time to say our western European allies should be on their own,” Frank said in an interview with Stars and Stripes in July.

However, a look at military spending trends reveals that Europe is unlikely to pick up the slack.

Earlier this month, the Center for Strategic and International Studies released its annual report on European military spending, which showed that as American spending soared during the past decade, Europe’s defense expenditures declined by 2 percent. That raises concerns about whether NATO members will be able to live up to a membership commitment of spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. In fact, most members already fall short of that number.

During the past 15 years, the U.S. has averaged 3.7 percent of GDP compared to less than 1.9 percent from the rest of the allies, according to Stephen Flanagan of CSIS. The U.S. also outspends Europe 6-to-1 on research and development.

Meanwhile, only about 5 percent of Europe’s roughly 2 million troops are capable of deploying to foreign lands, well short of NATO’s goal of 50 percent deployable and 10 percent capable of being sustained in those deployments, said Flanagan. “It’s very unlikely those goals are going to be achieved,” he said during a Nov. 5 speech in Washington.

U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s military chief, takes a more optimistic view of the alliance’s long-term prospects.

“NATO is where a lot of resources are,” said Stavridis, during an October speech at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

With a collective GDP of $31 trillion, “that’s a powerful reason for being part of this alliance,” said Stavridis, who will be briefing heads of state during the Lisbon summit.

And while the new strategic concept will include new areas of focus, such as cybersecurity, the core mission will remain the same, he said.

NATO’s foundation — Article 5, which pledges that an attack against one is an attack against all — will be reaffirmed in Lisbon, Stavridis said. “That is the bedrock.”

Still, NATO members need to commit to investing in defense and meet the 2 percent of GDP threshold, according to Stavridis.

But it’s not just about money. While many of the threats are clear, reaching consensus on how to confront them won’t be, critics contend.

“In Lisbon, we don’t foresee any big public display of disagreements,” Papic said. “But it (the strategic concept) will end up being mostly just words.”

vandiverj@estripes.osd.mil

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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