Germany urged NATO to take on a more wide-ranging role in battling new global threats but France and the United States disagreed over the future of the transatlantic alliance.
Merkel sees NATO as the first place international conflicts should be discussed
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization "should be the first place to discuss international conflicts," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the Munich Conference on Security Policy.
Merkel called for NATO to engage in "broader operations" and take on "a primary role in the world" in comments that reflected US ambitions for the 26-country defense group.
In her first few months in power, the German leader has worked to improve relations with the United States which were severely strained over her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder's firm opposition to the US-led war in Iraq.
German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said NATO's purely defensive role is over.
"Terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, failing states -- these are the scourges of our times," German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung told the conference.
"The old NATO as a purely defensive alliance is history," he added.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld thanked Merkel for her "thoughtful and important remarks on NATO" in his own conference speech devoted to Islamic militancy.
"The competences that exist within NATO can be used to advantage in other parts of the world," Rumsfeld said.
The US defense chief praised the alliance's deployment in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime and in giving humanitarian assistance to Pakistan after a massive earthquake last year.
But NATO's potential was being held back by insufficient defense spending in members of the alliance, Rumsfeld said.
The United States was spending 3.7 percent of its GDP on defense but other NATO members were spending far less, he said.
"Unless we invest in defense and security, the reality is that our homelands can be at risk."
French disagree and promote stronger EU forces
Supporters of the European Union's growing military strength oppose the NATO expansion ideas.
French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie took a more skeptical view on NATO's role and stressed the importance of the European Union's growing security capability, reflecting widespread concerns in France that a stronger NATO would mean a weaker EU.
"Let's take care ... not to spill into areas where the competence of other organizations is more suitable. Let's not waste our financial means, which are vital for fighting crises and upgrading our equipment," Alliot-Marie said.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, however, supported "pragmatic" cooperation between NATO and the European Union and sought to calm French fears.
NATO is no global cop says de Hoop Scheffer
"NATO is not a global policeman," he said. Among the new global threats that NATO could help combat, de Hoop Scheffer mentioned the protection of energy supply lines.
NATO's Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer does not want the alliance to act as the world police.
"For reasons that are obvious -- including the potential of terrorists targeting our energy supplies -- it makes sense to me that the Allies should discuss this issue," he said.
Supplies of Russian gas to Ukraine and Georgia have recently been disrupted.
Heads of state, government ministers, top defense officials and security experts gathered in a heavily-guarded five star hotel for the conference, entitled "Restoring the Transatlantic Partnership."