NATO member states all agree that the alliance needs to change. But in which direction? The US has a global agenda ahead of the NATO summit in Chicago on May 20-21 and will be trying to pursuade its allies.
Combating piracy on the coast of Somalia, the aerial bombardment of Colonel Gadhafi's troops in Libya, training the Afghan army - those are just three recent NATO missions that fell outside the parameters for which the alliance was originally conceived.
Summing up the organization's new orientation, Nicholas Burns, America's NATO ambassador from 2001 to 2005, told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in March, "NATO needs to be the world's most capable first responder."
Burns went on to say that countries in the Arab world in particular need to be able to feel they can count on NATO's support.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seconded those sentiments in a speech at a NATO conference of the World Affairs Council in Norfolk, Virginia, in April.
"Of course, NATO is and always will be a transatlantic organisation," Clinton said. "But the problems we face today are not limited to one ocean and neither can our work be."
European and American disagreements
But calls for NATO to expand its focus are being met with scepticism in Europe. The main problem, according to Gordon Adams, Professor of International Relations at American University in Washington, DC, is the nature of European armed forces.
"The Europeans seem more inclined to restrict the scope of their security concerns to Europe and its near neighborhood, while the Americans go global," Adams told DW.
During the bloc's anti-terrorism activities, European partners have focused on peacekeeping efforts, while the US has concentrated on military tasks. Germany, in particular, sees the United Nations, and not NATO, as the proper world policeman.
There is disagreement between the two sides of the Atlantic on the future of NATO's Afghanistan mission beyond 2014. This is going to be a central topic in Chicago, especially as experts predict that the Afghan state will be reliant on foreign help for at least a decade to come.
Land war passé
With the appointment of James G. Stavridis as NATO Supreme Commander in 2009, the bloc was headed, for the first time in its history, by a naval officer.
That shift, says Adams, reflects the fact that NATO no longer sees the primary threat to members coming in a land war in Central Europe.
"It is no longer the expectation that there will be a major ground war between the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union, the United States and the NATO allies," Adams explained. "The types of operations the Americans are engaged in over the last 10 or 15 years have involved some ground forces, but also an awful lot of air capabilities, ground strikes, Cruise missile attacks, naval bombardments, Tomahawk missile launches, things that involve the full panoply of American capabilities."
The US would like to see the larger European members take on more responsibility within the alliance.
"Germany is the largest country in Europe, it has the largest economy, and it is an economic heavyweight," Burns said in March. "It has great influence, but in NATO we do not see that influence in a military and political sense."
There is a measure of understanding that German reticence toward military actions is based on its history, but that message does not always program attitudes in Washington.
"The United States is going to have to learn that it cannot expect the European allies to simply respond to the American definition of security policy and come up with forces and troops," Adams said.
European members spend far smaller proportions of their budgets on the military than the US does, although new NATO rules actually require them to devote at least two percent of GDP to defense. Most members miss this target. Germany, for instance, spent only 1.4 percent of its GDP on the military in 2011.
That's unlikely to change given the current global economic difficulties, and the US has been encouraging its European allies to combine their efforts on projects like the Alliance Ground Surveillance System.
"If each country in NATO had to buy this system it would be prohibitively expensive," Clinton said in April. "But by pooling our resources and sharing the burden, we can provide better security for every ally at a lower cost."
But in order to pursue this strategy the alliance needs new transnational understandings.
"I think NATO is going to think very carefully about how it makes those arrangements, so that if some countries decide not to develop some national capability, that they would in reasonable circumstances have access to those capabilities in their partner countries," Steven Pifer, Director of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institute, told DW.
The hope is that European members will be able to take care of security on their own continent without US help, thus freeing up American forces for other tasks around the world.
That is one of the goals NATO members states will be working toward when their leaders meet in Chicago.
Author: Christine Bergmann/jc
Editor: Rob Mudge