This article appears in the September/October 2006 publication of Foreign Affairs
With little fanfare—and even less notice—the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has gone global. Created to protect postwar Western Europe from the Soviet Union, the alliance is now seeking to bring stability to other parts of the world. In the process, it is extending both its geographic reach and the range of its operations. In recent years, it has played peacekeeper in Afghanistan, trained security forces in Iraq, and given logistical support to the African Union’s mission in Darfur. It assisted the tsunami relief effort in Indonesia and ferried supplies to victims of Hurricane Katrina in the United States and to those of a massive earthquake in Pakistan.
NATO’s expanded ambit is a result of the new global politics that emerged after the Cold War. Today, terrorists born in Riyadh and trained in Kandahar hatch deadly plots in Hamburg to fly airplanes into buildings in New York. Such interconnection means that developments in one place affect the security, prosperity, and well-being of citizens everywhere. NATO has recognized that the best (and at times the only) defense against such remote dangers is to tackle them at their source. Such forward defense often requires a global military reach: helicopters to deliver supplies to disaster zones and evacuate the injured; command, control, and reconnaissance capabilities to sustain peacekeeping missions; and experienced military officers to train local security forces. As the world’s premier multinational military organization, comprising many prosperous nations with a vested interest in maintaining global stability, NATO is uniquely suited to meeting such demands.
At the same time, with U.S. forces stretched thin in Iraq and European states failing to invest enough to participate significantly in operations far away from home, NATO is struggling to fulfill even its current commitments. And while the alliance has increasingly recognized the necessity of operating far from Europe—or “out of area,” in NATO parlance—it has been limited by the requirement that its member states be North American or European.
NATO leaders are expected to address this problem at a summit in Riga, Latvia, in November. They will consider a proposal to redefine the alliance’s role by deepening relations with countries beyond the transatlantic community, starting with partners such as Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. A key part of this effort is the proposal by the United States and the United Kingdom to forge a “global partnership” between NATO and non-European states that will provide a forum for expanded dialogue with other major democratic countries.
Although this initiative is a good first step, it does not go far enough. NATO’s next move must be to open its membership to any democratic state in the world that is willing and able to contribute to the fulfillment of NATO’s new responsibilities. Only a truly global alliance can address the global challenges of the day.