When the leaders of the North Atlantic alliance wrapped up their Chicago summit two years ago and started preparing for their 65th anniversary meeting in 2014, they could have asked John Travolta to provide the soundtrack, "Stayin' Alive."
At that point he alliance looked like a Cold War organization in search of a mission two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union. And all the while, it expanded its membership to the east, closer to Russia, cut its military forces in the west and went into combat thousands of miles away from Europe, in Afghanistan.
Giving the alliance a renewed sense of purpose may not have been what Russian President Vladimir Putin had in mind when he seized Crimea and menaced eastern Ukraine. But at their upcoming summit in Cardiff Wales, the United States and its 27 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partners will have shelved the idea of bringing in new members or fighting "out of area" missions and will focus instead on convincing both NATO's Eastern European members, and Russia, that the alliance's founding doctrine of an attack-on-one is an attack-on-all is more than a hollow promise.
The change of heart and policies was best described by Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak discussing a meeting with his British counterparts. He told the American Interest magazine, "We joked that in a way Mr. Putin should be given credit for setting the agenda for the upcoming NATO summit."
That thought has been echoed by analysts at Washington think tanks briefing journalists in advance of the September 4-5 summit in Cardiff, and a visit by President Obama to Estonia right before.
"NATO was searching for a purpose," said Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies "and was undergoing a significant identity crisis."
Jeremy Shapiro, a former Obama Administration official now at the Brookings Institution, said the Russia-Ukraine crisis "has settled the ‘whither NATO’ debate."
If anything, the problems facing NATO members now look overflowing, between Ukraine and the spreading violence in the Middle East. And some issues from the past very much linger, including whether the U.S. and its allies will leave behind a residual training force after their combat troops depart Afghanistan at the end of this year. The 13-year conflict against Taliban guerrillas has cost the lives of more than 3,000 NATO soldiers.
In a reflection of the changing tableau, Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko will attend the NATO sessions while Afghanistan will not be at the table, in part because the choice of a new president is still undecided in Kabul and the mercurial outgoing president Hamid Karzai chose not to attend.
If the Ukraine crisis has given NATO a new sense of purpose, the analysts said, there is still considerable debate over how to fulfill it. As Shapiro explained, in a three-sided Western strategy on Ukraine, the U.S. and European Union take the lead on imposing economic sanctions against Russia, while assistance to Ukraine is handled by individual governments and EU. NATO's role, he said, is to provide reassurance to new NATO members in Eastern and Central Europe, who feel threatened by an aggressive Russia that has promised to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers beyond its borders.
As the analysts pointed out, reassurance is partly psychological and political as well as military. At the heart of all three is NATO's Article 5 that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all, requiring a unified response. Article 5 has been invoked only once, after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The analysts agreed that President Obama and his counterparts need to give a constant and strong reassertion of Article 5 in the coming week, not only to assure the Eastern Europeans but to convince President Putin that it’s more than a hollow promise.
Just as EU members have been divided over sanctions depending on their economic and energy ties with Russia, NATO's European members certainly have different views of the Russian threat depending on their geography and history. The analysts agreed that Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia feel a threat to their security that their western allies to not necessarily share. How these differences are resolved or papered over will be important outcomes of the NATO summit.
The military issue is how far NATO will go in pre-positioning equipment and troops in Poland and the Baltic nations. Already, American and Western European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel have come up with a linguistic sleight of hand to get around a 1997 promise to Russia not to station NATO troops permanently on their border. The new words are "persistent presence," which means rotating American and European soldiers, ships and aircraft in Poland and the Baltics, including a contingent of 150 U.S. soldiers in Estonia. As the analysts reminded, these deployments represent shuffling of diminished forces. For instance, a U.S. presence of 300,000 troops based in Europe during the Cold War is now down to 70,000.
By whatever name, extending forces to those “front line” countries raises the question, "who will pay for it?" said Shapiro. Even the U.S., not to speak of the financially pressed Europeans, have been cutting defense spending. Of NATO's 28 members, only the U.S., Britain, Estonia and Greece spend at least two percent of their GDP on defense, and much of the Greek effort is directed at Turkey, another NATO member.
Just as tricky, is what kind of forces to deploy. Not large Cold War style conventional armies, said CSIS analyst Kathleen Hicks, a former Pentagon official, but rapid reaction forces capable of responding to "the little green men," the increasingly well-trained, financed and equipped Russian special forces that seized Crimea without bloodshed. And as well, she added, NATO needs to come up with a doctrine and plan for combating Russian cyber attacks on its members.
Somewhat surprisingly, the spreading violence and terrorism on Europe's Middle East doorstep will not be on the official NATO agenda. Conley said outgoing NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen wants to keep the focus on Russia and Ukraine and certainly away from anything involving Iraq, which seriously fractured NATO a decade ago.
The analysts said that the leaders will spend considerable time discussing the Middle East and the ISIS terrorist organization that is drawing hundreds of recruits from European nations. But the conversations among ministers and intelligence officials will be on the sidelines, not at the center of the NATO sessions.