NATO is doing far more and far less than it should be doing today. That paradox lies at the heart of the question facing the Alliance's leaders as they gather next week in Bucharest: Will the Alliance, established to fight the Cold War, survive the 21st century?
At a recent NATO senior commanders' conference, you could smell the testosterone: 64,000 allied soldiers are currently deployed on three continents - the highest op tempo in its history. Yes, there is plenty of grousing about troop commitments and caveats but the "facts on the ground" are that 26 NATO nations are operating together in a wide variety of military contingencies.
The largest group is in Afghanistan, where 46,000 troops from 26 NATO countries and 13 non-NATO "partners" are participating in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The second largest group is in the Balkans, where NATO maintains 16,000 troops in Kosovo. And NATO is supporting a small training mission in Iraq with 165 military personnel, providing support to the African Union in anticipation of a possible need for airlift for Somalia or Darfur, and conducting an ongoing Indian Ocean operation to deter maritime terrorism which involves allied naval assets alongside ships from Russia and Ukraine.
Doing real things together keeps the machinery of the alliance greased. When soldiers are in the field they focus on achieving practical, tangible results. And when they do it in a multinational context they inevitably develop professional bonds and habits of cooperation that endure beyond the immediate deployment.
But while much good is being done, NATO is actually doing far less than it should be doing. The current pace of operations creates a crisis-like environment in which the urgent crowds out the important. For several years, NATO's political and military leaders have had literally no time for strategic discussion or planning.
As a consequence, NATO is not investing in its future by doing the careful bricklaying that is required to sustain a multinational alliance. Allied leaders have continued to base commitments on past understandings but now need to renew the effort to reach a joint threat assessment, set allied expectations for behavior, and prepare militarily for future scenarios.
This is all the more urgently required in today's security environment - the polar opposite of the relatively static Cold War climate. While it is true that the fluidity and unpredictability of the early 21st century international system can make it harder to sustain alliances, this state of flux makes the benefits that an alliance offers more compelling than ever.
Yet many of the nearly 875 million citizens of allied countries have no idea how much NATO is doing today or why it protects their security. Among European populations, there is a growing lack of enthusiasm for defense spending and far-flung military commitments. For example, polls show that 86 percent of Germans believe the Bundeswehr should not be fighting anywhere. Because public sentiment matters in democracies, the erosion of domestic support for defense investments and deployments - especially in key countries - could undermine Alliance cohesion and lead to NATO'S slow demise.
At Bucharest, these differences will be papered over. Most of the effort will focus on the short-term goal of generating new troop commitments for the fight in Afghanistan. But this painful process should be a pointed reminder that NATO is running on empty.
Looking ahead, the next American administration will need to work overtime to achieve consensus on what this alliance actually does and why NATO matters to its citizenry. It will have a very short initial window of opportunity: between November 5, 2008 and a 60th anniversary summit that will take place in April 2009.
In preparation for that event, the U.S. should initiate and lead a serious strategic discussion with a view toward generating a new mission statement - a "Transatlantic Declaration" - that sets forth the purposes and goals of NATO for the next decade.
At the outset of this process, the most important thing that the American participants can do is to listen: Listen to the views and perspectives of allies who feel that they have been ignored or discounted because of the U.S. focus on the "global war on terror" as manifested in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The second thing the U.S. will need to do is engage the allies in a rigorous conversation about the broader security challenges they face, both collectively and individually. The "A" list includes: countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; managing Russia in a fashion that neither coddles nor isolates it; responding to the rise of China as a global player; containing and defeating Islamic extremism; and achieving energy security along in concert with addressing climate change.
To maximize Alliance effectiveness and minimize inter-allied friction, the United States also urgently needs to resolve the dysfunctional relationship between NATO and the European Union. The potential synergy between the two is described by NATO hands as the "comprehensive approach" in which NATO and the EU - along with other potential contributors such as the UN and NGOs - each concentrate on their distinctive competencies. It is only in this context that American calls for significantly enhancing European defense capabilities and increasing interoperability among NATO forces are likely to be heeded.
So while allied leaders haggle over commitments to the fight in Afghanistan, NATO needs to keep its eyes on the strategic prize: an alliance that can thrive in an increasingly messy world.