05/17/2012 02:10 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2012

A Chicago Road to Perdition for NATO?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will hold meetings on May 20 and 21 in Chicago. This will be the first time an American city other than Washington will host a NATO summit. Let's hope that the Chicago Summit will be long remembered but not only for this reason. If presented as an "implementation summit" at which the alliance's leaders could assess the progress of the program agreed during the Lisbon Summit in 2010 and designed to speed up NATO's adaptation to the new security challenge, the Chicago Summit may in fact be an historical moment for the future of the alliance and for the transatlantic relationship.

More clearly than ever, the United States has indicated that its own perspective on global security is now changing. Indeed, in the strategic guidance released by the Obama administration in early January, Washington makes it crystal clear that U.S. defence policy is shifting away from the North Atlantic towards Asia. This is quite a revolution as since the Second World War, Europe has been at the core of Washington's security concerns. However, increasingly, its attention is absorbed by challenges emerging from China.

China's increasing military power based on growing defence spending is the principal reason that the U.S. announced that Asia will be the Pentagon's priority at a time when forces in Europe are being sharply cut this shift in its military strategy this year that treats. As a matter of fact, Asia is set to outspend Europe on defence this year for the first time in modern history as European nations cut military budgets. Asian states spent $262 billion on defence in 2011 compared to the European NATO members' expenditure of just under $270 billion. Moreover, the new U.S. strategy is not anymore based on the ability given to the U.S. military to fight simultaneously against two "capable" enemies but instead that Washington would fight a conflict in one region while simply "denying the objectives of -- or imposing unacceptable costs on -- an opportunistic aggressor in a second region". This is an unambiguous message according which the Europeans could perhaps not rely on Washington being on their side next time a security threat arises on their doorstep.

Washington's approach to the Libya conflict this year may have also been an important signal about its changing priorities. The United States backed the call for intervention by the United Kingdom and France, but at an early stage, Washington stunned its allies by leaning back, leaving European nations to use their military fighters and helicopters to conduct ground attacks. The Obama administration's decision on Libya to "lead from behind" exposed Europe's lack of will and capability when it came to conducting a humanitarian intervention in its own back yard.

The decline in European defence spending has concerned the U.S. and NATO. What this change in U.S. policy must also do is prompt Europe to think harder about its own capabilities. For the past half century, Europe has assumed that the U.S. will rush to its aid in any crisis. That assumption no longer holds. In Libya last year, the U.S. warned that it expects European nations to take the lead when crises erupt in their own backyard. Yet Europe's reaction to that warning -- and to the U.S. shift towards Asia -- has thus far been disappointing.

The NATO summit in Chicago in May is being seen as an important test of whether the alliance's European members can mitigate their collective military decline by pooling and sharing capabilities. Many experts, however, doubt that Europe will be willing to address the issue unless it first experiences an unexpected external shock in the security sphere.

Missile defense is a perfect example of the difficult relationship between the Unites States and most of NATO's European Members. During the Lisbon summit in 2010, NATO governments declared defence against ballistic missile to be an alliance-wide project on the basis that all member states will contribute. For the time being, while Washington has already begun to build up a missile defence capability based on naval assets in the Mediterranean Sea with the intent to cover all NATO countries, some of the European members have offered their territory for the deployment of radars and interceptors or the integration of their sensors and radars within the future NATO system. This demonstrates the discrepancy between the United States which is pushing for a fairer cost-sharing and NATO members which are providing cost-neutral contributions. The actual budget cut in Europe can only allow to think that the missile defence will remain a purely U.S. effort for a long time.

In Chicago, NATO members must also meet the challenge set by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance's secretary-general, to go for "smart defence". That buzzword translates into encourages fiscally-constrained countries to pool and share assets and forces in order to develop complementary capabilities to avoid duplication and consequently to allow preserving the alliance's strength. The new Obama doctrine makes such pooling imperative but NATO members currently appear to be nowhere near meeting the challenge.

Fogh Rasmussen's idea is eminently sensible. But early signs are that he will find it hard to get NATO nations to produce serious examples of defence co-operation. Three reasons explain the current failure of the "smart defence" initiative.

First, getting governments to focus on enhanced defence collaboration right now proves uneasy. For Western political leaders, the main issue is the crisis of the euro and the global economy. After all, the economic crisis is arguably the biggest threat to Western security today. Second, governments only share defence capabilities if they can trust one another to deploy them when needed. After Libya that trust is in short supply. Britain and France, the two main protagonists in the mission, are deepening strategic collaboration but Germany and Poland angered the allies by staying out of the Libya mission. French and British defence chiefs wonder how they can possibly commit themselves to sharing capabilities with Berlin. Above all, many governments do not want to relinquish the grip they have on their own military-industrial complex. It is thus possible that governments would rather have independent but inefficient armies than integrated and capable ones. They want their own armed forces and their own defence industrial base. That made sense when their militaries were large, but makes no sense anymore because they can only deploy small numbers of troops.

Can the nations of Europe begin to reverse their collective decline as a global military power? Not in the short-term. A change will only come the day that European leaders reconsider the role of hard power and understand that the former is a key asset in the competition for influence and power in the 21st century. So far, Europe has been way too over reliant on soft power. Without a real common European foreign policy, there will always be limits to how far European states are willing to share their capabilities with other member states that might not be keen to go to war. It may also be that some external shock will be needed to prompt the Europeans to get their act together more seriously on defence co-operation.

Afghanistan will also be an important priority in Chicago as NATO has decided to withdraw its combat forces by 2014. To do so in good conditions, the alliance needs to train enough Afghan security forces to ensure the stability in the country. The real question here is what will happen to Afghanistan after NATO's departure. NATO needs to ensure that the international support for Afghanistan will continue after the withdrawal if the coalition does not want its decade-long blood efforts to vanish under the threat of the Taliban. Having a clear consensus on this item may not look as easy as it seems, not to mention the question of contribution to be brought by each country.

Next on the summit agenda are the traditional issues related to the Russia-NATO relationship. In a nutshell, the alliance's Eastern European states still express concerns about Moscow while Russia's harsh statement vis-à-vis its former satellites do not help pacifying the relationship. Moscow's lack of political and economic modernization over the past decades associated to the challenges to Vladimir Putin's legitimacy as President may well be tempted to divert the internal pressure against the current regime by becoming increasingly bullish and assertive in the international realm. The common missile defence system project would undoubtedly create tensions between Moscow and the alliance as Washington and other NATO's members are unlikely to grant Russia the power to jointly decide with the alliance whether or not to intercept a missile. A warming of the relationship between NATO and Russia is not to be expected at the Chicago summit.

As if the list of disagreement was not long enough, nuclear deterrence is also a crucial issue on which the allies are not aligned. Clear splits had emerged among allies in the run-up to the November 2010 summit in Lisbon. Here, the alliance is divided between the member states which insist that American nuclear weapons be withdrawn from Europe, while other allies perceive these weapons as a crucial symbol of Washington's commitment to Europe's security. NATO, however, has agreed that nuclear issues will be addressed by the Alliance as a whole, not unilaterally. Expectations on this issue for the summit should be modest. NATO leaders will almost certainly reiterate the need for transparency on American and Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons, call for these weapons to be relocated away from the NATO-Russia border, and restate that those weapons should be included in the next round of U.S.-Russian nuclear negotiations.

NATO has proven effective in all its missions, whether deterring the USSR during the Cold War, engaging in wars (Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya), or enlarging to Eastern Europe. With Libya and Afghanistan soon behind us, NATO activity will soon be at its lowest since the early 1990s with only a mission in Kosovo force that would probably shrink in the near future. The alliance is somehow struggling to be relevant. Perhaps political leaders perceive that there is no more compelling strategic need for NATO, thus explaining why the future of the alliance and its resources does not appear to be among the highest political priority in the transatlantic agenda. Coming five months before the U.S. presidential election, the Obama administration has a special incentive to make the meeting a showcase of his diplomatic savvy. However, the Chicago summit may prove to be disappointing in terms of deliverables but more than ever it raises the real questions which answers are crucial for the transatlantic security partnership. Put before their contradictions, political leaders need to unanimously agree on the compelling rationale for NATO's raison d'être. Otherwise, it may well be the case that the alliance, which so far strategically succeeded in all its missions and is the most concrete symbol of transatlantic security, would gradually disappear with Chicago being the first act.