05/19/2012 05:17 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2012

Flailing NATO? Big Questions Surround Obama's Showcase Chicago Summit

There's a lot of confusion about the ballyhooed NATO Summit in Chicago, intended as a big boost to Obama's geopolitical leadership, showcased in his hometown.

Questions about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, founded 62 years ago in the early days of the Cold War with the late Soviet Union and its aligned bloc, have abounded for decades. Especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, which removed NATO's founding rationale for existing.

But they are getting very loud again. Both in the wake of NATO's success in Libya -- which pointed up how far behind the rest of NATO with respect to US capability its European members have fallen -- and in the face of the looming debacle in Afghanistan.

Here are some big outstanding questions about NATO's future. We'll see how many get answers in Chicago.

* How will Pakistan play in the big discussion on AfPak strategy?

For months, in the wake of deadly US air strikes on a Pakistani border outpost, Pakistan refused to participate in the NATO Summit. It also refused to allow NATO supply routes for the Afghan War to operate.

Now Pakistan's President Asif Zardari has accepted Obama's offer to take part. Will there be better cooperation with the country which is a lynchpin to any solution to the Afghan War? Will Pakistan re-open supply routes? And how much will that cost?

* Are countries beginning a rush to the exits in Afghanistan?

Australia, which is not a member state of NATO, but is one of America's staunchest allies -- having agreed late last year to joint basing with US forces in Darwin as Obama moves to shift geostrategic focus to the Pacific Basin -- is going to pull its forces out of Afghanistan a year early.

How many of America's other allies will do the same?

* How will NATO members advance technologically when their budgets being tightened?

Even before the wave of austerity that has swept across Europe, military budgets were mostly declining.

Though the US followed the lead of other nations in Libya, it was US forces which provided the necessary value-added in surveillance, intelligence, refueling, targeting, and command and control needed to make the air war a success.

It was France and Britain that pushed for the Libyan intervention, along with major prodding from Gulf Arab states, but the mission would likely have failed with the US "leading from behind" as one unnamed Obama advisor famously put it.

How will NATO handle relations with groups that wish to ally, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, and with groups that may be rivals, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and its members such as Russia and China?

The Arab states in the Gulf Cooperation Council took a very active role in the Libyan intervention. They have a very pronounced wariness of Iran. How will NATO relate with the GCC? And if there is an alliance, formal or de facto, does that draw NATO into the GCC's struggles?

* Speaking of which, does NATO have a unified position on Iran?

Negotiations are taking place over the next week between Iran and the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and between Iran and the permanent five UN Security Council members (US, UK, France, Russia, China) and Germany.

The European Union, which has a big overlap with NATO, has taken tough new sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, which are already having a big reported effect on its petrochemical exports. Iran"s petrochemical exports have plunged nearly 90 percent in the last two weeks, according to traders and shipping data, with Iranian failure to get insurance to transport cargoes due to EU sanctions. The sanctions banning European insurers and reinsurers from covering tankers carrying Iranian petrochemicals came into effect at the start of May. Similar EU measures aimed at crude and oil products will start in July.

But what about the military strike long threatened by Israel, which may, or may not, be more likely with Israel sloughing off expected election this fall in favor of a new national unity governemtn?

* Does NATO have a unified position on missile defense?

Russia, again resurgent after the fall of the Soviet Union, is a big conundrum for NATO. The alliance developed plans in the Bush/Cheney years for a missile shield, ostensibly to counter a threat from Iran which does not yet actually exist.

But Russian leaders believe the proposed shield is aimed at them. And that belief is furthered by NATO turning down Russia's offer to participate in the missile shield project.

Since Europe is heavily dependent on Russian energy, how strongly do NATO members feel about the missile shield?

* Does NATO have a unified position on its own expansion?

Russia also has taken great offense at NATO expansion up to its borders. The rush to expand NATO was on in the Clinton and Bush/Cheney years. Lately, it's seemed to pause.

Obama has undertaken a "re-set" of relations with Russia, which flourished for a time, helped in part by his easy relations with President Dmitry Medvedev. He has no such relations with Vladimir Putin, Medvedev's former boss, now back as president of the Russian Federation after a four-year stint at prime minister.

As I noted three years ago here on the Huffington Post, when Obama visited Moscow, Putin had Obama come to his sumptuous dacha in a forest outside Moscow. They discussed ballistic missile defense, and Russian dislike of America establishing bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, NATO expansion, and the question of containing Iran, Russia's decades-long friend of a sort (and centuries-long rival).

The two hour-plus meeting went long -- in part because much of it was taken up by a Putin monologue -- and Obama ended up late for his major address of the week at the New Economic School back in Moscow.

Having lectured Obama and made him late for the first time ever for one of his major addresses, Putin went over to visit a famous motorcycle club. Which was pointedly headed to a big motorcycle rally in Ukraine, a country which Putin was intent on keeping out of NATO, where pro-US politicians lost the subsequent election.

There really is no shortage of fundamental questions surrounding NATO. It will be interesting to see how Obama spins up the impression of a success.

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