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NATO plans overhaul to better combat global threats

Czech Republic and other, newer member countries worry that their security may fall by the wayside.

Former U.S. State Secretary and head of an international panel that is working to update NATO's mission statement, Madeleine Albright attends the International Conference "NATO Strategic Concept: Response to Our Concerns" in Prague, Jan. 12, 2010. (David W Cerny/Reuters)

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — As NATO reviews its mission and purpose, some newer members worry that the alliance's most valued safeguard, the commitment that an attack on one is an attack on all, is not inviolable.

But former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — who is leading the NATO review — said last month that there was no cause for concern. She candidly reaffirmed the alliance's commitment to Article 5, which guarantees members' security.

“There is no question that an important concept is reassurance; that Article 5 is central to the NATO alliance,” she said, after a January conference with dozens of Czech representatives.

When asked why she thought the Czechs and others were worried, Albright danced gingerly around the question. “Partially there has not been enough discussion about how Article 5 works in an enlarged alliance. With an alliance that is 60 years old … it requires a kind of rededication, a renewal of vows, so to speak.”

The last time NATO reassessed its operations was in 1999. Not only has the alliance taken in a host of new members since then, but the nature of security threats in a rapidly changing world has also shifted considerably since that time. The overall aim of the strategic concept review, according to Albright, “is to examine every aspect of NATO's operations and plans within the context of an ever-changing globe.”

Tomas Weiss, a defense expert at the Europeum public policy center in Prague, traced the unease of NATO's newer members to former President George W. Bush’s response to the 9/11 attack on the United States. Even though NATO’s most powerful member had been attacked, the U.S. refused to invoke Article 5 for the purpose of leading a retaliatory military attack on Afghanistan.

“[This] was the first thing that meant, to some, that the U.S. actually doesn’t see the Article 5 as the core of their security; because when they really got attacked they didn’t use it,” he said, adding that technically they used it but only to have NATO’s “AWACS aircraft to guard the U.S. air space.”

The military invasion of Afghanistan was a U.S.-led coalition of the willing, not a NATO-led response.

The Bush administration again raised alarm bells among some NATO members in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, when Turkey’s attempt to invoke Article 4 was stone-walled for weeks. Article 4 gives NATO members the right to call for consultations with alliance members when they fear possible attack.

The government in Ankara feared Baghdad might respond to a U.S.-led attack on Iraq with a counter-attack against Turkey, a fellow NATO member with a shared border. But since Turkey refused to participate in the invasion of Iraq the Bush administration said they didn’t need a consultation. Even though a meeting was subsequently convened to assuage Turkey, “It raised new doubts about whether NATO actually still provides security or not,“ Weiss said.