Will Obama defy NATO's expectations?

BRUSSELS — In France, it's good to be an Obama.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrived in Strasbourg today, fresh from the G20 summit in London. They were met by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni.

Several thousand cheering French were also on hand to welcome the Americans to a key NATO summit to be held here and in the German border town of Kehl over the next two days.

But as the topic switches from the global economy to the future of this important transatlantic alliance,  the American president is likely to hear less cheering from allies.

Still, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer insists there is “much to celebrate” as the bloc marks its 60th year of existence at the summit co-hosted by France and Germany.

“An alliance that started as 14 short treaty articles has evolved into the world’s premier security organization,” de Hoop Scheffer proclaims in a summit statement on the NATO website, “and contributed to an unprecedented period of peace, freedom and prosperity for all its citizens.”

But the present period is also “unprecedented” for the difficulties the bloc faces, both externally — grappling with the resilient Taliban in Afghanistan and an unpredictable Russia — and internally, with disagreements over enlargement, the bloc’s sphere of engagement and a replacement for the outgoing de Hoop Scheffer.

While President Obama was expected to continue the usual U.S. tactic of cajoling allies into sending more resources to Afghanistan — de Hoop Scheffer even joked that leaders should expect their phones to ring right after Obama’s inauguration — that’s not going to happen this week. Obama wants willing volunteers.

This change of tactic is a conscientious effort, a senior U.S. official in Brussels explained during a briefing, to divert from the past practice of the “U.S. telling people what to do.” That led allies to focus on whether they agreed with what Washington wanted. This, he said, diverted attention from the ultimate objective and fomented controversy between the U.S. and its allies.

Instead, Obama will detail the new U.S. strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan in his address to counterparts at the summit, and will then wait for offers of help, the U.S. official said. He also mentioned that some countries have already promised increases in their commitments and he hopes more pledges will be made at the summit — particularly in help for training the Afghan police.

In the public eye, the 26 leaders of member states (a number that will jump to 28 at the beginning of the summit with the formal admission of Albania and Croatia) are expected to launch the drafting of a new document outlining the way forward for an organization whose raison d’etre at its 1949 founding was to keep the Soviet Union at bay.

With the last such formulation of NATO’s core mission written in 1999 at 19 members, de Hoop Scheffer insists that the alliance embark immediately on revising its strategy so that it “can demonstrate its continuing relevance and vitality.”

The senior U.S. official, who would only speak on background, agreed such a rewrite is long overdue.

“This is to get NATO to focus on the real world,” said the official. He added that he finds the bloc “best prepared to deal with the least likely threats to its security — which is a conventional military attack launched by a state — and least well-prepared to deal with the most likely threats to our security, which are things that happen every day, like terrorist attacks, cyber attacks, energy disruptions … These are areas where NATO has a lot more work to do to figure out how protect our societies.”

NATO also has to convince the leaders of member states and the voters they represent that the increasingly high percentage of operations it undertakes outside of the North Atlantic region — the war in Afghanistan, for example — contribute to their own security and are worth a large investment. While the U.S. public generally accepts that argument, “the allies have a very different sense of urgency,” Jamie Shea, NATO’s director of policy planning, said recently.

Meanwhile, it looks like the announcement of the new secretary general is on hold. The nomination of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen remains stuck with Turkey, where leaders say he is an unacceptable figure to be the organization’s main liaison with predominantly Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

NATO officials said Monday they cannot predict whether Turkey will drop its objections by the Friday night head-of-state dinner, where the consensus would have been formalized.

While these conversations take place behind closed doors, outside the summit there will be reminders that NATO is not viewed universally as the keeper of peace and values. Roel Stynen, a spokesman for the Belgian-based group Vredesactie or “Action for Peace” said thousands of activists from his organization and others will appear outside the summit locations to try to block the delegates and cause general traffic chaos.

Stynen acknowledged his group’s ultimate aim — for NATO to disband — is unlikely to occur. But he welcomed the bloc’s identity crisis, hoping it prevents further military interventions: “The more disagreement, the better!” 

Editor's note: This story was updated April 3 to reflect more recent news.

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