- - Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The May NATO summit in Chicago is approaching fast, and the expectations for that being an historic one is fading. That is fine; NATO summits do not always have to be spectacular. At times it is important to just take stock and assess the strategic situation. The opportunity, however, should not be missed to raise some very relevant issues. There should be a serious debate about the lack of consensus between the United States and its European allies about the threats in the decades ahead. There must also be an exchange about falling military budgets in Europe and the consequences associated with it.

Europeans cannot keep up with the U.S. in the pace of military modernization. But they actually have far greater assets than meets the eye. The real problem is these assets look even smaller given the political constraints of “bearable losses” and the lack of willingness by some members. NATO has become a de facto two-tier alliance with some members doing the heavy lifting and others basically taking upon themselves only bare minimum roles. The financial crisis has clearly affected budgets, but it is also a good excuse to cover up unwillingness to engage in operations. NATO has thus become a blend of risk-takers and free-riders.

The summit should discuss the future of the whole concept of partnership. It is almost inconceivable that any future operation would be conducted by NATO alone. NATO needs - and should build - strong partnerships that can add value to NATO’s own activities. The organization’s recent engagement in Libya, for example, was assisted by many partners, including from the Arab League. In Afghanistan, NATO is joined in common cause with partners around the globe. It is unlikely ever to become a global alliance. But where it does engage, it will need - and should welcome - global partners. Partnership for Peace, formed in 1993, has been a magnificent tool to prepare countries for membership or bring partners as close to the alliance as possible. It brought into the community countries that are not ready to or not wanting to join the alliance. Among the latter, there are ones that are fully interoperable with NATO, meeting all the criteria of membership, but are not able to or willing to take the big leap because of political circumstances and history.

As NATO considers the next steps in its evolution, the Partnership for Peace needs an overhaul. It should be redesigned to expand NATO’s ability to work with many partners, even those beyond Europe. The concept of “global partners,” however, should not undermine the particularly strong partnerships NATO has developed with specific countries.

NATO’s relationship with Sweden and Finland is particularly important in this regard. Both countries could join the alliance today if they wanted to. They deserve special attention. They are a huge asset to NATO politically, militarily and culturally. It is not my intention to make a case for Swedish or Finnish membership, as the process of whether they want to join will be and should be organic and not driven from the outside. Sweden’s recent participation in the Libya campaign, however, underscores the fact that some of NATO’s partners are more willing and more capable of contributing to allied missions than some of the full members. The Swedish sorties during the war demonstrated the fact that its air force is fully compatible and interoperable with those of NATO. Their participation was seamless.

As part of reinventing the alliance, serious thoughts must be given to a clearer differentiation between partners. The case of Sweden is special but not unique. Some of the organization’s members argue that if Sweden wants to be treated as kind of an “observer member,” then it could just as well join. In this argument, you are either in or out, no membership or full membership. In this case, though, it is in the interest of the alliance to find a way to appreciate the Swedish efforts, and the importance of the capabilities Swedes bring to the table in a regional, European and trans-Atlantic context alike.

Arrangements must be made for these willing and able partners to have access to NATO planning and intelligence-sharing on a continous basis. In times of crisis and operation, the availability of these assets should be immediate and full.

As much a matter of practicality as symbolism, when NATO builds its new headquarters, Sweden and other allies in this special group should have their offices right next to those of their allies. Perhaps the only difference in their access to NATO’s facilities should be the color of the badges they wear.

Andras Simonyi is a former Hungarian ambassador to the United States and to NATO.