Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says now is the time for NATO to "renew its vows" to provide security to its members in an increasingly dangerous world.
Albright was speaking today at the opening of an international conference in Prague aimed at redefining the Western alliance's mission for the 21st century.
The former top U.S. diplomat is chairing a panel of experts charged with drafting a new NATO strategic concept that will be considered at the alliance's 2010 summit later this year in Lisbon. The document, once approved, will outline NATO's core priorities.
Speaking in Prague's ornate Czernin Palace, which houses the Czech Foreign Ministry, Albright noted that it has been more than a decade since the alliance updated its core mission statement.
"The last strategic concept was done in 1999, which was before the new countries were active members of NATO and before 9/11," Albright said.
"And so I think that with an alliance that is 60 years old -- some of us are slightly older -- it requires a kind of rededication, a renewal of vows."
The overhaul of NATO's strategic concept comes at a time when new members of the alliance, mostly former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe, have become increasingly anxious about a newly assertive Russia -- and apprehensive about the trans-Atlantic alliance's ability to protect them.
Article 5 Jitters
Specifically, there is growing concern, particularly in Poland and the Baltic states, that NATO's eastern borders remain largely unprotected.
There are also worries in Eastern Europe that Article 5 of the alliance charter, which obligates the entire alliance to come to the defense of a member who is attacked, would not be honored should Russia move against one of its former Warsaw Pact vassals.
In July, a group of prominent Eastern European intellectuals and former officials -- including former Czech and Polish Presidents Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa -- published an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama expressing their fears that NATO has become weaker as Russia gets stronger and more assertive.
"NATO today seems weaker than when we joined. In many of our countries it is perceived as less and less relevant -- and we feel it," they wrote. "Although we are full members, people question whether NATO would be willing and able to come to our defense in some future crises."
Earlier today, Alexandr Vondra, a member of the Czech Senate and former deputy prime minister, said new members needed "a new affirmation...that the commitment on joint defense is taken seriously."
Albright sought to allay these fears, reiterating the importance and reliability of Article 5 while stressing the importance of improving relations with Moscow.
"There is no question that an important concept is reassurance, that Article 5 is central to the NATO alliance, and at the same time it is very important to also reset our relations with Russia," Albright said.
Old And New Missions
There is also unease among Eastern Europe's NATO members about the alliance's new focus on "out of area" missions, like the one in Afghanistan. Some officials fear that these missions will mean there are too few resources left to fulfill the alliance's core task of protecting its members.
At a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Bratislava in October, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen sought to assuage those fears, saying that "NATO's core task was, is, and will remain the defense of our territory and our populations. For our alliance to endure, all members must feel that they are safe and secure."
At the same meeting, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow said NATO's new strategic concept will need to "strike the right balance among old and new missions."
Albright stressed, however, that NATO's out-of-area missions are vital, saying they help create "the stability that is necessary in the 21st century not only for the members of NATO directly but for the other countries."
She also stressed that NATO needs to adjust to a rapidly changing world.
"We realize that we are dealing with the most powerful military alliance in the history of the world that in fact has served an immensely important purpose [and] that the world, as it evolves in the 21st century, will continue to need NATO, and that NATO does need to adapt itself to the new situation," Albright said.