NEW YORK -- For years, global policy-watchers have speculated on the direction NATO will take as Cold War-era divisions give way to a new range of 21st century alliances and security concerns.
This week, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright and a group of foreign policy experts addressed that issue in a new report titled "NATO 2020: Assured Security; Dynamic Engagement.
Albright, speaking on May 27 at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, outlined a new strategic concept for NATO. Her remarks addressed the question on many minds: Is there a place in the alliance for Russia?
Russia views the expansion of NATO, particularly into Eastern and Central Europe, as one of the major threats to its own security. But Albright said no one should be excluded from NATO -- not even Russia.
"The question is whether they want to be members of NATO,” Albright said.” I think that you have to want to be members, you also have to be a functioning democracy, and you have to make sure that there are not a variety of conflicts that are brought into the alliance. I think that's one of the big deals when new countries in Central and Eastern Europe came in. There were some of their conflicts that have been endemic -- the Romanian-Hungarian, various conflicts that they had to deal with."
The group of experts assigned high priority to cooperation between NATO and Russia, including the continued revival of the NATO-Russia Council, which recently resumed work after an angry break following the Russia-Georgia war in 2008.
"The NATO-Russia Council provides a very good way to have dialogue,” Albright said. “We felt that there were things that we should work on in common: counterterrorism, drug trafficking, climate. A variety of issues that we had in common. And specifically, in this report, we suggested there'll be work together on missile defense."Lessons From Afghanistan
Some of the discussion focused on NATO's changing role and what can be learned from Afghanistan. The ongoing NATO operations in Afghanistan, launched after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, were the first major military test for NATO far from home. Albright said in this way, Afghanistan has clearly proven a major lesson for the alliance as it struggles to secure its footing in the 21st century.
"There were people who said, 'Well, Afghanistan is the ultimate test for NATO and whatever happens in Afghanistan will affect NATO forever.' We didn't want to go down that road. We wanted to look at it as a lesson," Albright said.
Albright also discussed NATO's membership prospects, including the two likeliest candidates for membership, Georgia and Ukraine. Both countries have tailored partnership structures with the alliance in the form of NATO-Georgia and NATO-Ukraine commissions.
But those mechanisms have not always been sufficient. NATO, Albright said, acknowledges the failure of the partnership structure in the case of Georgia, where NATO ties did not prevent an outbreak of hostilities with Russia in 2008.
Georgia is still apparently eager to join the alliance. But Ukraine has increasingly turned its back on NATO, with its new president, pro-Moscow leader Viktor Yanukovych, announcing the country's erstwhile NATO aims are now officially off the table.
"The [2008 NATO] Bucharest conference [said that Georgia and Ukraine] would be members of NATO. And what you have is people in Ukraine, or a government of Ukraine, that doesn't want to be in NATO,” Albright said. “And one of the things that we actually had a hard time persuading the Russians about is that NATO is a voluntary organization."
Despite the problematic situations in Georgia and Ukraine, Albright said, the experts group recommends that the channels of communications with those countries be maintained.
"What we did was to say that the NATO-Ukraine Commission and the NATO-Georgia Commission should continue to operate as a channel of communication no matter what the future showed, because there were ways that we needed to work with those two countries. So the structure would remain," Albright said.
Above all, Albright said that aspirant countries must understand that membership in NATO is not only a privilege but a responsibility. She pointed to the fact that even existing member states have failed to honor their financial obligations to the military alliance.
"One of the things that are supposed to happen with NATO is that each of the countries needs to give two percent of its GDP to NATO. Only six out of the 28 countries do it," she noted.