BRUSSELS -- NATO ministers have met in Brussels to finalize the agenda of the alliance's upcoming summit in Lisbon, with diplomats saying differences are narrowing over the content of the alliance's new "strategic concept," which will be NATO's blueprint for the next decade.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance is entering what the called the final "sprint" ahead of the November 19-20 summit.
Behind the scenes, officials described the atmosphere in meetings involving the foreign and defense ministers of the 28 allies as "lacking in major differences."
Rasmussen conveyed a similar impression after chairing a mammoth joint session of the 56 foreign and defense ministers.
"There is a real convergence of views on the essential questions -- on what modern defense [capabilities] must be like [and] on the importance of maintaining a strong deterrence," he said. Squaring The Circle
The key issue is to equip NATO for what are known as "21st-century threats" -- cyberattacks, challenges to energy security, and terrorist attacks with weapons of mass destruction -- without diluting the alliance's "core commitment" to joint territorial defense.
The toughest immediate task facing NATO, however, is squaring the circle of addressing new challenges in an environment of economic crisis, which has driven many allies to introduce drastic spending cutbacks.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen: "I'm increasingly hopeful."
Britain, which is one of the few allies to maintain its defense expenditure above the NATO-approved level of 2 percent of GDP, is widely expected to announce large reductions next week. Today, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his country was "overcommitted" by some $61 billion, but assured reporters that Britain will remain a major military player in the world.
Rasmussen, keenly aware of the threat the various austerity drives present for his efforts at modernizing NATO, today pleaded with allied governments "to cut into fat without cutting into muscle." Last week, the NATO chief warned European allies that excessive cutbacks could prompt the United States to look for allies "elsewhere."Medvedev To Lisbon
Not all the news is bad, however. Rasmussen announced today that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is likely to travel to Lisbon to attend a NATO-Russia Council meeting on the sidelines of the main summit.
"I'm increasingly hopeful of two things," he said. "First, that there should be a NATO-Russia Council summit in Lisbon and, second, that the substance on the NATO-Russia agenda is getting a solid boost."
The issues on the agenda are expected to include Afghanistan, a joint review of security challenges, as well as combating terrorism, the illicit narcotics trade, and piracy.
However, more than a whiff of controversy remains within the alliance about Russia's long-term reliability as a partner. All signs suggest that NATO's new strategic concept will identify Russia as a partner and not a threat. But speaking privately, diplomats from Eastern European allies say there will be a "sophisticated reference" to Russia that reflects the positions of all member states.
Poland and the three Baltic countries have made no secret of the fact that they still view Russia as a long-term threat.
Obliquely reflecting these concerns, among others, the new NATO blueprint -- which remains shrouded in secrecy -- is also said to declare that a continued commitment to mutual territorial defense will remain at the alliance's core.Novel Ideas
Officials today dismissed some of the more novel ideas reportedly floated by Rasmussen -- for example, the possibility that exceptions could be made to NATO's ground rule of unanimity. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said he saw "no possibility of that happening."
Rasmussen appears to have had more success pushing through a commitment by the alliance to shared missile defense, one of the main objectives of his tenure. He said there is now agreement among allies that the Lisbon summit will announce plans to link up the existing U.S. missile shield and smaller-scale European theater missile-defense schemes to extend their joint coverage to the territories of all member states.
One reported area of discord remains the future of the mostly U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe.
Germany's current coalition government has committed itself to removing nuclear weapons from Europe, but diplomats say most other allies feel a continued nuclear deterrent remains necessary in a world where potential adversaries continue to possess them.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed that sentence at a news conference in Brussels today, saying, "As long as we live in a world of nuclear weapons, it is important that NATO remain a nuclear-armed alliance."
Amid talk of the bloc's future, NATO policy toward Afghanistan was at the top of the agenda.Rasmussen rejected suggestions
that NATO could suspend its operations in Afghanistan in order to facilitate contacts between President Hamid Karzai's administration and Taliban insurgents.
"I think we should continue our military operations. I do believe that the best way to facilitate the reconciliation and reintegration process [of insurgents] is to keep up the military pressure on the Taliban," he said.
He also distanced NATO from reports that talks have taken place between representatives of the Afghan government and insurgents. He said all reconciliation efforts must be "Afghan-led" and respect NATO red lines: renouncing violence and Al-Qaeda, respecting the Afghan Constitution, and basic human rights for all.
Speaking alongside Rasmussen, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who also attended the day's meetings in Brussels, said the reconciliation process is gathering speed.
"The reintegration aspect is accelerating. More and more of the fighters on the field are seeking a way out," she said. "Many of them found themselves employed by the Taliban and related insurgents because it was a way to make a living. And our reports are that more of them are seeking to leave the battlefield behind."
She added, however, that there are "different strains" to the reconciliation process, which "may or may not be legitimate."